Civility, Sincerity, and Ambiguity
University of Alabama in Huntsville
Author Posting. (c) 2011.
This is a longer version of work published in Alabama Humanities Review (2011).
Civility in a social context is the virtue of respecting other people's conflicting perspectives and communicating that respect to those people. Civility thus conceived is something applicable to all moral perspectives equally, something about which there is extensive social consensus and thereby safeguards the possibility of a common social life in the face of radical moral disagreement. Societies lacking civility, accordingly, risk fragmentation and turmoil; its members harbor contempt and resentment, and those toward whom incivility is directed risk becoming alienated or excluded from political projects that affect everyone. If we want people to be more civil toward each other, we should encourage people to be more civil to themselves. Civility in a personal context involves both respecting our conflicting attitudes and, somehow, communicating that respect to ourselves. Civility thus conceived produces emotional coherence among incommensurable attitudes and ambiguous priorities When we are civil to ourselves, we respect the plurality within ourselves in a sincere way. This enables us to imagine similar plurality in others and, by extension, in society at large.
Civility, Sincerity, and Ambiguity
We live in a pluralistic society. Persistent disagreement is inevitable. The source of this disagreement is an abundance of fundamentally different evaluative perspectives. Each perspective, reflecting a unique history, culture, and tradition, prioritizes values and guides our actions toward realizing those values in ways that diverge, often with dramatic effect, from the priorities and guidance of competing perspectives. Absence of common purpose manifests itself as absence of consensus. Authenticity and integrity, put into action, further erode communal coherence. Standing up for what we believe, in the face of persistent disagreement, requires that others stand down or resist. But this erosion stops short of outright fissure, for what continues to unite all parties is their common condition. Despite our disagreements, despite the fundamental irreconcilability of our most treasured convictions and priorities, we must, for reasons of geography if nothing else, live out our lives in a fragmented society.
It is difficult to associate with those who reject our fundamental values, who hold values that we find insignificant or corrupt and advocate actions that we find misguided or repugnant. It is difficult to feel comfortable in their presence, to know how to interact with them, to want to interact at all. But these interactions are inevitable, if not in our everyday lives, then at least in our political ones, where the bonds of our common union ensure, through the mutual influence of part upon whole and whole upon part, that what affects one affects all others.
The virtue most often mentioned as fostering harmony when present and permitting discord when absent is civility. According to a survey by the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College, 95% of Americans believe that political civility is important to a healthy democracy. CivilityProject.org, launched in January 2009 to "alter the increasingly uncivil tone in our country in general and politics in particular," encourages all citizens, and especially our political representatives, to take a Civility Pledge, promising to "be civil in my public discourse and behavior," "be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them," and "stand against incivility when I see it."
As of January 2011, only three members of Congress had signed the pledge. The explanation for this is not clear. Perhaps they were unaware of it. Then again, perhaps they see civility as a sign of weakness, hampering their ability to defend against political attacks, hindering their advocacy of policies for which, in their opinion, compromise means defeat, and decreasing their chances of gaining or retaining political majorities.
There is some reason to accept this second explanation. In March 2010, members of the Democratic National Committee asked their counterparts in the Republican National Committee to co-sign a statement calling for "elected officials of both parties to set an example of the civility we want to see in our citizenry" and for all Americans
to respect differences of opinion, to refrain from inappropriate forms of intimidation, to reject violence and vandalism, and to scale back rhetoric that might reasonably be misinterpreted by those prone to such behavior.
Republicans treated the request as a political power play: refusing to sign would allow the Democrats to claim that Republicans endorse uncivil behavior; consenting to sign, however, would give Democrats a tool to wield against them later. Rather than signing, Republicans maintained that they already condemn incivility. Democrats responded as expected, accusing Republicans of refusing to take responsibility for their actions and of drifting away from civil discourse toward extremism. Both parties seem to agree, though, that their political opponents merely give lip-service to civility, desiring its appearance but not its substance.
Civility sounds good. But when society's fragmentation means that exercises of political power favor some values at the expense of others, when the very fate of our country seems to hang in the balance, obstinacy and integrity sound good, too. We are left to wonder: Is civility a good thing, or is only the appearance of civility what matters? In his 1961 Inaugural Address, John F. Kennedy maintained that "civility is not a sign of weakness." 85% of Americans think that civil behavior is no hindrance to gaining or maintaining political office. But even if this were true, even if civility reaps the same rewards as incivility, doubting cynicism does not seem to be entirely misplaced.
