Mere Civility:

Mere Civility—An introduction

posted by Teresa Bejan

Mere CivilityAt the height of the 2016 American presidential election, a colleague asked whether I was worried that my forthcoming book on civility might be overtaken by events. President Obama’s constant calls for Americans to “disagree without being disagreeable” now feel like an ironic epitaph to a bygone era of somewhat better feelings. With the inauguration of our new Incivilitarian-in-Chief, a man who has apparently elevated ad hominem to new heights of electoral success, surely the once perennial bloom is, at long last, off the “civilitarian” rose?

Yet, as lamentations about our pathological public sphere continue to mount in some quarters—met by calls for conscientious incivility as a sign of one’s intolerance towards the new regime in others—deeper reflection on the meaning of civility and its vexed relationship to toleration appears more timely than ever. As a marriage of political theory and intellectual history, Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration explores our contemporary crisis of civility by way of an in-depth examination of seventeenth-century debates about religious toleration. This “historically-informed” approach (to borrow a phrase from Andrew Murphy) may at first seem strange. It is often assumed that innovations in communications technology, multiculturalism, and mass democracy have led to an unprecedented epidemic of uncivil disagreement from the Ivory Tower to the halls of Congress unique to the modern world. But as Mere Civility demonstrates, such complaints have uncanny echoes in early modern fears about the deleterious effects of sectarianism, evangelical competition, and so-called “persecution of the tongue.” Moreover, there is much to learn by exploring the resonances between them.

The first chapter describes how repeated post-Reformation attempts to restore concordia to Christendom by reconciling Protestant “heretics” with Catholic “Anti-Christians”’ (a pejorative coined by that virtuoso of insult generation, Martin Luther) through policies of comprehension and interfaith colloquy failed. Yet in the face of these failures, concerns about the cutting tongues of religious opponents—amplified by that other recent advancement in communications technology, the printing press—remained surprisingly ecumenical. In England and her American colonies, observers on all sides of the toleration issue could and did appeal to “civility” as a conversational virtue capable of reconciling diversity with disagreement and refastening the vinculum societatis or “bond of society” once more. Some even pushed for legislative enforcement. For instance, the Maryland Toleration Act of 1649 banned a whopping seventeen offensive names—including “Presbyterian,” “Puritan,” and “popish priest”—as well as any other term used in a “reproachful way relating to matter of Religion.” And yet even in an ostensibly tolerant society like Maryland, the prosecution of incivility was difficult to distinguish from persecution—as paradigmatically “uncivil” groups like English Catholics, American “pagans,” and (most memorably) the early Quakers soon discovered.

To its modern critics, the ineliminable element of repression and exclusion implicit—or more often explicit—in civility-talk will be familiar. As today, seventeenth-century calls for civility functioned to draw the boundaries of conversational community by placing some speakers or commitments beyond the pale—a suggestive phrase derived from the geographical “Pale” in Ireland that historically divided the “civil” and civilized Anglicized Protestants from the “uncivil” Catholics beyond.

For defenders of toleration especially, then, how to define (and enforce) this standard of conversation and conduct became essential. The book’s central chapters illustrate this process by recovering the competing conceptions of civility as the vinculum societatis of a tolerant society put forward by the founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, and his more famous contemporaries, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, in turn. While Hobbes’s civil silence sought to avoid the disagreeableness inherent in disagreement through scrupulous sovereign regulation over citizens’ speech, Locke’s civil charity privileged sincere, mutually respectful, and always “reasonable” disagreement—and so drew the limits of toleration to exclude Catholics, atheists, and the intolerant accordingly. By contrast, Williams’s mere civility—predicated on mutual contempt rather than mutual respect and above all dedicated to tolerating others’ incivility—included all of these groups and more besides, seeking instead to manage the tense and often unpleasant realities of coexistence among those who not only differ in their fundamental commitments, but really and seriously disagree.

