Mere Civility

March 6th, 2017

Mere Civility—A reply

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Mere Civility“First, 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.”

Thus begins Teresa Bejan’s conclusion to the discussion on her timely book, Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration. In this essay, she gives thoughtful response to the six scholars who provided critical engagement with the text over the past few weeks. Read the rest of the series, and then read this response.

February 16th, 2017

How to do things in with words

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Mere CivilityBejan revisits early modern times of extreme verbal violence, sectarianism, and bloodshed with an eye on our own. Her brilliant re-reading of John Locke and Thomas Hobbes and her rescue of the lesser-known Roger Williams from the distorting clutches of Martha Nussbaum, et al. result in her careful endorsement of an “evangelical mode and motivation of conversational engagement” as a way to address our contemporary “crisis of civility,” one that “seems uniquely well-suited to explain—and to sustain—a commitment to ongoing, active, and often heated disagreement in the public sphere.” She deserves congratulations for the feat of cultivating such succulent fruit in the overworked field of scholarship on early modern political thought and “toleration” studies.

If by their fruits ye shall know them, then Bejan’s book shows her to be a brilliant scholar of Locke, Hobbes, and Williams, a great evangelist for the importance of historicizing in a new way, and a daring and original thinker of the first order. She also writes beautifully; her dry wit and perfectly turned phrases make reading this book a true pleasure.

January 30th, 2017

Civility, identity, and agency

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Mere CivilityAs an American teaching university in Canada, where the illiberal regulation of disfavored speech is increasingly common, I am tempted to simply applaud Bejan’s book. (Or perhaps place a bulk order for distribution at a future faculty meeting.) The politics of personal outrage has reached an exhaustion point. University campuses are bedeviled by a paradoxically aggressive discourse of vulnerability, victimhood, and “triggers”. Vaguely Orwellian “human rights tribunals” police speech with increasingly minute attention. Bejan astutely suggests that the war on “hatred” (and for civility) is often disingenuously waged to silence dissent or enforce moral consensus.

Trump may well represent a Molotov cocktail thrown by those resentful of these constraints. (Though his own appalling weaponization of insult and ridicule indicates the limitations of a politics of pure verbal transparency.)

January 27th, 2017

Civility, toleration, and “human rights as empathy”

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Mere CivilityAs part of her argument in favor of mere civility, Bejan decisively rejects contemporary “civilitarian” claims that mutual respect and affection for one’s opponents are the minimum necessary for civil discourse. Her critique rests on her reading of John Locke. Although political scientists usually describe Lockean toleration as ethically minimal, Bejan contends that Locke actually imposed significant ethical demands on members of a tolerant society.

Locke’s demanding theory of civil charity may not provide the most practical solution to our current crisis of civility. However, Bejan’s reading of Lockean toleration as civil charity does have important implications for the histories of human rights and humanitarianism. Historians have recently begun to examine historical moments in which humanitarian concern for the victims of bodily depredation fused with rights talk, creating a type of liberal human rights politics that Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann calls “human rights as empathy.” The early eighteenth century was one such moment. Between 1690 and 1750, Britain began to engage in humanitarian diplomacy to prevent Protestants, Catholics, and Jews in other European states from being punished for their religious beliefs. In what follows, I will suggest that Bejan’s reading of Locke helps to explain why and how this politics—which fused natural law arguments with appeals to humanitarian sentiment—developed in early eighteenth-century Britain.

January 23rd, 2017

Power and civility

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Mere CivilityMere Civility’s final rendering of the link between civility and the future is suggestive; it excavates a democratic ethos from mere civility. Bejan points to an egalitarian openness about the future of others, asking citizens to engage with opponents while understanding that the person they are now may not be the person they will become.

But if citizens are thus future strangers to each other, they are also strangers to their future selves. We might then add what Williams refused to say or recognize about himself—and which, importantly, did not happen: that he, too, could have come to agree with or belong to the groups he targeted with his “evangelical toleration” and held in disdain. It should be troubling that Williams’s rendering of civility anticipates the conversion of all others, but not his own; that his politics revolve around a theology in which those marked as different need to be rescued and saved; and that his approach to difference predicates the value and inclusion of others upon their transformability.

January 20th, 2017

Seinfeld, Roger Williams, and religious toleration

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Mere CivilityGeorge: This is what she said to me, “Can we change the subject?”

Jerry: See, now that I don’t care for.

George: Right. I mean, we’re on a subject. Why does it have to be changed?

Jerry: It should resolve of its own volition.

George: That’s exactly what I said, except I used the word “momentum.”

Jerry: Momentum – same thing.

(Seinfeld S7E02, “The Postponement”)

This comedic blip from Seinfeld might seem miles away from the early modern debates around religious toleration, but Teresa Bejan’s Mere Civility demonstrates that early modern thinkers expressed similar concerns about the power of free-flowing conversation. In this reading, Martin Luther, George, and Jerry stand on one side, defending the importance of ongoing debate. On the other side stand early-modern strategies of tolerance that use speech norms to keep peace in the face of religious argument. For both sides of this debate, republican notions of civility can provide important ways of situating a demand to either continue or avoid further discussion.

January 19th, 2017

Mere Civility and Jeremiah Wright

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Mere CivilityReporters who covered the Jeremiah Wright controversy during the 2008 United States presidential campaign would have benefited from reading Mere Civility. Barack Obama’s Chicago pastor was briefly famous when ABC News aired a video of him crying “God damn America” from the pulpit of his church. Mere Civility suggests that Wright’s insults not only mimic his Biblical namesake, but also channel Martin Luther, who frequently damned Catholics, and Roger Williams, who offered similar imprecations and felt that doing so should be considered civil.

In this impressive new work, Teresa Bejan does the contextual and interpretative analysis necessary to exhume Williams’s theory of civility, and she compares it favorably with those of Williams’s more famous contemporaries, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. She claims Williams’s view brings analytical clarity to contemporary discussions of civility and should be adopted today.

January 19th, 2017

Mere Civility—An introduction

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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. . . . 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.