Once we indulge the taste to take away simply because others have, there is no end but desolation.
The first half of my review traced the development of the concept of civility in the writings of Hobbes, Locke, and Roger Williams, as recounted by Teresa Bejan’s Mere Civility. According to Bejan, these thinkers looked to civility in an attempt to recover, in post-Reformation Europe, the bond of society that religion once provided. In so doing they harkened back to Reformation-era debates about toleration and injurious speech and anticipated our own crisis of civility.
Indeed like our early modern forebears, we apparently no longer share the common political, moral, or religious ideals that seem to have characterized an earlier era, fractured as we are according to belief and tribe. So the temptation grows either to retreat from the public sphere into ideological enclaves of the likeminded or else to absolutize our own worldview and impose it onto our fellow citizens. At best, these strategies further alienate others, perpetuating the cycle of animosity. At worst, they threaten liberty and political stability.
In this fractured context, by demanding agreement on at least the basic prerequisites for peaceful coexistence, civility may once again offer hope for a shared vision of political life.
The Golden Age That Never Was
Today we hear calls for “more civility” on both sides of the political aisle, and precisely in reaction to “polarization,” growing social divisions, and coarsening public discourse. The reactions differ: Some lament the vulgarity of our public debates, calling instead for the type of respectful dialogue said to have characterized a bygone era; others denounce “hate speech,” seeking to create “safe spaces” where it is disallowed; still others decry this “zest for censorship” as a “soft totalitarianism” that eviscerates our American constitutional inheritance. However different, these responses all assume that practices of civility — politeness and good will, trigger warnings and safe spaces, the free exchange of ideas — are integral to the fabric of American civic life.
What Bejan shows is that such lamentations about pervasive discord and their proposed remedies are not new, but harken back to the post-schismatic context of Hobbes, Locke, and Williams and their differing conceptions of civility. Or, as she puts it, “Our current crisis of civility is simply the most recent efflorescence of an older phenomenon, one that shaped many of the ideas and institutions that we, as citizens of modern liberal democracies, take for granted” (156).
Consider contemporary liberal political theorists, who are Bejan’s primary targets. According to these “modern civilitarians,” democracy demands that civility provide the glue to hold a pluralistic society together. It is, they argue, through persuasion, dialogue, and public deliberation — engaged on the basis of good will and an “overlapping consensus” about liberal values — that citizens who disagree can nevertheless all participate in a common political process. As in Locke, civility provides a standard for social conduct that requires a high degree of sincere respect or even charity towards one’s neighbors.
Unlike Locke, these neo-Lockeans acknowledge that restrictions on speech may be necessary — especially for hate speech — to guarantee these democratic norms do not go unheeded. But the problem is the same as it was for Locke: These ‘procedural’ norms mask substantive commitments about what constitutes a political community, so that such neo‑Lockean invocations of civility amount in the end to invitations to disagree only with those with whom one differs superficially. After all, those with whom we differ in our fundamental beliefs are precisely the ones towards whom we tend to find it most difficult to extend our respect or charity.
Though less obvious, a similar aspiration underlies progressive movements aimed at suppressing alleged hate speech or creating “safe spaces.” Here it is less a question of proposing a well-formulated theory of democratic pluralism — and more explicitly a question of regulating speech — but we nevertheless find an attempt to set boundaries for purportedly civil debate and civilized behavior in a diverse social context by banishing speech deemed injurious. Like Hobbes, campus activists, e.g., would enforce through social pressure and enforceable rules a kind of “civil silence.”
Here again what is presupposed is a particular conception of moral community, the norms of which dictate what is and is not “hateful.” And hence, once again, by banishing from public discourse those topics or modes of speech deemed too offensive or injurious, civility so understood artificially effectuates agreement where none really exists. As in Hobbes, the result is what Bejan calls a “familiar chilling” of genuine debate and a widening chasm between the ‘civil’ and ‘uncivil.’
These neo-Lockeans and neo-Hobbesians share the underlying premise that, were it practiced (or enforced) properly, civility could help repair the frayed bonds of civic friendship — or else exclude those incapable of it. The problem, Bejan observes, is that civility remains stubbornly in the eye of the beholder — or, at least, the majority. There is disagreement about civility itself — and disagreement about how to disagree about it. So civility once again seems to require either difference without disagreement or disagreement without difference. And calls for more civility — to say nothing of attempts to enforce civil norms through moral opprobrium or legal coercion — inevitably appear to those in the minority as little more than ways to exclude, intentionally or unintentionally, certain “uncivil” groups from debate. This, in turn, merely perpetuates, even exacerbates, the very dynamic civility was meant to abolish.
These debates contain strong echoes of Hobbes and Locke, but those of Williams have grown faintest — a fact that Bejan both laments and hopes to redress.
