L. Rhodes


The Civil and the Polite

Lately, I have seen a great deal of skepticism, even cynicism, about civility. That’s understandable. Its reputation has suffered as of late. Bad advocates have invoked it to argue against forms of protest that have just as valid a claim to democratic virtue. Some of these advocates show every indication of sincerity, but we are, by now, so accustomed to bad faith that it can be difficult to tell the difference.

Part of that difficulty is imprecision. Most of us are abstractly aware that civility is supposed to be a democratic virtue – that it is, in some way, necessary to the operation of democracy. We are less clear on how; less clear, even, on what we mean when we say the word.

Around the 2016 election there was a minor boom in books and articles on civility. Some of that filtered into public discourse at the popular level, but did little to improve the situation. “Civility is akin to politeness,” wrote Teresa Bejan in her book Mere Civility, “and yet calling someone uncivil is far worse than calling him impolite.” Akin to, but not identical. The practice of civility often presents itself as a kind of specialized politeness. That association can be deeply misleading, but is ubiquitous nonetheless. Keith Bybee, for example, quoted John Stuart Mills, la Rochefoucauld and The Federalist Papers, but the authority cited most often in his How Civility Works was Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners.

Definition can be a hazardous business (just ask any of Socrates’ interlocutors), but we can make a provisional approach by saying that

Civility is conduct that makes civil society possible.

That may seem circular – what, after all, is civil society, except a society characterized by civility? – but we can clarify by relating “civil” back to its etymological roots in citizenship. Civil society is the society of citizens, the population that has a stake in government, not only because they are subject to its laws but also because they form the basis of its power. Civility, then, refers to the sort of conduct that recognizes that each citizen ought to have a say in the institutions that govern them. In that regard, civility is a critical democratic virtue.

It is civility when one Senator defers to another on the Senate floor, not because deference is polite, but rather because doing so is a recognition of the rights of the citizenry that she was elected to represent. It would be uncivil of another Senator to shout her down, not solely because it is a breach of decorum, but precisely because doing so would deny the citizens who elected her their share of representation. Here, again, civility looks like politeness, but that is mostly because the imperatives of civility and politeness sometimes overlap. Other times, they do not.

Stopping the normal business of the House, for example, is almost always impolite, but whether or not it is uncivil will depend on the circumstances. When the balance of civil society shifts so as to deny citizens of their fair part in democratic institutions, civil disobedience may be the most readily available tool for righting that balance. Thus, when the leadership of the House refuses to allow a vote on a bill with a great deal of popular support, a protest like the one House Democrats staged over gun reform may be one of the few remaining ways to insist on actual civility. By politely framing their rebuke as a defense of decorum, the opposition to that protest made tactical use of the popular conflation of the civil with the polite. Distinguishing between the two is easier when you keep in mind that the function of Congressional civility is to ensure the rights of citizens to fair representation.

A close look at the last several decades reveals polite incivility as a persistent current in modern American politics. Because its meant to foster civil society, civility must be a mutual virtue. The behaviors it entails differ depending on how others behave. In the hands of the uncivil, strict insistence on decorum becomes a tool for extorting leverage. Our resistance is weakened by the popular but untenable conflation of civility with politeness and decorum. Deference seems prima facie civil, even in the face of behaviors that actually erode the rights of the citizenry. Thus, the Senate majority cites rules of decorum to prevent a colleague from reading a civil rights leader’s formal objection to a nominee for Attorney General. For 239 days, the Senate Majority leader refuses to allow confirmation hearings in order to hold a Supreme Court seat open for a nominee from his own party. Politicians redraw voting districts in order to limit the representation of minority groups in state and federal legislatures and place unnecessary restrictions on voting in order to suppress their participation in the franchise.

Such conduct is deeply uncivil. It strikes at the core of civil society, at the citizen’s right to influence the institutions by which they are bound. In doing so, it closes off the established avenues by which the silenced and disenfranchised would normally seek recourse in a well-functioning democracy. The only way to restore civility may be through breaches of decorum and the temporary refusal to be polite. When bad actors make a policy of abusing civility in order to monopolize democratic power, it may no longer be virtuous to politely defer.