“All Must Be Tolerated”: Teresa Bejan’s Mere Civility, Part II

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.

Reader Discussion

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on August 28, 2018 at 11:46:25 am

[…] Note: Part 2 of this review can be found here. […]

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“All Must Be Tolerated”: Teresa Bejan’s Mere Civility, Part I
on August 28, 2018 at 16:52:35 pm

Like a radio monologue, Mills limits collaboration: the reader may subjugate to Mills’ civility or not. I do not like Mills’ vision of life on earth.

“. . . 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.”

“. . . civility may once again offer hope for a shared vision of political life.”

Mills, at this time, has not the propriety to collaborate on the world view I hope for: a collaborative improvement on what I am now able to articulate, as stated below.

I want most people collaborating for mutual, comprehensive safety and security, call them a civic people. Further, the civic people coach and encourage fellow citizens who are dissident to the collaboration to reform. Moreover, the civic people’s practices are so favorable for an individual’s one opportunity to live, they inform by example. The civic people recognize that every human has the individual power, the individual energy, and the individual authority (IPEA) to either develop integrity or not. People who use IPEA for integrity also develop fidelity to the-objective-truth. Further, some dissidents are dissident because they think dissonance, for example, crime, pays. When actual harm that criminal dissidents caused is discovered, the offender must be constrained.

Since the dissidents enjoy IPEA equal to the civic people’s IPEA, the laws cannot be arbitrary. Therefore the civic people must both self-discipline-to and manage the rule of statutory law. Fellow citizens collaborate to discover the-objective-truth and optimal behavior so as to benefit. Civic individuals do not introduce speculative or imaginary ideas into the collaboration because they are well aware that the-objective-truth does not respond to reason or other human construct. Wherein the-objective-truth has not been discovered, the civic people say so without deceit yet influence laws that conform to discovered-objective-truth. The civic people manage elected and appointed officials so as to promote and enforce the consequential statutory law. Thereby, dissident fellow citizens develop the trust that is needed for reform.

In the U.S., a civic people is specified by the agreement that is offered in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. It is a civic agreement that is neutral to race, religion, gender, and heritage. It is an imposition on individuals only because all actual reality develops from the-objective-truth. Both the civic people and dissidents are fellow citizens under the agreement that is offered by the preamble. It is the world’s best legal basis for individual happiness with civic integrity.

The U.S. is distinguished by the inside track to individual happiness with civic integrity, but so far, the Church has bemused the people into chaos. Spiritualism is for adults who want hope for their afterdeath rather than people who want security so their lives will be distinguished by individual happiness with civic integrity.
I doubt Mills will offer “free exchange of ideas” on civic integrity or any of the other suggestions for collaboration.

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Phil Beaver
on August 28, 2018 at 17:07:07 pm

Civility Bond of Society - civility may once again offer hope for a shared vision of political life. Our current crisis of civility is simply the mos recent efflorescence of an older phenomenon.

Civilization (Society) presumes an ordered arrangement: customs, institutions, laws, hierarchy?, norms, rules, etc. Now, civility facilitates sans coercion an ordered arrangement but breaking of "civility" may bring into question fundamentally the functioning of the ordered arrangement. So, Hobbes, Locke, Williams, Bejan, and all of us wrestle with the import of civility to social-political life - civilitarianism, in our own era, yet asks can civilization/human organization prosper (excluding imposed order by state, authoritarians, despots, etc.) without civility? Why be civil is kind of like: why be moral (not individual ethics but societal functioning).

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on August 30, 2018 at 01:23:33 am

Preliminary question: Do casinos make money because of gamblers rational responses to making and losing money, or because of gamblers' emotional responses to making and losing money?

The first installment of this review contains a section asking "what is civility?" but I am unable to discern an answer in the text that follows. Civility is not defined, it is rather illustrated by examples of varying degrees of usefulness. As a result, the subsequent discourse arrives at no identifiable end, and there remains a rather prominent and unanswered question: do considerations of civility justify burdens on speech?

To consider this question, we must first make two significant distinctions, one between what is understandable and what is reasonable, and another between what is reasonable and what is other than reasonable. To illustrate the first, it is understandable that a person afflicted with Cotard's delusion may think himself dead (the fact that he has Cotard;s delusion makes it understandable), but it is in no way reasonable. Similarly, it may be understandable that a driver who is cut off by another runs his rival off the road; the response is not however, reasonable except in light of a pathologic reverence for emotional satisfaction. Civility requires that we distinguish between those acts that we justify as reasonable, and those that we do not, even though they may be understandable.