The Long Liberal Tradition of Speech Controls
There are, of course, conservatives (as well as some liberals) who vehemently criticize “safe space” culture and reject the idea of speech controls out of hand. But they tend to do so because they see such strategies as “illiberal,” Soviet-like, or fascistic. And what they often propose in their place is a free-speech absolutism modeled on the free market — the “marketplace of ideas.” Bejan’s history helps us to see that such responses are neither Williamsian nor all that satisfactory — and this for two reasons.
First, they downplay the reality of injurious speech while overplaying the possibility that harmony or equilibrium will result from the free exchange of ideas. The former ignores the inevitable offense that comes from clashing worldviews, which Williams rightly takes as the starting point for genuine tolerance. The latter risks perpetuating what Clara Hendrickson has called the “myth of ever greater connection yielding ever greater cooperation.” Though Williams believed that civility could provide the vinculum societatis (or “bond of society”), he did not think it could (or should) eliminate conflict, much less engender harmony. On the contrary, Williams reminds us that,
Like our fellow passengers on a long voyage, the people with whom we share our civil life are largely unchosen … While we are stuck in the same boat with people we hate, we had better learn to make the most of it. There is no reason, however, to think that this will make us respect or like each other more. It is usually the opposite. (80–81).
If Williams’s conception of civility could be likened to the market, it would not be the free market of modern-day economists, with an equilibrium achieved through free exchange based on rational self-interest, but the ancient Greek agora — the cacophonous marketplace at the heart of the city where diverse and antagonistic peoples gathered to buy, sell, trade, and conduct the business of politics.
The second problem is that, if Bejan is right, the impulse to limit offensive speech, even by law, is not especially new — nor is it especially illiberal. She points out that laws aimed at restricting speech deemed injurious — including on religious grounds — are commonplace in some liberal democracies today, and they were not unheard of in our own country’s history. More importantly still, Bejan shows that this impulse is part and parcel of a particular tradition of liberalism that goes back to Hobbes and Locke, with roots in Reformation‑era Europe. It follows that liberalism, though it did not invent the concept of censorship — that has an ancient pedigree — was at least coeval with it. One might say, without too much exaggeration, if speech controls had not existed, liberalism would have had to invent them. Today’s neo-Hobbesians and neo-Lockeans have merely returned to their liberal roots.
Bejan’s history impresses on its readers that Americans’ First Amendment Faith is highly unusual, both geographically and historically — even in the context of political liberalism. And to the extent it lives on, it does so because of our Constitution as well as our idiosyncratic political traditions and thinkers, including and especially Roger Williams. As Bejan puts it: “America’s idiosyncratic First Amendment Faith rests partly on an adaptation of the position defended by Williams, who viewed evangelical liberty—including conscientious incivility toward those one regards as damned—as an essential element of free exercise” (16). At a time when younger Americans have begun to lose trust in democratic norms, to say nothing of the Constitution in particular, Bejan reminds us that our free speech regime is not at all self-evident, as a matter of historical fact, but is rather a precarious achievement.
Changing Threats to Civility
The most explicit target of Bejan’s critique are the neo-Lockeans in today’s academy. This is somewhat unfortunate, even if it is understandable given her intended, academic readership. For our public debates seem, especially since the publication of Mere Civility, increasingly marked not by calls for civil charity that are unwittingly exclusionary, but rather by an increasingly virulent Hobbesianism that is explicitly so. It is perhaps this focus which also explains Bejan’s relative neglect of something distinctive about our popular debates on free speech and identity, the striking historical antecedents notwithstanding: namely that the source of our social divisions today are not primarily religious in nature.
Of course, our social context is, like that of Hobbes, Locke, and Williams, riven by religious difference, as Bejan points out. But what is perhaps more striking is that our public disagreements seem increasingly to take on the significance once reserved for religious controversies, even when they are not about religion per se. Today’s campus culture makes quite clear it is not issues of life, death, and salvation, first and foremost, that engender calls for speech controls so much as those of identity, whether religious, social, personal, racial, ethnic, sexual, cultural, or political. This may partly be a consequence of an identity politics that invests so many aspects of life with the identity-shaping significance, or the outside role that national politics seems increasingly to play in our daily lives, or both. But, in any case, the effect is to make alleged “injurious speech” no longer a matter of disagreement on fundamentals — be they religious or even political — but a range of policy, scientific, cultural, social, and personal matters disagreement about which was, until quite recently, taken to be fair game within a society as large and diverse as ours.
In this context, Bejan’s claim that “in an age of trigger warnings and identity politics of intersectionality, Williams’s call for thicker skins … can sound deeply unappealing, even aggressive” is surely right, but perhaps understated (162). With a social landscape that appears increasingly as a minefield of potentially injurious speech, Williamsian civility may be as hard a sell as it is urgent.
In contrast to the aspirational, even idealistic, civilitarianism of the post-Reformation era and our own, Bejan calls Williams’s concept of civility a “resolutely low-but-solid early modern virtue,” grounded in realistic, not to say pessimistic, expectations for political life in the sublunary realm (14). But given the state of public discourse today, “meer civility” seems, on the contrary, to be a rather idealistic aspiration — though hardly an unworthy one.