On Civility

Civility is a charade.

Civility is the topic for the week of 9/26/2018, and since I was not present for an overview, I spent a bit of time writing down a challenge to the common laments over the decline of civility to encourage conversation, as follows.


We hear about civility frequently in the public sphere, usually referring to topical political discussion. I use the definition of “adhering to norms of polite discourse and common courtesy,” but I think this definition is limited in a few ways and brings into question what value being civil holds. I’m curious about the historical evolution of civility, especially as the concept of free speech in societies emerged. In doing this, I think we have to distinguish between true and false civility, if possible. And to accomplish this, it’s necessary to examine if the “norms of polite discourse and common courtesy” have value.

Why should we be polite? Why do these norms need to exist? What do we lose when it is socially acceptable not to hold the door open for the person behind you, or to not say please and thank you?

I’m not sure if the obvious answer is correct. Most of us, I don’t think, truly are thankful, genuinely appreciative, when someone passes the salt. It didn’t take that much effort on their part; I could have done it myself. We’re just expected to say please and thank you; more than anything, the constant repetitiveness of such words have rendered them meaningless except as automatic responses to actions. We’re even aware of this: when we are truly grateful, we find ourselves emphasizing the words, endowing them with emotion, repeating them, trying to elaborate on our gratitude, returning a favor.

Civility includes a wide but shallow range of tools for successful communication. I understand it as sort of a catch-all word for respect and kindness and politeness and humility and honesty but without encompassing any of the actual moral meaning of these concepts. Civility seems cold to me, a depersonalized sense of how two people should communicate with one another. It’s a societal institution: being civil is in accordance with the cultural values and social norms that are built from respect and kindness and politeness, etc.

So we can ask: do these norms engender a caring, kind, empathetic culture? And we can answer simply by looking at the evolution of America over the past 100 years. Those norms have steadily eroded in the public sphere. Being civil is nothing more that a social construct, an artificial lubricant that is used for facilitating and signaling social relations. History is littered with examples in which uncivil, or improper, behavior is necessary for progress. Civility seems to me almost an enemy of change, a static set of rules that govern basic interactions so we don’t have to think about them. To reject civility, then, is to reify the individual against society. That is, it is seen as a more personal expression, uncontrolled by the expectations of proper behavior. This is why countercultures frequently, purposefully, debase themselves in the eyes of the majority. To be civil is almost a loss of the sense of self that is so often promoted in our culture.

Since they’ve eroded, can we conclude that a true civility would be akin to kindness, to actually caring about the person making an argument for the opposition? True civility would be a reflection of the individual, not of society. The fact that these norms eroded merely reflects that most of us were aware that the social self, the self we present in public, is not how we act in private. We’ve (or many of us) have always been fairly jealous, crude, and competitive.

In truth, proponents of civility are promoting false kindness. Ironically, America, the “individualist” country, heavily relied on its cultural pressures to form individuals compatible with one another. It’s foolish to expect that these social pressures would work, though. In the span of a generation we’ve gone from there’s only one winner to everyone gets a medal.

Rather than promoting internal, individual virtues, we take the easy route: we’d rather appear virtuous. So norms around political and religious and social discourse emerged, protecting us from uncertainty, allowing each of us to question ourselves as little as possible. And we happily complied, for it was much easier to live in a social setting like this.

Times changed. Online forums provide anonymity to break free of such norms. We express our “true selves,” uninhibited from social constraints, willing to be even cruder and purposely distasteful to gain attention and self-assurance. Of course, this is a shame; we’re merely expressing emotions, and this is just a reaction to society. The individuals who do this are no less influenced by social norms that the individuals that follow them.

We focused on improving ourselves, a rather futile task - for there isn’t really anything there to improve - and as such preferred to value our authenticity over social norms. And we found that society still operated without being civil, without being polite, and we could survive any social backlash. Once this was the case, we had no lodestar of virtue, no instructions on how to compose ourselves during a meaningful conversation. We found we could not control ourselves.

Being civil no longer means that certain topics of discussion are off-limits due to repercussions. It is an outdated institution. It is increasingly non-essential in daily life. Yet I don’t see any evidence that indoctrinating young citizens with notions of civility was helpful. We tried to teach individual virtue through repetitive action, and I’m not convinced that is the right approach. Similar to our discussion on ritual a few weeks ago, it is merely mechanical, whereas to be kind is to be present.

Civility is a charade. Meaningful conversation occurs not between civil people, but kind people. For example, (excuse the topical reference) but the sham of asking politicians debating each other, “what do you admire about your opponent?,” is a cruel joke. By participating in such a feeble excuse for kindness, it forces us to acknowledge the weakness of such social norms.

So these norms do not create more grateful people. These norms do not facilitate progress. If anything, adhering to these norms only serves as a signal of alliance to certain groups. It’s shallow, certainly: I bet both the “tell it how it is” group and the “be polite” group would both, if asked, say that they were kind and loving to those around them. But we need to interrogate our kindness and critically examine our own beliefs, rather than our manufactured appearance of kindness. Civility is only a surface virtue.

This is why I don’t lament the apparent decline of civility. It’s not a problem; it’s a symptom of the wider collapse and re-balancing of social norms. The issue, then, is to understand how to endow individuals with, and direct social influence to reinforce (since it will always exist), internal virtues. In other words, respect and kindness need to emerge from within a person, not imposed onto them.

Written on September 26, 2018