civility: not too much, not too little

This is the summer for critiques of civility as a virtue or goal. See, for instance, the Color of Change video entitled “Civility Will Not Save Us,” or Tavia Nyong’o’s and Kyla Wazana Tompkins’ argument that “the accusation of incivility is a technique of depoliticization.” For them, the “opposite of civility is not incivility, but militancy.”

I take these points seriously. I have never made civility a core goal. I define my work as civic, but civic doesn’t equal civil. Civic politics surely encompasses militant direct action when the circumstances demand it. It’s true that “civility will not save us” because mass participation and resistance are often needed. If “civility” means being nice to political opponents, or accepting the validity of their claims, then sometimes civility is inappropriate. Frederick Douglass was asked to debate apologists of slavery. The British fascist leader Oswald Mosley invited Bertrand Russell to debate him. Both Douglass and Russell were right to refuse these invitations–some people should be shunned.

Further, demands for civility can represent efforts to suppress worthy activism.  William Chafee’s book Civilities and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Black Struggle for Freedom is a classic account of how calls for “civility” were used to try to block Martin Luther King.

Yet, I don’t agree that civility lacks value completely. For one thing, it can be rhetorically most effective to take the high ground. In 1965, Bayard Rustin made the case for talking directly to the undecided middle of the US electorate in ways that would persuade them to support the immediate political goals of the Civil Rights Movement (“From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement“). Whenever we move from protesting to trying to determine policy, we need rhetoric that appeals widely. Rustin was an architect of the March on Washington, at which King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech.” According to my friend Harry Boyte, the organizers of the March distributed flyers that said, “In a neighborhood dispute there may be stunts, rough words, and even hot insults. But when a whole people speaks to its government, the dialogue and the action must be on a level reflecting the worth of that people and the responsibility of that government.” They saw that to demonstrate civility was persuasive and empowering.

To be sure, the agenda of the Civil Rights Movement was left unfinished. This week we read of a Trump voter in Alabama who remembers “that Rosa Parks time” as “just a scary time,” when “her parents, fearing violence, had sent her to the country to stay with relatives.” She believes Barack Obama is a Muslim and fears that the memorial to the victims of lynching may stir up “race war.”  The March on Washington hardly converted this person to justice. But it did help to shift more than 50% of American voters to support a set of landmark bills that made a significant difference, and I would credit these victories to a combination of militancy plus civility.

For his part, Donald Trump would be much more popular if he presided over a strong economy, pushed right-wing policies, but refrained from daily violations of basic civility. His tweets may cost him a friendly majority in Congress. They are contrary to justice, but they are also uncivil, and the incivility may cost him worse politically.

These cases illustrate that political success does not (necessarily) trade off against civility. The two can go together.

Further, we can understand civility not as a way of expressing our views but as a set of rhetorical techniques that invite the other person to talk. Douglass would gain nothing from hearing the speech of slavers. He knew from personal experience what slavery meant, and his position was correct. A debate had no value. But I am in a different position from Douglass. My views about most current issues are murky, evolving, and deeply fallible. I could be wrong–in fact, I certainly am wrong about many things, but alas, I don’t know which ones. For me, inviting others to speak is a way of learning. The Civic Commons says (or used to say): “We’re as interested in each other’s opinions as we are in our own. And we act like it.” If that is civility, then it is a valuable stance for anyone who may be wrong—which certainly includes me.

A third argument in favor of civility is that we should strive to live in a democracy that includes an element of public deliberation. Uncivil discourse is not the main barrier to that form of government. The major obstacles are disenfranchisement, the influence of money, and poorly designed political institutions. But the value of good talk should not be set at zero. Learning to listen and speak to all is part of a more complex formula for achieving a deliberative democracy.

In the end, I can’t help turning to old Aristotle for guidance on how to think about civility if we view it as a virtue.

Aristotelian virtues don’t come with algorithms for determining when and how to exercise them. That requires good judgment, attention to the particular circumstances, experience, and tolerance for uncertain outcomes. We can overdo or neglect any virtue by failing to apply practical judgment (phronesis).

The previous paragraph suggests that any virtue is a “mean” between too much and too little. Thus, in the case of civility, we should apply a Goldilocks principle: rhetoric shouldn’t be too cold or too hot for the circumstances, but just right. Both proponents and opponents of civility make valid points–aimed at the excesses and the deficiencies of civility. Exercising the appropriate amount protects you from both critiques. It’s just that it’s hard to know where the mean lies.

Aristotle would also suggest that each virtue intersects with others. A valuable way to reason about whether we are being too civil, or not civil enough, under particular circumstances is to consider related virtues and vices. Is someone’s civility a manifestation of intellectual humility and fallibalism, compassion, and love of peace? Or does it represent complacency, cowardice, and indecision? Is someone’s righteous indignation a sign of love for justice, commitment, solidarity, and courage, or rather a retreat into self-congratulation?

It takes judgment to know. We should be quick to judge ourselves and much slower to criticize others. And we should welcome a variety of responses, because the same norms are not right for all people in all social and political positions.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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