Current Affairs

civility: “You keep using that word…”

I don’t think it means what you think it means.

The interesting thing about civility, even in its staid dictionary definition, is that there is this seemingly narrow crack that has become a gulf in American politics. One definition has to do with maintaining civil order and the other is the more familiar one having to do with politeness. Often they could go together, but not necessarily.

Let’s take this back to Aristotle for moment. His virtue ethics are often brought up in the context of civility, though I don’t know that he specifically addressed that concept. Aristotle’s moral virtue is fundamentally defined as a kind of moderation, “a mean between two vices, the one involving excess, the other deficiency, and that it is such because its character is to aim at what is intermediate in passions and in actions.” And civility, particularly the second definition dealing with politeness, is often associated with a moderation of behavior. And sometimes, maybe in most cases, being polite and being moderate appear to be the same thing, but, again, not necessarily.

So now you’ve got these three terms: civility, moderation, and politeness. Of the three, politeness is clearly the most stylized and “rhetorical” (in a pejorative sense). Etymologically, politeness is about polish; it’s about appearance. Politeness moderates behavior inasmuch as it constrains actions to a certain range. However, the assertion that politeness is a virtue is harder maintain. That seems far more situational/contextual, as politeness might provide a cover for all kinds of immoderate behavior. The most cliché example is probably cowardice, as when someone asserts that the reason they did not stand up for what they believed was right was because it would have been impolite to do so.

And of course this is exactly the kind of argument that could be made, and has been made, by those who have been accused of incivility/impoliteness. Indeed, to the contrary, one can easily argue that protesting and confronting politicians in a nonviolent manner are clear examples of moderate, civil behavior: moderate in the sense that clearly there are more extreme possibilities and civil in the sense of abiding to one’s responsibilities as a citizen toward the maintenance of a civil order under threat.

Unsurprising the social media angle is of most interest to me as a scholar. I think it’s quite clear that social media continues to intensify political divisions, and I suppose the underlying question is how irreconcilable are those divisions? I wouldn’t plan on social media being a place where those divisions might heal. I am concerned (I think that’s the right word) that more obvious incivility is about to arise. I think there was a time, not that long ago under Obama, when the notion of the left was one that sought to expand civil rights but also continue to make space for conservative views (not that many on the right saw it that way). Now that the right is quite clearly intent on squashing civil liberties, there is an element on the left that is no longer willing to accept the more tempered views of the past. In other words, since at least the beginnings of the Tea Party movement, the right has had it in mind that the values (and often people) of the left have no place in their future vision of America. And now increasingly those on the left have a similar view of the right; and I’m not sure what the “civil” response is to a politics that is aimed at destroying you. The key question is to what degree do these remain extremist views? And then what happens if/when they are not?

To end with a return to Aristotle: “the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash.” It is courage that defines the moderate virtue.

Courage, of course, is not always civil/polite, but it can have everything to do with the defense of civility, of the civil order of a nation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.