PC Culture

The Civility Wars

A protester yells anti-Trump slogans at a demonstration in Manhattan, August 14, 2017. (Amr Alfiky/Reuters)
If we forget why we have civility, then in many ways we forget why we have democracy.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word civility’s most common meaning is “behavior or speech appropriate to civil interactions; politeness, courtesy, consideration.” Merriam-Webster has it as “civilized conduct; especially: courtesy, politeness.” At first glance (or even several glances after that), the word seems simple, inoffensive, innocuous.

Or not. Civility has become a surprising bone of contention since Sarah Huckabee Sanders was kicked out of the Red Hen, with Left and Right duking it out in print over civility — what is civility, how to be civil, and especially when. FiveThirtyEight devoted a symposium to these questions, which became ever more complicated as Nate Silver et al. offered and analyzed four different types (!) of political civility and got into a mildly contentious debate. Even more pointed are the beatings the very concept of civility has taken over the last week, as conservatives have rushed to call for civility and liberals to decry it. In the furor, both sides have, unsurprisingly, forgotten two major, intrinsically connected points: (1) exactly what civility is and (2) why it exists in the first place.

Do not be civil, the Boston Globe’s Renée Graham pontificates to an echo chamber. Do not even try. “You don’t bring Miss Manners to a no-holds-barred street fight. You resist, and you get angry.” Civility really means, you see, for the white Patriarchy (capital “P” — systematic racism refers to a proper noun, y’know) to oppress you. If you’re civil, polite, and kind to the other side, then you’re playing, in this Manichaean framework, by their rules. It’s an extraordinary mindset, dividing mankind (as is the modern Left’s quasi-religious wont) into the Self-Anointed Good People and the unregenerate (or, perhaps, “deplorables”). And Miss Graham is not alone: On June 25, the New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg, spewing conspiracy theories right and left (but mostly left), declared that Republicans, right-wingers, and conservatives do not even deserve civility. Mainstream Republicans are simply beyond the pale now; for Misses Graham and Goldberg, and now many individuals on the left, you can never be leftist enough. There’s always something more at which you can take offense and which you should wish to raze — even civility.

One more curious similarity between Miss Graham’s and Miss Goldberg’s pieces is the focus on the word “democracy.” Both writers tell us that we must scrap civility, in light of those dastardly conservatives, because Democracy Itself is at stake.


According to Professor Simon Green (All Souls College, Oxford), “‘civility’ here means not simply politeness or obedience to the law.” Rather, it is “the sense of reasonableness, a restraint and consideration that informs the life of a liberal citizen; a spirit which at once persuades him to respect the rights of others as much as his own . . . the sense of community that bourgeois man, in a liberal democracy, reasonably acknowledges.” Indeed. Civility derives from the Latin civilitas, meaning “citizenship,” “civic order,” and “civil government,” through the French civilité, “organized community or its institutions.”

Without civility we turn toward chaos, anarchy, and ultimately constitutional perdition.

It carries a sense of order and discipline in responding to the affairs of the society, a sense of respect not only for other people but for the entire community in which all persons have a stake. It is, probably much to Miss Graham’s horror, a conservative, Burkean term, akin to what Russell Kirk called the enduring moral order of the commonwealth. But Graham and Goldberg tell us that it’s unimportant to follow because, in their view, Republicans are evil. Indeed, a conservative sense of reasonableness or civic order may well be anathema to them both — so then why should they still heed civility at all?

The answer is simple: If for no other reason, they must heed civility because of their lionization of democracy. In the absence of order, liberty becomes license; in the absence of civility, democracy becomes mob rule. The very principles upon which Graham and Goldberg base their case are founded in civility as a check on unbridled passions. They are the means by which democracy can become stable, feasible, reifiable. Thus does Madison criticize democracy and insist on republicanism in Federalist 10; thus does Hamilton insist (in Federalist 9) on deeming American liberty civil liberty — ordered liberty, checked by respect, restraint, grounding in history, tradition, institutionalism, and honor. Without civility we turn toward chaos, anarchy, and ultimately constitutional perdition — wholly without the democracy that Graham and Goldberg so love.

If we forget why we have civility, then in many ways we forget why we have democracy — why we have a political structure at all. The United States was founded on the principle that men and women of good will could differ wildly, even heatedly, about politics — and still recognize that each of us, whatever his political views, deserves to be treated not only respectfully or politely but also civilly. Two hundred and forty-two years after we declared our independence, let us not give in to the tempters who are asking us to give up civility and, in so doing, give up the American Experiment itself.

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