JFK went on to say that "sincerity is always subject to proof." Presumably he meant to draw our attention to the possibility of declaring civility a virtue while yet behaving uncivilly. Many politicians seem to act despicably until someone takes offence, whereupon they backtrack, insist upon being quoted out of context or misunderstood, and even, in some cases, charge their accusers of being uncivil in leveling accusations. Many of these same politicians retain power, and in some cases gain it, at the expense of their more civil peers.
Idealism says that civility is worth it, that "civility is an essential component of a healthy, vibrant democracy that encourages civic engagement." But perhaps this idealism is naïve. In 2008 a group of influential Catholics, fearing that calls for more civility were designed to silence pro-life anti-abortion movements, urged other Catholics to ignore those calls when it comes to what they call, in their words, "morally repugnant practices that are counter to the common good and that should be unwelcome in a just … society." When fundamentally divergent moral perspectives clash, when the good for some appears absurd or abominable to others, and when political winners steer the country's moral course, civility seems insignificant. Why engage opposing points of view, rather than disenfranchise them, when more involvement means more compromise? Why favor civility over obstinate integrity? Any attempt to understand what civility means in the 21st century needs to address these questions.
CivilityProject.org's Civility Pledge embodies common sense wisdom about civility, indicating that civil behavior involves being "respectful of others whether or not [one] agree[s] with them." Let's take this as at least a partial truth about civility and try to imagine ways in which a society might foster this kind of respect. This will give us some perspective on what civility looks like at a societal level, by helping us to fill out features of civility that common sense tends to overlook.
The most obvious social mechanism for fostering respect among persons is the law. Laws are publicly accessible rules that regulate our interactions with others. Some of these laws, moreover, regulate interactions in ways that encourage us to respect others. Think here of equal employment opportunity laws, laws against segregation and discrimination, and laws protecting fundamental human rights.
Let us imagine, then, a Society of Civil Laws, where civility is a matter of obeying laws meant to foster respect among persons. Let's imagine this society to be pluralistic like ours, but where disagreements are deep and persistent and where consensus is an impossible ideal. Would this society be civil?
To some extent, yes. People will respect others by virtue of obeying the laws. This is a good thing. But, no matter how extensive the laws may be, there inevitably will be large swathes of behavior regulated by no law at all. Moreover, people in the Society of Civil Laws can be uncivil by respecting the laws without respecting people. This incivility might be overt. For example, in October 2010, Houston Votes, a voter registration organization in Texas, received a series of emails. Here is one:
Citizens from all over Texas will be coming to Houston to watch you fraudulent Marxist pigs. Be forewarned, you will be watched at every turn, and your corrupt Marxist organization will be targeted!
Even if these emails are legal, they are not respectful. But not all examples of law-abiding incivility need be so blatant. For example, in August 2007,
Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid withdrew a major defense from the [Senate] floor when he didn't prevail on an amendment relating to Iraq. He then rudely refused to yield to Republican Members to speak on routine unanimous consent requests.
Reid broke no procedural rule. Yet his refusal to yield the floor was "a denial of common courtesy." He followed the rules, but only grudgingly, and only in a way that worked to his perceived advantage. A more commonplace example makes the same point. Imagine that the Society of Civil Laws has housing laws that prohibit discriminating on the basis of race. And imagine a landlord renting to someone of a different race but going out of his way to make the tenant uncomfortable by hurling insults whenever the opportunity arises or intentionally making necessary repairs at inconvenient hours. The landlord violates no law. But his behavior is far from civil.
The lesson of the Society of Civil Laws is that civility involves more than obeying laws meant to foster respect among persons. The most obvious way to imagine a more civil society is to imagine one in which people not only obey laws meant to foster civility but also obey social norms meant to do so. These norms will tend to be unspoken rules about how to be respectful of others. They regulate behavior that escapes the reach of law, provide extra-legalistic resources for reprimanding behaviors that foster discord, and offer guidance for when and how to assert legal rights. These norms might lead people to not make a fuss about people's disabilities, to not be hostile or threatening toward others in public spaces, and so on.
