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Understanding the True Meaning of Civility

This article was based on the TED@BCG Talk, “Is Civility a Sham?” by Teresa Bejan:

Teresa Bejan – Is civility a sham?


What Is Civility?

Teresa Bejan begins her TED talk by describing her experience writing a book about civility. She wrote the book because she was convinced that civility did not exist.  However, in the course of writing the book and studying the long history of civility and religious tolerance, she came to discover that civility is an essential part of a tolerant society.  Civility is what allows a society to promise, not only to protect diversity, but also the heated and sometimes even hateful disagreements that that diversity inspires.


Teresa Bejan


Disagreeing Is Offensive

The English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, pointed out in 1642, that the mere act of disagreement is offensive. When two people disagree, each person thinks that they are right and cannot make sense of the fact that the other person is wrong. It couldn’t possibly be that they have just come to different conclusions in good faith. The mere fact of that they are in disagreement is taken implicitly as an insult not only to each person’s views but also their intelligence. The disagreements at stake are the ones that we somehow consider to be fundamental, whether to our worldviews or to our identities.

These fundamental disagreements are precisely the ones that tolerant societies like the United States propose to tolerate.  Perhaps this explains why, historically, at least, tolerant societies haven’t been the happy communities of difference that you sometimes hear about. Instead, they tend to be places where people have to pretend they are indifferent despite their mutual contempt.


Modern Civility

When most people talk about civility today, they seem to have something else in mind. 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 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.

Today’s big civility talkers tend to be 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.  At the same time, it’s clear that accusing someone of incivility is much worse than calling them impolite. To call someone uncivil is a way of communicating that they are not worth engaging with at all.

Despite its confusing nature, civility is precious because it’s the virtue that makes fundamental disagreement not only possible but even sometimes productive. As important as it is, civility is also extremely difficult.


A Crisis of Civility

Politicians and intellectuals have been warning us for decades that the United States is facing a crisis of civility, and they tend to blame it on technological developments like cable TV, talk radio, and social media. Yet, any historian will tell you that there was never a golden age of disagreement.  In her book, Bejan argues that the first modern crisis of civility began about 500 years ago, when theology professor, Martin Luther, called the Pope the Antichrist, and thus inadvertently launched the Protestant Reformation.

Even back then, as the Catholics and Protestants traded insults, you could call out your opponent for going low, and then take advantage of the moral high ground to go as low or lower. This is 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.

Civility talk became an effective way for members of the religious establishment to silence, suppress, and exclude dissenters outside of the established church.  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. These accusations of incivility soon became pretexts for persecution.


Civility Talk Versus the Virtue of Civility

These trends have continued, and modern civility talk is making the problem worse. It’s saving us the trouble of 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.

It’s presumptuous to assume that just because civility talk is fruitless, civility doesn’t exist.  The same early crisis of civility that launched the Reformation also gave birth to tolerant societies, places like Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and eventually the United States.  These places aspired to protect disagreement as well as diversity, and what made that possible was the virtue of civility. What made disagreement tolerable, what made it possible for us to share a life, even when we didn’t share a faith, was the virtue of civility.


Civility is not the same as being respectful or polite because we need civility precisely when we’re dealing with those people that we find the most difficult, or maybe even impossible, to respect. Similarly, being civil is not the same as being nice, because being nice means not telling people what you really think about them or their wrong views. Being civil means speaking your mind, but to your opponent’s face, not behind their back. Civility allows us to fundamentally disagree without denying or destroying the possibility of a common life tomorrow with the people that we think are standing in our way today.


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