The second distinction seems to have occupied a great deal of Teresa Bejan's thoughts regarding civility, and for good reason. When a person;s cognition is subjected to a stimulus or a provocation, it will produce a response of some sort. That response may be reasonable, the result logic, common sense and sober reflection. It may be emotional and blatantly unreasonable, for example doing violence to a spouse suspected of infidelity, the act having no goal other than expected emotional satisfaction. But there is at least one other class of response, being neither strictly reasonable, nor facially emotional, and this is the conundrum that appears to have commanded Teresa Bejan;s attention: responses that follow from metaphysical beliefs, such as religious dogma. This third category is what seems to create a challenge for civility.

If we confine ourselves to reasonable and emotional responses to provocation or challenging speech, civility would seem to be a simple matter of limiting the emotional response. It is an emotional response to punch someone who insults you, and this response is uncivil, and it is uncivil because it is unreasonable. Civility in such instances is determined by the response to speech, not the speech itself, and common sense dictates why this approach is better for society. Emotions are bad counselors, they make people do stupid things, and when they are allowed to direct public discourse, they make societies do stupid things. That is the purpose of the question that begins this post. Put simply, civility consists of controlling emotional responses to the speech of others. It may be understandable that you want to punch somebody, but it is not reasonable, and therefore it is not civil.

So what about religion? Should speech be curtailed so as not to hurt the feelings of Muslims (for example), who may be moved to violence, not a s a matter of emotion but of religious fervor? The answer is "no." The operational distinction does not treat reasoned responses, and emotional responses and religiously motivated, and delusional responses as distinct entities with equal claims of validity and a right to shape what is and is not considered civil. The distinction is between reasonable and everything else. Civility requires the religious believer to restrain his religiously motivated responses to hurtful speech in the same manner that it requires the jilted lover to restrain his emotional responses.

So what then is civility in public discourse? It is simply this: the restraint of non-reasonable responses to the opinions of another. Violence, however understandable, is not a reasonable response to opinions of another; "deplatforming" is not a reasonable response to the opinions of another, because it is a form of suppressing speech, which s antagonistic of reason. Civility is important because it is useful and it is useful because it creates an environment for testing ideas,discrediting the bad ones,, promoting and improving upon the good ones and those that ultimately lead to human happiness.

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on August 30, 2018 at 10:19:08 am

I admire your well-reasoned solution to Bejan’s civility void and would like to extend it with a plan for civic integrity more than civility; or to civically constrain civility to actually real safety and security.

While “civil” refers to convention, such as a civilization, society, religion, or government, “civic” refers to beyond “live and let live.” The preamble to the constitution for the U.S. offers a civic agreement---that is neutral to religion and thus not secular. The preamble’s agreement could be used to develop a culture of individual happiness with civic integrity.

Call the preamble’s opponents dissonant fellow citizens. If dissidents cause actually real harm, they may face civil constraint. Thus, the preamble is a legal agreement beyond legally changing the 1774 confederation of thirteen states to a 1788 Union of nine states.

Perhaps civic integrity is collaborating for discovered-objective-truths (such as each morning the earth’s rotation on its axis un-hides the sun and civic citizens don’t lie) plus the-objective-truth’s interconnecting theory on which to reason about the unknowns “that ultimately lead to human happiness.”

The-objective-truth responds to neither reason, nor opinion, nor deplatforming, but is a basis (the basis?) for civility that offers mutual, comprehensive safety and security to fellow citizens including dissidents. Thereby, each individual may responsibly pursue personal happiness rather than doctrine.

It seems there will always be humans who employ their individual power, energy, and authority (IPEA) for dissonance to civic integrity. If so, the best that humankind can do is create civic justice that is not arbitrary, such as religion, classism, elitism, tyranny, etc. Some humans perceive justice in using their IPEA to defeat arbitrary provisions and laws.

However, if the basis of statutory justice is the-objective-truth, crime is mutually comprehended and the erroneous fellow citizens have a better chance to reform. For example, the elitists who influence government so as to civilly take the majority of GDP from most fellow citizens may reform under statutory justice based on the-objective-truth.