This Society of Civil Norms would be more civil than the Society of Civil Laws. Politicians would show common courtesies to each other; citizens would not accost each other with threatening emails or name-calling; landlords would be respectful hosts rather than harassing tyrants. But even the Society of Civil Norms will contain plenty of opportunity for incivility. Even if its members obey all the rules, explicit and implicit, for respecting others, they can do so with disrespectful attitudes and thereby undermine the spirit, but not the letter, of the rules. Obeying rules for respecting other people is compatible with not communicating attitudes of respect toward those people.
For example, had Reid yielded the Senate floor to Republicans but, in doing so, remarked that he was yielding only out of respect for precedent and not because he thought the Republicans deserved the floor or had anything worthwhile to say, he would have violated no law or norm for being civil. But he also would not have communicated an attitude of respect toward his fellow Senators. Likewise, an adulterer might respect to his wife by concealing his affair rather than flaunting it, but the nature of infidelity precludes his communicating this respect to his wife.
More interestingly, consider situations in which people obey rules for respecting others while simultaneously communicating attitudes of disrespect. Imagine a person who is careful not to intrude upon his neighbor's property when doing yard work but who goes out of his way to remind the neighbor that he is not happy about this, sarcastically declaring to the neighbor, "Don't worry, I won't step on your precious land." Or think of a business owner in a society with an affirmative action law, hiring a minority employee in obedience to the law only to remind the new employee, each day at work, that he was hired because of his minority status.
A polity lacking full-bodied civility, such as the Society of Civil Laws or the Society of Civil Norms, incurs several harms. Its population flirts with fragmentation and turmoil; its members harbor contempt and resentment. Each uncivil interaction allows displays of dominance by some to widen their distance from others, and those toward whom incivility is directed risk becoming alienated or excluded from political projects that affect everyone. Moreover, those unwilling to engage civilly with competing evaluative perspectives tend to avoid engaging with competing epistemic perspectives. Not communicating with those who have different beliefs, or communicating with them only to dismiss their opinions as irrational or nefariously ideological, is not an effective way to discover truths about how personal choices and political policies influence people's lives. When incivility encourages epistemic closure by silencing or distorting disagreements, when the standard of legitimate belief in others is conformity to one's personal beliefs, when intolerance breeds misinformation and misunderstanding, platitudes and propaganda replace genuine, truth-directed discussions about how to flourish in a pluralistic society.
In order to imagine a society that embodies civility in both letter and spirit, we must imagine one in which people do not merely obey laws and conform to social norms, but do so in ways that communicate to others the kind of respect such codes are meant to encourage. This is more a matter of sincerity than substance. It concerns not so much what people do as the authenticity with which they do it. The fact of the matter is that the employer who hires a minority and the neighbor who avoids trespassing on the adjacent lawn violate no law or custom; but they are not genuinely civil unless they communicate respect for these rules and respect for their fellow citizens. This requires behaving in ways that reflect a genuine appreciation of others' values and priorities, even in the face of radical and persistent disagreements.
Communicating respect is a way to acknowledge the moral value of others and include them as co-participants in a community rather than isolate them as enemies or impostors. We do this by observing both the letter and the spirit of social conventions that allow us to disagree without being disagreeable, and that allow us to claim and care for our "identity, needs, and beliefs without degrading someone else in the process." This can be a tricky thing. Certainly "it's hard to formulate a coherent set of standards" for civil behavior. But this is only because it's hard to put into words the myriad customs and traditions, grown organically over time, that constitute the norms of civil interaction for any society. A physicist can know how to identify subatomic particles from high-energy collision photographs without being able to explain the procedures she follows; and the Olympic gymnast can know how to jump gracefully on the balance beam without being able to write down the rules she makes her body follow. So, too, can we observe rules of civility without being able to state what those rules are.
Displaying respect can be a tricky thing, not because formulating standards of civility is difficult, but because, in a morally imperfect society like ours, the conventions for being civil can preclude our displaying other virtues. For example, old-fashioned norms of civility preclude men from offering to help a hostess clean up after dinner; but a socially critical moral point of view might, instead, demand that men help, and this point of view would not interpret male assistance as especially considerate.