In its conclusion, Mere Civility returns to the present to show how these early modern arguments can illuminate our own debates about toleration and civility. For many commentators today, in the academy and beyond, eliminationist rhetoric, partisan polemic, and hateful speech threaten to upset the tenuous balance between diversity and disagreement on which our own tolerant societies depend. But for so-called “civilitarians,”1 the solution is blessedly straightforward. If one could just get the manner of disagreement right, by imposing social and legal restraints if necessary, then the vinculum societatis might be restored. Others are more skeptical. What one deems “uncivil” is usually suspiciously correlated with where one sits; hence, calls for civility serve more often to silence dissent by stigmatizing one’s opponents as backwards or barbarous. Far from being the hallmark of a tolerant society, then, its critics deny that civility is a virtue at all. They see it instead as a civilizing discourse that functions to justify intolerance towards difference and suppress dissent.

In the United States, the seemingly endless back and forth between civilitarians and their critics on everything from hate speech laws to college speech codes is usually presented as a conflict between the demands of diversity, on the one hand, and of free speech on the other. But this neglects the fact that both sides can claim sincerely to have the principles of tolerance and inclusion on their side. Mere Civility argues that there is a more fundamental conflict at stake—between competing visions of a tolerant society, and of “civility” as the code of conversational conduct governing its members. As such, echoes of Hobbesian civil silence and Lockean civil charity—and even of some conscientious incivility a la the early Quakers—abound. However, the voice most conspicuously absent, even among the occasional American inheritors of his peculiar brand of “free speech fundamentalism” and (effectively established) disestablishmentarian Protestantism, is the merely civil, but resolutely evangelical and engaged, voice of Roger Williams. In view of recent political developments, which have encouraged partisans to retreat ever more into the agreeable company of the like-minded while resolutely condemning their opponents as evil, bigoted, or even insane, I believe it is one in which we are in greater need than ever.

Given that the history of toleration is a fairly well-hoed row, the failure of political theorists and historians to recognize the salience of these early modern arguments is puzzling. It may have to do, in part, with the understandable concern of social and cultural historians to push back against the “Great Men, Great Minds” approach characteristic of earlier, more Whiggish histories. But in foregrounding toleration as a first-person and social practice, the theoretical and conceptual questions with which it is inextricably linked have been sidelined. Unfortunately, this means that normative theorists are often ignorant of how recent work by historians might trouble the blithe conceptual distinctions—for instance, between the “religious” and “political,” “toleration” and “persecution,” or “respect” and “contempt”—with which we continue to operate.

In political theory, the concept of civility has succumbed to the same secularizing assumptions and reductio ad respectum that tolerance/toleration did before it. A good example of this slippage is the “duty of civility” in public reasoning identified by John Rawls in Political Liberalism (1996), which expresses “equal respect” for one’s co-citizens by refraining from adducing controversial, (paradigmatically “religious”) comprehensive doctrines in the course of “political” justification. The result has been the familiar and interminable ping-pong between normative (often liberal) theorists and their non-analytic (often post-colonial) critics. As both sides continue to talk past each other, neither is forced to face the fact that while civility is, indeed, always part and parcel of a civilizing discourse, civilizing discourses are themselves essential features of social life. What we want is a framework for evaluating our civilizing discourses, and deciding which are irredeemably suppressive and exclusionary—and which are indispensable.

Mere Civility contends that if inclusion is to be the standard, then theorists (and citizens) of all stripes must grapple with the fact that, somehow, an unapologetic evangelist, religious zealot, and occasional missionary like Roger Williams was responsible for founding the most tolerant society going in the seventeenth century—and, indeed, long after. Moreover, it was a society characterized by precisely the two-fold toleration of difference and disagreement to which most modern liberals claim to be committed today.

Whether we will follow Williams in practicing what we preach, however, remains to be seen.

  1. Benjamin DeMott, “Seduced by Civility: Political Manners and the Crisis of Democratic Values,” The Nation, December 9, 1996

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