Modern calls for civility often hearken to a golden age of liberal free speech, but this is a mistake.
Stephen Carter’s Civility is a sophisticated case for renewal of this virtue in American life. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale Law School, his book, subtitled Manners, Morals, and Etiquette of Democracy, speaks to what he deemed a uniquely uncivil moment in American history—the 1990s. And though it was written twenty years ago this year, Carter’s analysis could just as aptly describe today.
Civility adds a moral dimension to the way we interact with our fellow citizens—our “fellow travelers” as Carter calls them. He makes two distinct but related moral arguments for civility. First, our shared humanity gives us all a duty to respect one another. Second, life of our republic requires us to show regard for one another through our actions, great and small.
Carter’s work, which is more moral philosophy treatise than etiquette manual, is a refreshing departure from the typical manners genre. His wide-ranging musings on the importance of norms in modern American life offer deep reflections on human nature, unjust moments in American history, social science research, and the culture of cynicism in America.
Though some readers might find certain parts moralizing to excess, he makes no apologies for the way that his Christian faith informs his thinking. He ultimately offers a spiritual solution to a temporal problem. Americans suffer from a flagrant lack of respect for our fellow travelers, which he argues does harm to our souls and our republic. His antidote is a return to the religious foundations—the Judeo-Christian tradition—that give us reason to respect one another in the first place.
Civility and its Discontents
Carter wrote his defense for civility in the midst of an anti-civility backlash in the late 1990s, when national concern about the lack of civility was also quite high. In March 1997, this led to the creation of the Bipartisan Congressional Retreat. This was a gathering of political leaders across parties lies in the idyllic pastures of Hershey, Pennsylvania. The retreat’s stated purpose was to “seek a greater degree of civility, mutual respect and, when possible, bipartisanship among Members of the House of Representatives in order to foster an environment in which vigorous debate and mutual respect can co-exist.”
The thinking was that friendship and familiarity among Members of Congress would enable them to work together amidst deep differences of opinion. This rationale is corroborated by social research and lived experience: we are indeed less likely to unfairly malign and assume the worst about persons we know and enjoy being around.
Much in the spirit of Hillary Clinton’s now-infamous comments—“You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about”—some Members thought the retreat a waste of time: after all, they thought, their political rivals were so detestable that there was no need to be civil with them. It was the “dumbest idea” that Joel Hefley (R-CO) had ever heard. “You can go to Hershey fifty times and it would not make a difference,” claimed David Obey (D-WI). Perhaps not co-incidentally, Obey—who ended up skipping the civility retreat—was involved in a shoving match with Republican Congressman Tom DeLay not too long after the retreat’s end.
Many people agree, denying the premise that we owe respect to others regardless of agreement. Carter addresses these and other objections before making his affirmative case. He notes the assertions of Michael Sandel and Ellen Goodman, who claim an overemphasis on manners is a harmful distraction from social solidarity. And Carter acknowledges Benjamin DeMott’s argument in a 1996 Nation essay entitled “Seduced by Civility” that manners mask the real issues of race and class at hand. Observing that slaveholders invoked “civility” to silence the abolitionists, DeMott claims that “when you’re in an argument with a thug, there are things much more important than civility.” When one’s views are so abhorrent and antithetical to justice, in other words, all bets are off. Maureen Dowd claimed that President Clinton’s call for renewed civility masked deep and important disagreement, and became a “kind of hypocrisy.”
But for Carter, these criticisms get civility wrong, because civility is “a set of sacrifices we make for the sake of our common journey with others, and out of respect for the very idea that there are others … who are every bit our equals before God.”
Contrary to being an act of hypocrisy, civility means acting with integrity. He draws a thread between respecting fundamental human rights and respecting others with our manners, giving the example of the process of “purification” that Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers used in their non-violent civil protests. Adherents to non-violence knew that rebelling against a violent and oppressive status quo would subject them to violence. But it was not just for tactical reasons that they took the moral high ground by conducting themselves more justly than their oppressors. And their aim in doing so was to prick the conscience of their nation, sensitizing their fellow citizens to the deep injustices of institutional racism.
Carter quotes historian Albert J. Raboteau on Dr. King’s moral reasoning,
Nonviolence is based upon the belief that acceptance of suffering is redemptive, because suffering can transform both the sufferer and the oppressor; it is based on loving others regardless of worth or merit; it is based on the realization that all human beings are interrelated; and it is grounded in the confidence that justice will, in the end, triumph over injustice.
The goal of King’s non-violent protests was not to defeat the opponents to civil rights, but to convert them. King and his supporters succeeded in persuading a nation that black Americans both could and should become full participants in our democracy. The civility of the civil rights protesters was directly informed by their expressly Christian charge to love one’s enemies, and do good to those who seek to do harm. Indeed, the stated purpose of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, co-founded by Dr. King after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, was to “save the soul of the nation.”
This is why Carter claims that “only a resurgence in all that is best about religious faith will rescue civility in America, for there is no more profound vision of equality than equality before God,” and why “civility that rests on the shifting sands of secular morality might topple with the next stiff political wind.”
Carter is right that Christian charity, showing love and forgiveness to those who seek your harm, is a demanding standard of morality—and is one that secular readers may choose not to accept.
But civility need not have an explicitly Christian cast. Even secular readers may be comfortable with the idea that we all share a common human dignity—which in turn creates for us a shared moral obligation to one another. This is, after all the central tenet of the secular Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was originally adopted across national, religious, and philosophical lines and continues to enjoy support from people of all national and political affiliations.
But what does make us different, and what does that mean for the respect we owe to others?