This tension between civility and morality typically goes unnoticed, so much so that one might wonder whether we have failed to imagine an even more civil society, one in which people not only obey laws, follow social norms, and communicate respect for others in appropriate ways, but also guide these displays with morality rather than mere social convention. Certainly we have not imagined that the rules in the Society of Civil Norms have any particular connection to morality. In a morally perfect society, perhaps they would. But to be realistic we need to imagine civility in a morally imperfect society such as ours, where there is fundamental and persistent disagreement about which behaviors are ethical and which are not.
There are two ways to imagine this. The first, as we've done already, is to imagine that civility is entirely a matter of following the letter and spirit of social conventions for displaying respect toward others, regardless of whether those conventions themselves are ethical. The second is to imagine that displays of civility are tempered by a concern for morality. This second possibility allows that, sometimes, people display civility in ways that are at odds with social conventions for doing so, and that, sometimes, they do not display civility toward morally repugnant behaviors. This society attempts to ameliorate the tension between civility and morality. But it cannot do this in a pluralistic society, where there is persistent disagreement about what morality requires of us, based upon fundamentally incompatible moral perspectives. Civility is the referee that, among other things, regulates discussions of controversial topics, so that conversations continue rather than break off. But in order for this regulation to happen, guidance for the displays of civility cannot be set by any particular morality. For then, rather than helping conversations to continue, civility would allow conversations to end when there are disputes grounded in divergent moral principles. And this is when civility is most needed.
The only guide for when and how to be civil is something applicable to all moral perspectives equally, something about which there is extensive social consensus, something that encourages displays of respect when clashes of morality encourage displays of disrespect. The only guide that does this, that safeguards the possibility of a common social life in the face of radical moral disagreement, is social convention considered without regard for morality. Civility thus conceived produces a kind of social coherence that preserves differences among conversational participants without seeking conformity from them. This kind of civility has a "watery fidelity" that, "being independent of both rivalry and tender, … may subsist where one is present or the other absent" and thereby enable mutual association in the absence of communal solidarity.
Civility is "something which a good many people are inclined to promote, even though they may not be entirely sure what they are promoting." This is where thought experiments, imagining life in different kinds of societies, can help. These experiments show that promoting civility involves not only promoting respect for others but also promoting sincere displays of that respect. They also show that being civil is difficult, not because the rules of civility are hard to formulate but, instead, because civility requires practice in balancing the demands of morality and the demands of social convention.
There is, of course, a "general agreement that something called 'civility' is a good thing … because it brings about the conditions that sustain the existence of a 'civil society.'" This is akin to saying that justice is good because it promotes a just society, or that laws are good because they promote a lawful society. These claims might be true, but they are not informative: they do not indicate why civility, or justice, or lawfulness is valuable. More can be said. Societies which lack civility risk fragmenting into conflicting factions, their members stressed and alienated from each other and thereby in danger of losing the ability to view those with whom they disagree as having moral value. The presence of civility, in contrast, preserves social coherence in the absence of uniform perspectives, safeguarding the possibility of a common social life in the face of radical moral disagreement.
But how can we improve the level of civility in our society? How can we get beyond rhetoric exhorting others to display respect toward opposing perspectives, to honor the fundamental worth of those with whom they disagree, to temper the urge for political victory with a concern for social cohesion? Asking people to sign civility pledges is one way to go. College- and secondary-level courses on civility are another, and in fact seem to be taking off across the country within the past year. And then there are forums like this, which give people a chance to listen to and reflect upon the meaning of civility.
These are all fine ideas. Yet they all treat the fostering of civility as something that originates from an external source, as if getting people to be more civil is akin to installing a new program on a computer. The flaw in these approaches is that the program won't take if the hardware isn't ready: Apple software just won't run on Dell hardware without some special preparation. A Buddhist joke makes a similar point:
Once upon a time, a man asked a Buddhist hotdog vendor to make him one with everything. So the vendor gave the man a hotdog topped with mustard, ketchup, relish, chili, and so on, declaring "That'll be $2.50." The man gave the vendor $5 and, after a pause, asked, "Where's my change?" The vendor replied, "Change comes from within my friend."
