Tolerating, Respecting, and Accepting Civility

Elizabeth Corey has done us a great service in resurrecting civility as an antidote to the political polarization that plagues us today. Agreeing with what she has written about civility, I would like to extend her analysis by discussing how civility is a more comprehensive and therefore superior virtue when compared to the contemporary morality of tolerance, respect, and acceptance. Although tolerance, respect, and acceptance each has its merits and proper place in social life, they all present distinctive problems. By contrast, civility provides a more nuanced account of behavior and disposition that overcome the obstacles that tolerance, respect, and acceptance confront.

But before we look at tolerance, respect, and acceptance, it would be worthwhile to review how Corey defines civility. For her, civility is an embodied characteristic that encompasses the whole person so that the civil person makes others at ease around him or her. Reaching back to antiquity, civility can claim a long tradition of moral and political thought, with the classical virtues of aidos and dike and the Christian teachings of charity, humility, and submission being foundational to its formation. In the United States, civility is particularly needed, given our system of checks and balances and separation of powers that frustrates ambitious politicians to implement their policies quickly. Civility calls upon us to push past our political differences and to find common ground with others, even in areas that are not political.

The Building Blocks of Society

One possible way to recover civility is to recognize the importance of the family as its training ground and model for public life. In the family, we practice forbearance and self-restraint with our relations. There, peaceful interaction and begrudging acceptance takes the place of endless dissatisfaction and aspirational unanimity. