Mere Civility:

Mere Civility—A reply

posted by Teresa Bejan

Mere CivilityFirst, I must thank each of the contributors to this forum for their more than merely civil responses to my book. Not only is it an honor to be read—and criticized—by scholars I admire across such a wide range of disciplines, from analytic and critical political theory, intellectual and social history, to sociology and religion, it is also a tremendous vindication.

Benjamin Hertzberg does me the honor of describing Mere Civility as a “deeply traditional” work, but in the writing of it I was conscious of doing something controversial. For what is fundamentally a work of political theory, it includes an uncommon amount of historical detail and insists that all of this political and religious particularity should make the early modern arguments described more, not less, relevant to us. I am grateful to Catherine Arnold and Samuel Stabler for sketching different ways in which the story I tell of the “Rhode Island Way,” and the transatlantic and transnational debates out of which it developed, might be extended. As Stabler notes, political opponents like Samuel Gorton surely played a bigger role in the development of the colony’s disestablishmentarian “free speech fundamentalism”—and on Roger Williams’s shifting views of (in)civility—than I give them credit for. And, while Arnold forgives my ill-placed irony in calling John Locke a “villain” for arguments that would become instrumental in shaping the modern discourse of humanitas, these origins help explain the limits of “human rights-as-empathy” in aspirationally tolerant societies’ responses to refugees (the descendants of the Huguenot “refugiez” of Locke’s era) today.

Yet, as an exercise in the history of political thought, Mere Civility goes beyond the canon to consult the back catalog. Its attention to also-rans like John Eliot (the English response to Las Casas as the “Apostle to the Indians”), Jeremy Taylor, and above all Roger Williams, reveals an obvious debt to the Cambridge School of political thought and intellectual history. But, as Jeffrey Collins observes, there is an unapologetic presentism about the enterprise that leads inevitably to ahistoricism. Here, I must plead guilty to the charge of prolepsis he levels, but not to the normative shortcoming. While the book does not address the rising tide of corporatism—in which speakers are regarded not as individuals but as representative “voices” of social groups, understood increasingly as natural bodies rather than associations—as directly as it might, that process has undoubtedly contributed to the rising stakes of democratic disagreement I describe. With her gift for making the complex clear, Ruth Marshall brings this aspect of my argument across far better than I ever could. As each cross word becomes a malediction, the peculiar regime we call “liberal democracy”—which relies less on deliberation than perpetual disagreement for its legitimacy—will necessarily come under more pressure than others.

Mere Civility argues that America’s peculiar and precious form of evangelical democracy is uniquely well-suited to withstand, and relieve, that pressure. Its civil libertarian approach to “hateful speech” rests not on a denial of the power of speech to act and words to wound, as most political theorists and commentators assume. Quite the opposite: Neither its supporters nor its critics have recognized adequately the miracle of transubstantiation at its core by which the Word becomes mere words—and vice versa.

As Collins, Hertzberg, and Murad Idris note, however, in defending a minimalist institutional response to our modern crisis of civility, I am also committed to an ethically demanding and avowedly individualist approach to disagreement at odds with the tenor of the times. Mere civility demands that speakers and listeners take responsibility for how they respond to the perceived incivility of others; it seems to me that the alternative is ever more strident appeals from all sides to the powers-that-happen-to-be to silence others before they can silence us. If the seventeenth century has anything to teach, it is that the superficially civil silence of a schismatic church-state has been tried before. If I stand on the wrong side of history here, I can do no other.

Still, one might object with Idris and Hertzberg that the “mere civility” I recover from Williams is not fit for purpose due to the normative problems with extrapolating from early modern (mainly “religious”) disagreements to modern political ones. Hertzberg worries that I am at risk of reproducing the normative shortcomings of the religion-race analogy foundational to Rawlsian liberalism, while Idris cautions that my argument ignores the asymmetries of power involved in calling for civility outside of a narrow range of domestic partisan political disputes. To put it crudely: surely there is a difference between tarring our opponents as “Methodists” or “Quakers” and a racial slur? Or between accusing President Trump of incivility and a protester against racial or colonial oppression?

