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Perspective: How civility became a bad thing

Some Americans now view civility as a barrier to social progress. That idea is toxic to our democracy

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A drawing of John L. Sullivan and Paddy Ryan shaking hands before their 1882 heavyweight championship fight.

A drawing of John L. Sullivan and Paddy Ryan shaking hands in the center of the ring before their 1882 heavyweight championship fight.

Wikimedia Commons

In the summer of 2014, Liz Joyner wrote of the need for “civil discourse that doesn’t taste like broccoli,” noting that one of the greatest challenges of civility today is that it feels like finger-wagging from a high-school civics class, especially compared to the digital entertainment that surrounds us.

As Joyner wrote for The Christian Science Monitor, “We know it’s good for us, but we’d rather have a slice of chocolate cake — the televised 24/7 partisan smackdowns a remote click away.”

Nearly a decade later, it’s increasingly clear that the greater challenge to civility in America is not that it’s boring, but that more and more, civility is perceived as a bad thing — a barrier to social progress in the world today. 

This argument is most prominent in the 2021 book by antiracism scholar Alex Zamalin. In “Against Civility: The Hidden Racism in Our Obsession with Civility,” he argues that there’s a link between civility and white supremacy, and says the aspiration toward civic kindness has historically been “wielded to silence dissent” and justify violence.

When people say we should be “more polite and thoughtful, less rancorous and angry” in discussions about sensitive matters like race, they are serving a cause that “maintains rather than disrupts racial injustice,” Zamalin says. Instead, people should “abandon classic civility and to practice civic radicalism” which aims to “shake and provoke” people to action through protests and confrontation.

Whatever the serious practical limitations of Zamalin’s recommendations, there is some truth to his analysis. To the extent that “can’t we just get along?” has been used to stifle piercing questions about injustice throughout history, there’s something to be said for what Arthur Peña has called the “tyranny of civility,” which he defines as “the suppression of unwelcome or discomfort-generating opinions by accusing the people expressing those opinions of being ‘uncivil’ or ‘out of bounds’ in some way.”

Once that label is applied, he notes, the people or opinions involved can be “written off as unworthy of response or consideration.”

Although this strategy shows up on both extremes of the political spectrum, Peña points out that, ironically, this kind of suppression of dissent happens most frequently in the political center “simply by virtue of posing as the reasonable middle compared with which all other viewpoints must by definition be ‘extreme.’”

This is an important point to consider, especially insofar as superficial niceness can obscure “the very worst of motives and some very bad ideas” while the effort to push back on untruth is almost inevitably experienced as uncomfortable and agitating. As novelist Alix E. Harrow writes, “I wonder sometimes how much evil is permitted to run unchecked simply because it would be rude to interrupt it.”

It wasn’t until the mid-16th century that this sense of politeness arose as the defining feature of societal “civility,” which was originally more broadly centered on conduct that was “civilized” (from “civis,” meaning “citizen” in Latin).

Oxford scholar Teresa M. Bejan, author of the book “Mere Civility,” highlights the way in which civil conversation has historically referred to a willingness to moderate or constrain speech “so as to remain verbal as opposed to physical or violent.” As she puts it, “Civility is supposed to keep us in the realm of words and fend off the battle of swords” — with other words like “military” or “martial” historically functioning as antonyms. 

While rowdy and even ferocious attacks have been a fixture of American politics for a long time, it has always been generally and widely appreciated that there is a higher standard to which we should aspire. As C.S. Lewis asks in “The Four Loves,” “Who does not prefer civility to barbarism?”

President John F. Kennedy likewise insisted that “civility is not a sign of weakness.” And the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s declaration that “You can disagree without being disagreeable” was endorsed by President Barack Obama’s own public appeals to civility. A 2010 Allegheny College poll found that nearly all Americans (95%) believed civility was important in politics.

Although majorities of Americans still endorse these civic aspirations (largely agreeing upon lines between appropriate and inappropriate verbal norms), most of us also acknowledge a worrisome, steady deterioration in our ability to live out these ideals as a nation. A 2016 report by The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago found 74% of Americans believed that manners and behavior have declined in the United States. Three years later, that figure had risen to 85% of American adults agreeing that political debate in the country had become more negative and less respectful.

Why the deterioration? Social media is rightly highlighted as playing a corrosive role, combined with an erosion of religious commitment. A majority of Americans (55%) also believe that former President Donald Trump played a pivotal role in sparking a dwindling of our civic norms by his willing adoption of outright name-calling (“stupid, incompetent, losers”) as signature of his campaign and presidency.

As concerning as these trends are, they aren’t really news to most of us, however. Nor are the many laudable efforts to restore a greater degree of civility to our national landscape. What’s struck me lately as especially remarkable is how common it is becoming to hear prominent voices condemning civility because they see it as a barrier to progress. 

Journalist Adam Serwer has been among the most consistent advocates for this position over the years. In his 2019 essay “Civility is Overrated,” Serwer claimed “the gravest danger to American democracy isn’t an excess of vitriol — it’s the false promise of civility.” America’s “preoccupation with politesse,” as he called it, “papers over the fundamental issues that are causing the divisions in the first place.”

During the years of Trump’s administration and since, this idea has become more common as progressive activists raise warnings about resurgent conservativism. Nancy LeTourneau wrote in late 2019 that to “prioritize reconciliation over justice at this moment might once again be appealing to white men who have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

And in the wake of an increasingly conservative Supreme Court, Dahlia Lithwick lamented at Slate what she considers her prior naiveté in supporting efforts to promote civility. She now believes that “civility had come to mean being nice to terrible people in public because it hurts their feelings when we do not.” Yielding to appeals to civic virtue was, as she put it, “code for capitulation to those who want to destroy us.”

More recently, Christine Emba lamented the leaders who had “learned not to point fingers” in the American conversation about gun control. And anticipating the Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade, Roxane Gay insisted that “When politicians talk about civility and public discourse, what they’re really saying is that they would prefer for people to remain silent in the face of injustice.” Gay added that “civility is whatever enables them to wield power without question or challenge.”

Does any of this sound alarming to you? Well, it should. Because these attempts to “normalize incivility” and even see it as a virtue are dangerous to our ability to hold together as a nation. 

But people can’t see it, because as civil society expert Andy Smarick notes, increasing numbers on both sides of the political spectrum “feel emboldened to be uncivil because their opponents’ awfulness warrants it.” He summarized the sentiment: “This moment is so significant, or these particular issues are of such gravity, that we cannot be shackled by rules of decorum.”

And so the gloves come off — not because we’ve laid aside our higher aspirations, but because we’ve convinced ourselves that the unique seriousness of the battle demand something more potent than open-hearted conversation. 

That’s how culture war becomes real war. I suspect the people advocating against civil discourse wouldn’t like how things turn out without it. May we see the self-righteousness, myopia and recklessness of such a course, while recognizing that more culture war is not going to solve any of our problems.

Jacob Hess served on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation and has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since his book with Phil Neisser, “You’re Not As Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong).” His most recent book with Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, is “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”