Civil discourse is in short supply in our public life. On this there seems agreement be it from Senator Orrin Hatch or former first lady Michelle Obama. But what exactly is civil discourse, and the related concept of civility, and why is civil discourse important? These two questions must be answered before we can determine whether (and how) anything can be done to fix the current state of incivility.
Civility at first glance appears related to politeness. Calls for civility closely follow instances of speech that is rude, disruptive, abusive, or offensive. Being polite means trying to smooth over potentially points of conflict, facilitating life in our social world.
For example, “please” and “thank you” acknowledge in the asking and receiving of assistance that others acting our behalf are diverted from that which they would otherwise do, a potential source of frustration. Expressing gratitude can ameliorate a possible occasion of conflict. Similarly, saying “excuse me” shows we understand that our actions (say pushing through a crowded subway car to exit at our stop) inconvenience others, that we have a regard for their feelings, but that upon consideration we find it necessary to make such a minor intrusion—and to beg their forgiveness after the fact.
As social creatures, human beings must navigate a world filled with others, each with their own needs, interests, and temperamental idiosyncrasies. Even if they don’t recognize it, these people aren’t just our neighbors. They’re our collaborators in the great project of making society work. The goods, services, and knowledge that others create others (and to which we in turn contribute) is a delicate dance of countless human interactions and conversations which accrue to our mutual benefit. The norms of civil discourse are the traffic laws that help to ensure we avoid as many unintended social pile ups as possible. Civility is the machine oil that keeps the gears of society running smoothly.
The uncivil person signals a disregard for the feelings and concerns of others through their speech. This could be through direct insult, willful misattribution of motive without due reason, open contempt, or through other speech purposefully used to elicit anger. However, to simply say that the uncivil person is rude would not justify the extreme concern over civility. After all, the loutish and coarse have always existed and in themselves are not a threat to society. Politeness does not fully encompass what civility is.
When civil discourse is urged it is aimed at protecting the civic project—living peacefully together in civil society. This is civility as related to civitas, the social glue binding citizens together into one community. In countries, like the United States, with representative government and a franchise encompassing all adult citizens, what might otherwise be considered simply acts of rudeness imperil the deliberative ideal on which popular government is based.
Democracy presupposes that citizens are deeply engaged in the debates of our public life, and that good outcomes are reached by the airing of all arguments on the policy questions of the day, with the presumption that the most persuasive and well-reasoned will earn the support of a majority of voters.
Although one rude individual doesn’t threaten civil society, rampant incivility is cause for concern because it threatens, or a least appears to threaten the foundations of our modern, free, and liberal society. When discourse becomes fraught as an occasion for verbal tirades, people’s ability to debate important issues breaks down. The interplay of public argument and debate transforms into the tribal warfare of mutually hostile camps who each look to gain every advantage over the other, and the individual and equal rights of all are worryingly brought into question. Debate is impoverished as fewer choose to engage, fewer ideas are surfaced, and innovation is slowed.
Once this dynamic sets in, fear can take over. As both sides begin to fear the other, particularly the use of levers of government to punish those in the other tribe, then the battle lines harden. Even commerce, normally a force that can bring individuals of dissimilar views together, gets caught up in this struggle, whether it be boycotts of fast food restaurants, or seeking to get celebrities of the opposing side sacked. The ultimate fear is that an increasingly fractious war of words can cross over to be a war of swords. It is precisely this worry that inspired the founding of the National Institute for Civil Discourse in the wake of the politically motivated Gabrielle Gifford’s shooting, and a fear that was revived by the shooting at the congressional baseball practice in 2017 in Alexandria Virginia.
Despite the danger in widespread incivility, there is a peril in calls for civility. While civility concerns itself with the style, not the substance, of expression often the two are inextricably linked. A protestor shouting is oftentimes insulting and breaches the norms of polite conversation, but she has decided to take this approach to gain more attention from the audience she’s trying to reach as well as conveying the intensity of her views. To tell a group of protestors to “be more civil” can easily be interpreted as wishing away their inconvenient expression. In short, civility then can be misused as justification for the suppression of speech.
This objection appears on both the right and left, with accusations that political correctness is stifling debate, or that calls to “respect the flag” would silence the protests of professional athletes. This in turn points to another pitfall in urging civility—each side will be able to enter into a new argument about what is or is not the boundary of civil behavior.
To avoid turning civility into a call for censorship under a different guise, promoting civil discourse shouldn’t be about trying to control the speech of others but must instead be about ourselves modeling the discourse we desire, and to persuade others to follow suit. The requires a capacity for patience and self-restraint – an ability to not respond in anger to a flame war on social media and patience in listening to the views of others. It also requires us to have social intelligence and empathy, an ability to understand what others think and feel, even if we may not feel this way. It also requires, as Professor John Inazu notes, confidence in our convictions. We need to have confidence in our beliefs so as to not feel threatened by the encountering of beliefs we disagree with.
Furthermore, it also means we cannot be silent, merely refraining from hurling insults, but must be active in conversation so the civil discourse can be seen and serve as a model and alternative. This in turn requires that we know why we want to engage in civil discourse. We certainly want to avoid the bad that the downward spiral of escalating social conflict leads to, but merely avoiding disaster sells short the ideal that we strive for.
As individuals, civil discourse enables us to preserve our relationships with our friends, families, and neighbors, ensuring that we have robust ties across points of difference. It allows us to work productively with those with whom we disagree on issues where we do agree, not letting bad feeling prevent moving forward on important shared concerns. It also allows us to bring clarity to those areas where we do disagree, better delineating the points of difference and better enabling ourselves and others to weigh the various points of argument.
It is this civil space, emerging out of the interactions between countless individuals, that enables the society of mutual benefit. Trading goods and ideas is important for a vibrant society, and strong tribal boundaries serve as so many tariffs and walls aimed at shutting out feared outsiders. Putting these obstacles in the way of our ability to work together with each other limits what we can accomplish as a free people.
Civil discourse is not polite conversation that simply clutches its pearls in horror at crassness. Civil discourse is conversation with a serious purpose. It is conversation that looks to find shared opportunity, not conflict. It is conversation that looks to remove barriers, not build new ones. It is a conversation that instead of becoming paralyzed by our disagreements, uses them to propel creative solutions and alternatives.