The point generalizes. Incivility is nothing new in our political discourse, nor are calls to restore civility to society. For example, Benjamin Barber, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, remarked in 1997 that America had reached a new level of incivility, where
[d]ivisive rhetoric has become not only disagreement between parties but a rejection of the legitimacy of the other side, validating a position that your opponents are immoral, un-American and possibly worthy of being subjected to violence.
He cited as evidence abortion clinic bombings, radical militia movements, and the Oklahoma City bombing. When concerned citizens order up some civility by adding special programming to people's everyday lives and then ask, "Where's the change?," the answer must be "Change comes from within, my friend."
If we want people to be more civil toward each other, we should encourage people to be more civil to themselves. This is, admittedly, an odd suggestion. Admonitions to be civil generally aim to stimulate changes in the ways we treat others rather than changes in the way we treat ourselves. Lamentations about the withering of civility tend to stem from observations about the mood of our political culture rather than the state of our individual characters. Civility is not something we are wont to think of as affecting a person alone. But people being civil to themselves is a precondition for the civility of any society which those persons compose.
Each of us has a self that is "decentered, distributed, and multiplex," "the sum total of its narratives, [including] within itself all the equivocations, contradictions, struggles, and hidden messages that find expression in personal life." We often possess, as part of our very being, a plurality of fundamentally incommensurable attitudes. Some of us struggle with over-eating, finding it hard to resist rich desserts while at the same time yearning to be free of food addictions and have self-control with respect to food consumption. Some of us feel family obligations pulling us to persist unhappily in our jobs, but also resilient youthful ambitions pulling us to find our bliss. These conflicts appear as struggles at self-interpretation, and how we resolve them, in order to create coherent life narratives, helps to shape our identities.
The plurality of attitudes within each of us resembles the plurality of perspectives in our society. This is no superficial analogy. Just as we must live out our lives within a fragmented society, we must live out our identities with fragmented personalities. The meaning of our life, like the meaning of our society, is informed by multiple perspectives, many of which have some claim to our allegiance, none of which eliminates the possibility of change through fresh insight. Moreover, just as it is difficult to associate with those who reject our fundamental values, to know how to interact with them, and even to want to interact with them, it is difficult to acknowledge our conflicting attitudes, to know what to do with them, or even to want to do anything with them. Our desire to be someone urges us to reconcile fundamental conflicts of our attitudes; our desire for freedom, to avoid committing ourselves irrevocably to a particular way of being no matter its costs. What's a person to do?
If civility in a social context involves not only respecting other people's conflicting perspectives but also communicating that respect to those people, we might imagine that civility in a personal context involves both respecting our conflicting attitudes and, somehow, communicating that respect to ourselves. This communication likely takes the form of endorsing the presence of our conflicting attitudes in a way that fosters emotional coherence. Perhaps a good way to see the benefit of such civility in a more concrete way is to briefly consider what happens when it is absent.
If we are civil to ourselves by respecting our conflicting attitudes and approving the presence of those attitudes despite their incommensurability, then one way we can fail to be civil to ourselves is by respecting our attitudes without approving their presence. This is a subtle form of intra-personal incivility. It appears in the homosexual who has "come out" but secretly loathes his sexual preferences; in the drug addict who finds staying clean so difficult that he convinces himself, even while he values recovery, that he does not deserve it and therefore does not really want it; and in the abused spouse who loves her partner, wants to leave, but convinces herself that a hostile home is preferable to the unknown. The product of this kind of incivility is shame, guilt, embarrassment, self-contempt, microcosmic parallels to, say, the feelings minorities have when told their accomplishments are due entirely to affirmative action.
Not all intra-personal incivility is this subtle. There are more straightforward cases in which people simply fail to respect some of their conflicting attitudes. Consider the father who desires to be a good father but, disapproving of his daughter's homosexuality, convinces himself that "tough love" requires shunning her for perceived immorality; the Catholic who is pro-life but also a fervent supporter of the death penalty; the retiree who, while railing against those who use welfare programs, gladly receives Medicare and social security benefits far exceeding his lifetime contributions. The common ingredient among these kinds of incivility is an inability to acknowledge conflicts among attitudes and consequent estrangement from some of them. The father mistakes espousing love for practicing it; the Catholic confuses valuing life in name for valuing life in fact; and the retiree condemns entitlements in name but not entitlements in fact. The result is hypocrisy. Those who fail to respect their conflicting attitudes risk becoming strangers to themselves, the authenticity of their lives endangered by a self-imposed alienation from their values, the clarity of their moral judgments obscured by a weakness of character that disposes them to react to challenging situations with fear and anxiety rather than acknowledge uncertainty and ambiguity.
Those who are civil toward themselves are neither hypocritical nor self-loathing. Though their attitudes are not uniform, they do not deceive themselves in order to mask or ignore attitudinal conflicts. Knowing when not to be too obsessed with virtue, they endure a perpetual ambiguity among their attitudes, failing to resolve their inner conflicts, acknowledging that failure while yet affirming the worth of their competing values. This is a level of authenticity unavailable to those who suppose that integrity requires fixing priorities among their attitudes once and for all, and who thereby isolate themselves from fresh and creative perspectives.
Civility, then, in a personal context, is good by virtue of producing emotional coherence among incommensurable attitudes and ambiguous priorities. This good is unavailable to those who pretend to be civil to themselves, and it remains good even if unacknowledged by others. More to the point, however, civility within a person is a precondition for the person being civil to others. It is the fertilizer that makes the soil ready to produce a bountiful crop, the primer that allows walls to take on brilliant new colors, the software update that allows a computer to run multiple programs without crashing.
When we are civil to ourselves, we respect the plurality within ourselves in a sincere way. This enables us to imagine similar plurality in others and, by extension, in society at large. For the difficulty in genuinely respecting ambiguity in ourselves is realizing that our priorities are not clear-cut, and from this it is but a small leap to recognizing that those who prioritize their values in other ways are not so different from us as we initially might believe. In contrast, when we are not civil to ourselves, when we cannot recognize the fundamental ambiguities of our identities, we lack a basis from which to imagine that others might not only be grappling with similar ambiguities but also resolving those ambiguities to the best of their abilities in ways other than we would choose.
Supposing that civility in society requires civility within members of that society, pragmatists will want to know how we can develop this virtue in ourselves. If prioritizing some attitudes over others in acting resembles allowing some people rather than others to pass through a crowded doorway, perhaps being civil to ourselves resembles giving way to others with equal right to pass through the door, and being uncivil to ourselves resembles shoving others aside or pretending they don't exist in the first place. But how shall we decide which persons pass, which attitudes prevail?
There is probably not much advice to be given by way of rules, since civility is a virtue and practicing virtue demands attention to context in ways that rules cannot handle. Nor is there time to say much on the topic. Rilke, however, in his correspondence with a young military cadet, gives some advice that might point in the right direction:
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Do not seek the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
As a virtue, civility is a good to be lived rather than possessed. It is learned as all virtues are learned and sustained as all virtues are sustained, through practice, amidst uncertainty, patiently and unrelentingly.
 T.S. Bogard, The Importance of Civility (AuthorHouse: 2006).
 Christina Bellantoni, "Steele Declines to Sign DNC 'Joint Civility Statement," TPMDC 3.26.2010.
 Page, op.cit.
 R.J. Reilly, "Voter Registration Group Targeted by TX Tea Party Group Received Threats," TPMMuckraker 10.20.2010.
 D. Wolfensberger, "Civility, Society, and Politics: Is There a Problem?" Remarks at Drake University (Iowa) 9.19.2007.
 M. Oakeshott, On Human Conduct (Oxford University Press: 1975).
 S. Lanman, "Choosing Civility in the Face of Rudeness," Rutgers FOCUS 3.2010; J. Jacks, "Civility Class Teaches Students to Mind Their P's and Q's," George Mason University University News 11.1.2010.
 C. Coloroso, "Political Incivility: Fleeting Trend or Enduring American Tradition?" The Georgetown Public Policy Review Online 12.14.2009.
 S. Gallagher, "Philosophical Conceptions of the Self: Implications for Cognitive Science," Trends in Cognitive Science (2000).
 C. Taylor, "What is Human Agency?" in Philosophical Papers 1: Human Agency and Language (Cambridge University Press: 1985).
 Schmidt (2000).