Teresa Bejan

Teresa Bejan: Is civility a sham?

What exactly is civility, and what does it require? In a talk packed with historical insights, political theorist Teresa Bejan explains how civility has been used as both the foundation of tolerant societies and as a way for political partisans to silence and dismiss opposing views. Bejan suggests that we should instead try for "mere civility": the virtue of being able to disagree fundamentally with others without destroying the possibility of a common life tomorrow.


This talk contains mature language Viewer discretion is advised Let's get this out of the way. I'm here because I wrote a book about civility, and because that book came out right around the 2016 American presidential election, I started getting lots of invitations to come and talk about civility and why we need more of it in American politics. So great. The only problem was that I had written that book about civility because I was convinced that civility is ... bullshit.

(Laughter)

Now, that may sound like a highly uncivil thing to say, and lucky for you, and for my publisher, I did eventually come to change my mind. In the course of writing that book and studying the long history of civility and religious tolerance in the 17th century, I came to discover that there is a virtue of civility, and far from being bullshit, it's actually absolutely essential, especially for tolerant societies, so societies like this one, that promise not only to protect diversity but also the heated and sometimes even hateful disagreements that that diversity inspires.

You see, the thing about disagreement is that there is a reason that "disagreeable" is a synonym for "unpleasant." As the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes pointed out all the way back in 1642, that's because the mere act of disagreement is offensive.

And Hobbes is still right. It works like this: so, if you and I disagree, and I'm right, because I always am, how am I to make sense of the fact that you are so very, very wrong? It couldn't possibly be that you've just come to a different conclusion in good faith? No, you must be up to something, you must be stupid, bigoted, interested. Maybe you're insane. And the same goes the other way. Right? So the mere fact of your disagreeing with me is implicitly an insult not only to my views, but to my intelligence, too. And things only get worse when the disagreements at stake are the ones that we somehow consider to be fundamental, whether to our worldviews or to our identities. You know the kinds of disagreement I mean. One doesn't discuss religion or politics or increasingly, the politics of popular culture, at the dinner table, because these are the disagreements, these are the things that people really, seriously disagree about, and they define themselves against their opponents in the controversy.

But of course those fundamental disagreements are precisely the ones that tolerant societies like the United States propose to tolerate, which perhaps explains why, historically, at least, tolerant societies haven't been the happy-clappy communities of difference that you sometimes hear about. No, they tend to be places where people have to hold their noses and rub along together despite their mutual contempt. That's what I learned from studying religious tolerance in early modern England and America. And I also learned that the virtue that makes that un-murderous coexistence, if you will, possible, is the virtue of civility, because civility makes our disagreements tolerable so that we can share a life together even if we don't share a faith -- religious, political or otherwise.

Still, I couldn't help but notice that when most people talk about civility today -- and boy, do they talk about civility a lot -- they seem to have something else in mind. So if civility is the virtue that makes it possible to tolerate disagreement so that we can actually engage with our opponents, talking about civility seems to be mainly a strategy of disengagement. It's a little bit like threatening to take your ball and go home when the game isn't going your way. Because the funny thing about incivility is that it's always the sin of our opponents. It's funny. When it comes to our own bad behavior, well, we seem to develop sudden-onset amnesia, or we can always justify it as an appropriate response to the latest outrage from our opponents. So, "How can I be civil to someone who is set out to destroy everything I stand for? And by the way, they started it." It's all terrifically convenient.

Also convenient is the fact that most of today's big civility talkers tend to be quite vague and fuzzy when it comes to what they think civility actually entails. We're told that civility is simply a synonym for respect, for good manners, for politeness, but at the same time, it's clear that to accuse someone of incivility is much, much worse than calling them impolite, because to be uncivil is to be potentially intolerable in a way that merely being rude isn't. So to call someone uncivil, to accuse them of incivility, is a way of communicating that they are somehow beyond the pale, that they're not worth engaging with at all.

So here's the thing: civility isn't bullshit, it's precious because it's the virtue that makes fundamental disagreement not only possible but even sometimes occasionally productive. It's precious, but it's also really, really difficult.

Civility talk, on the other hand, well, that's really easy, really easy, and it also is almost always complete bullshit, which makes things slightly awkward for me as I continue to talk to you about civility.

(Laughter)

Anyway, we tend to forget it, but politicians and intellectuals have been warning us for decades now that the United States is facing a crisis of civility, and they've tended to blame that crisis on technological developments, on things like cable TV, talk radio, social media. But any historian will tell you that there never was a golden age of disagreement, let alone good feelings, not in American politics. In my book, though, I argue that the first modern crisis of civility actually began about 500 years ago, when a certain professor of theology named Martin Luther took advantage of a recent advancement in communications technology, the printing press, to call the Pope the Antichrist, and thus inadvertently launch the Protestant Reformation.

So think of the press, if you will, as the Twitter of the 16th century, and Martin Luther as the original troll. And I'm not exaggerating here. He once declared himself unable to pray without at the same time cursing his "anti-Christian," i.e. Catholic, opponents. And of course, those Catholic opponents clutched their pearls and called for civility then, too, but all the while, they gave as good as they got with traditional slurs like "heretic," and, worst of all, "Protestant," which began in the 16th century as an insult. The thing about civility talk, then as now, was that you could call out your opponent for going low, and then take advantage of the moral high ground to go as low or lower, because calling for civility sets up the speaker as a model of decorum while implicitly, subtly stigmatizing anyone with the temerity to disagree as uncivil. And so civility talk in the 17th century becomes a really effective way for members of the religious establishment to silence, suppress, exclude dissenters outside of the established church, especially when they spoke out against the status quo. So Anglican ministers could lecture atheists on the offensiveness of their discourse. Everyone could complain about the Quakers for refusing to doff and don their hats or their "uncouth" practice of shaking hands. But those accusations of incivility pretty soon became pretexts for persecution.

So far, so familiar, right? We see that strategy again and again. It's used to silence civil rights protesters in the 20th century. And I think it explains why partisans on both sides of the aisle keep reaching for this, frankly, antiquated, early modern language of civility precisely when they want to communicate that certain people and certain views are beyond the pale, but they want to save themselves the trouble of actually making an argument.

So no wonder skeptics like me tend to roll our eyes when the calls for conversational virtue begin, because instead of healing our social and political divisions, it seems like so much civility talk is actually making the problem worse. It's saving us the trouble of actually speaking to each other, allowing us to speak past each other or at each other while signaling our superior virtue and letting the audience know which side we're on.

And given this, I think one might be forgiven, as I did, for assuming that because so much civility talk is bullshit, well then, the virtue of civility must be bullshit, too. But here, again, I think a little historical perspective goes a long way. Because remember, the same early modern crisis of civility that launched the Reformation also gave birth to tolerant societies, places like Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and indeed, eventually the United States, places that at least aspired to protect disagreement as well as diversity, and what made that possible was the virtue of civility. What made disagreement tolerable, what it made it possible for us to share a life, even when we didn't share a faith, was a virtue, but one, I think, that is perhaps less aspirational and a lot more confrontational than the one that people who talk about civility a lot today tend to have in mind.

So I like to call that virtue "mere civility." You may know it as the virtue that allows us to get through our relations with an ex-spouse, or a bad neighbor, not to mention a member of the other party. Because to be merely civil is to meet a low bar grudgingly, and that, again, makes sense, because civility is a virtue that's meant to help us disagree, and as Hobbes told us all those centuries ago, disagreeable means unpleasant for a reason.

But if it isn't bullshit, what exactly is civility or mere civility? What does it require? Well, to start, it is not and cannot be the same thing as being respectful or polite, because we need civility precisely when we're dealing with those people that we find it the most difficult, or maybe even impossible, to respect. Similarly, being civil can't be the same as being nice, because being nice means not telling people what you really think about them or their wrong, wrong views. No, being civil means speaking your mind, but to your opponent's face, not behind her back. Being merely civil means not pulling our punches, but at the same time, it means maybe not landing all those punches all at once, because the point of mere civility is to allow us to disagree, to disagree fundamentally, but to do so without denying or destroying the possibility of a common life tomorrow with the people that we think are standing in our way today. And in that sense, I think civility is actually closely related to another virtue, the virtue of courage. So mere civility is having the courage to make yourself disagreeable, and to stay that way, but to do so while staying in the room and staying present to your opponents. And it also means that, sometimes, calling bullshit on people's civility talk is really the only civil thing to do. At least that's what I think.

But look, if I've learned anything from studying the long history of religious tolerance in the 17th century, it's this: if you're talking about civility as a way to avoid an argument, to isolate yourself in the more agreeable company of the like-minded who already agree with you, if you find yourself never actually speaking to anyone who really, truly, fundamentally disagrees with you, well, you're doing civility wrong.

Thank you.

(Applause)