This I readily concede. Indeed, my analysis of the ways in which calls for civility function to draw the boundaries of conversational community through suppression and exclusion helps shed light on exactly why we can and must make such distinctions. Still, as normative objections, they rest on a misunderstanding of what, exactly, I see as exemplary about Roger Williams. It is not his evangelical penchant for insults like “Anti-Christian” or “Devil-Worshipper”—I do not actually think that democratic disagreement would be improved by more anathemas and name-calling, although I am certainly skeptical of the ever-expanding metaphors of “violence” and “silencing” used to classify as “uncivil” any speech of which we disapprove or dislike. But this is because the usual consequence of such “denominations”—much like racial or political slurs—is to “cut off” the speaker, both literally and metaphorically, from our conversational community. As with accusations of incivility, political insults like “fascist” or “social justice warrior” seek to avoid the tedious and painstaking work of persuasion or refutation by placing our opponents beyond the pale at the outset—as not worth engaging with at all.

What makes Williams so interesting, then, as well as worthy of emulation, is that he did not do this. For him, to call a Catholic an “Anti-Christian” and never converse with him thereafter would be pointless. Hertzberg suggests that this curious combination cannot be separated from Williams’s theological conviction that all might be saved. But this mischaracterizes his position as more skeptical about salvation than it in fact was. Williams relished the prospect of hellfire for men like Gorton but insisted that the saints must witness even to the damned. Is such an ethical posture possible when the stakes of disagreement are no longer “transcendental”? I think so, but it does require an equivalent leap of democratic faith in the people with whom we share a commonwealth—who believe themselves to be as righteous as we do.

Idris sees this and rightly suspects me of being more sympathetic to civility’s critics than the conclusion lets on. Indeed, I began writing Mere Civility firmly in the critical camp. Yet in studying seventeenth-century toleration debates in detail, I became convinced of the normative untenability of that position if (and this is the key) coexistence under conditions of deep diversity and disagreement is the aim. For me, it is. As the corporate understanding of identity and difference noted by Collins lends an increasingly sectarian tenor to politics in the United States and elsewhere—converting every difference into a fundamental matter of believing as well as belonging—I think the “religious” origins of mere civility weigh decisively in its favor. Whether it is possible in the present is a different question, which is why I characterize my purpose in reviving Williams as somewhere between “exorcism and resurrection.”

Nevertheless, I must defend myself on the third of Hertzberg‘s (oddly prescriptive) criteria for a “virtuoso” work in the history of political thought. What contemporary theorists of civility can and should take away from Williams is his recognition of the inevitable disagreeableness of disagreement. In practice, the philosopher’s distinction between recognition- and appraisal-respect cuts little ice (as I discuss in pages 159-161 of the conclusion). Faced with a heated disagreement, both participants and observers find it difficult to separate the condemnation of another’s position and contempt for her person. It’s precisely this difficulty that we call upon the virtue of “civility” to alleviate.

If we think all of the ethical work remains to be done by others, that our opponents alone are the uncivil ones, we are mistaken. As long as we are determined to trace every difference of opinion to some aspect of identity or perspectival privilege, we will continue to win arguments by proclaiming our own epistemic authority and to refute our opponents by impugning theirs. In the face of this politics of purity and the resultant proliferation of ad hominem, Williams reminds us that responses other than ostracism and outrage are possible, while providing a model of how coexistence and cooperation might work.

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One Response to “Mere Civility—A reply”

  1. avatar Peter Kenny says:

    I look forward to reading “Mere Civility”.

    “If we think all of the ethical work remains to be done by others, that our opponents alone are the uncivil ones, we are mistaken.” How true that is!

    We need a world where people can present, and debate, their arguments with those who very much disagree with them. Alastair MacIntyre in his great work “After Virtue” says that “There seems to be no rational way of securing moral agreement in our culture.” He attributes that to our world having lost any mutually agreed-on standards in the area of ethics– which of course carries over to our politics!

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