Civility as Conduct That Marks, Recognizes, and Respects our Humanity
In the first place, Carter asserts that humans are uniquely worth of respect, in a way that plants and animals are not, because of our free will and morality. We are all equal before God, Carter is fond of saying, created in his image. We therefore share a nature with one another. This nature constitutes morality—the ability to discern right from wrong—and volition—the ability to choose right from wrong. We are also fallible. We err, but we are self-aware enough to act differently in the future. “Lower animals,” Carter writes, are programmed to act on instinct alone and do not have these characteristics.
Self-control is the common thread that runs through these facets of our humanity. We possess the ability to rise above instinct, discipline our desires, and choose how to act. This is Carter’s central take-away from Erasmus of Rotterdam’s A Handbook on Good Manners for Children, which he regularly cites throughout Civility. While it is mostly a list of dos and don’ts—“Some people, no sooner than they’ve sat down, immediately stick their hands into the dishes of food,” admonishes Erasmus, “This is the manner of wolves”—the underlying assumption is that we have the ability to choose to sacrifice our immediate desires and impulses for the sake of others and for community.
Carter argues that reflecting on the majesty of our humanity should have the effect of instilling “awe” in us every time meet a stranger: for Carter, we ought to see God in them. From this shared, partially divine nature, Carter derives the moral obligations we have to one another. These attributes of our humanity set us apart and make us uniquely deserving of respect.
For Carter, seeing one another as equals before God ought to inform the manner in which we treat one another with equal respect. America’s trend toward the casual is informed by our egalitarian impulse, Carter believes our equality should just as easily inform our formality. Carter notes how he is easily put off by the familiarity of strangers who address him by his first name. For him, it is presumptuous to presume the intimacy of being on a first name basis. He acknowledges the reason behind this particular sensitivity: “Black Americans fought hard and long for the right to be called “Mr.” and “Mrs.” rather than by their first names—only to discover, just as the battle is won, that an increasing number of white Americans think these politely formal sobriquets should be discarded.” Female professors and doctors have also made this point: in one study, research showed that women were less likely than men to be introduced by professional title when being introduced by men.
The point is well-taken: while it scalds the American egalitarian psyche to hear others insist on being addressed by honorifics like “Mr.” or “Dr.”, formality does not always mean one is exerting superiority. It can be a way of respecting the equal dignity of all. But apart from the inherent good of respecting others, there is also an instrumental good: civil norms of mutual respect are essential to our democracy.
Civility and Democracy
Carter is adamant about the responsibility that citizens in a free society of limited government must exercise self-restraint regarding how they use their freedom. Democracy rests on a set of democratic norms that are broadly accepted and adhered to. These norms are sub-legal, meaning they cannot and ought not be enforced by law, but have an important role of modulating our interactions and buttressing our institutions. Norms cannot be enforced by law and punishment—if they were, Carter notes, we would live in what many would consider a police state—but if too many people decide to flout societal expectations of behavior, the social cohesion falters and our institutions weaken.
Carter does not draw from the history of post-Soviet Europe, but his argument for civility as necessary to democracy is reinforced by Ernest Gellner’s 1996 book Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and its Rivals, in which Gellner examines the influx of Western academic advisors into the newly formed democratic governments in previously Soviet countries. Many of these countries lacked civic organizations and suffered from low social cohesion. Gellner explains that this deficit was crucial, even as it was overlooked by the free-market economists counseling the new governments: civil society is “that set of diverse non-governmental institutions which is strong enough to counterbalance the state and, while not preventing the state from fulfilling its role of keeper of the peace and arbitrator among major interests, can nevertheless prevent it from dominating and atomising the rest of society.” Airlifting capitalist and democratic institutions into post-Soviet countries was insufficient; the cultural attitudes of citizens, toward government and one another, was also as essential. Relationships and respect for fellow citizens are a pre-political good, necessary to sustain strong democratic institutions and decent politics. Civility, or norms that promote trust, cohesion, and mutual respect, are the fundamental building block of a truly civilized society.
In some ways, in the two decades since Carter wrote this book, the world has become less hospitable to civility. This makes reviving his ideas all the more crucial. Our own moment may feel more uncivil than past eras, and we realize it’s not always to overcome our hurts and prejudices. But Carter rightly argues that it’s worth it.
The alternative is bleak. There is an abundant literature describing the collapse of civility and the consequences that collapse has for American communities, with Ben Sasse’s Them, Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, and Tim Carney’s forthcoming Alienated America just some of the most prominent.
But recent years have also seen a proliferation of groups trying to remedy this collapse and divide: Slate Star Codex Rationalist meet-ups that seek truth in group settings, Benjamin Franklin Circles that pursue virtue in group settings, the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation that gathers problem-solvers, as well as many other national, state-wide, and local initiatives. These trends are encouraging, as they demonstrate the widespread dissatisfaction of the direction of our nation, and the willingness of citizens to do something about it.
Civility is a profoundly earnest account of one man’s desire to find order and truth in a deeply divided time, and it can also guide us in our own. The result is a rewarding journey into the mind of a great modern thinker. Carter encourages his readers to see civility as more than mere etiquette, to instead see it as a moral obligation to others in light of our common humanity.
Carter claimed that the 1990s was a uniquely uncivil time for our nation. We hear people today claim the same of the tenor of our public discourse today. Both are incorrect. Since the first humans decided to live in community, there has been a need to have norms guide our interactions, lest our self-interestedness win out over our desire for relationship. The selfish and other-directed facets of our nature have always been, and always will be, in tension. In calling us to be civil, then, Carter calls us to an impossible standard. But it is an important—and explicitly Christian—one.
In a world that is increasingly Manichean, one where people view the world as a battle between good and evil, it is both more difficult but more necessary to abide by the high standard of civility to which Carter calls us: to be kind when we don’t have to, to trust when we don’t have to reason to, to love those who hurt us.