The path to a judicial system based on the-objective-truth rather than dominant opinion would provide an increasing fraction of humans who experience happiness, and perhaps asymptotically approach the totality We the People of the United States if not of the world.

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Phil Beaver
on August 30, 2018 at 14:55:12 pm


As always a heavy dose of common sense, i.e., "reasonable" commentary.

In support of your arguments, allow me to provide this link wherein we observe the deleterious effects of restricting speech in anticipation of the *unreasonable* RESPONSE of some maladjusted elements of the citizenry and wherein we further observe the sanitizing (read: destruction) of history in pursuit of "civility":


We would not, after all, want anyone to remember what happened in NYC on 9/11/01.

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on August 31, 2018 at 06:54:13 am

Thoughtful analysis, Z9Z99. But 1st I have a question re your nome de plume. Is it in any way derived from the classic art film "Z" about the military junta that ruled Greece in the mid-60's?

As for Civility, I do think it useful in any form, whether its motivating force is the simple etiquette of Ms. Manners or the love of God through adherence to Christ's Golden Rule or the duty of civil obedience of Hobbes or the civic toleration of Locke. But I think that Roger Williams' "mere civility" as Ms. Bejan explains it is literally indispensable in today's society, rife as it is with divisions of vulgarity, political animosities and the clash of inferior subcultures with the morally, politically, aesthetically and spiritually superior dominant culture.

Mere Civility, as I understand Ms. Bejan through Anthony Mills, differs from the other forms of civility in both its method of expression and in its ultimate purpose. In its execution it obliges citizens who are prepared to speak with a sharp tongue to and about their opponents, their betters, their peers and their inferior peer group to also adopt a very thick skin so as to absorb with equanimity what they dish out with vehemence, to get as good as they give. It's the cultural normalization and expectation of an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth exchange without the physical violence. And, importantly, its purpose is to allow adversaries who not only disagree with and oppose each other but who also dislike one another to keep talking, to continue the conversation, even if it's heated (indeed, especially when it's heated) and even without a trace of mutual respect, toleration or affection.

Snow Flakes and Safe Space Refugees notwithstanding, we could do worse than encouraging "Mere Civility" as the cultural norm in our homes, schools and politics. Animals of the same species engage in the rough and tumble of harmless ritual combat, married couples have harsh arguments, parents sharply confront their children, all manifestations of mere civility pursued aggressively and received stalwartly with the unspoken awareness that physical harm must be avoided and the communication must go on for the preservation of the all-important community which each holds most dear.

I like that!

Now if I can just convince the Trump-hating Democrats and the Never Trumpers in my neighborhood of the virtue of mere civility maybe I can start wearing my "Make America Great" hat in public.

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Pukka Luftmensch
on September 01, 2018 at 17:00:40 pm

"Where there is shouting there is no real knowledge"
-Leonardo Da Vinci


In the whole I agree with you. I think civility is more than an aspiration, it is a tool to facilitate the collaborative use of reason to improve human life. In addition, civility is a virtue, like gratitude, that is an attribute of healthy societies, and the lack of which is is catalyst of corrosion and decay.

I do not think that it is possible to completely appreciate the value of civility without appreciating the value of reason. Without reason, humans would not be able to live at significant distances from the equator. They would not be able to communicate over large distances, or build ocean-going vessels, or effectively defend themselves against highly evolved predators. Civility, it should be noted, is also an attribute of military discipline.

The tool-like aspect of civility is important. It suggests that those who are able to use it effectively have an advantage over those who are not. The noise and cacophony that it is the form of emotive progressive discourse replaces reason with emotional indulgence. It accommodates violence, and can appear fearsome, just like those highly evolved predators, that are nonetheless vanquished by the fruits of human reason.

As for the nickname, no it is not really derived from anything. I started using it in the 1990s on the CNN AllPolitics board. Everyone had a pseudonym there, except the most insufferable scolds. I chose it because I like zs and 9s, and I liked the way it looks on the screen. I continue using it because it is part of my posting philosophy. I think there is, or should be an etiquette of posting under screen names. I think that if you are going to impugn someone;s character or engage in hit and run insults, you should do so under your own name. If posting under a pseudonym, like I do, I think it only common courtesy to make every effort to let your opinions stand on the substance of what you think is true, rather than being an affectation of an assumed online persona. Of course, others may reasonably disagree.

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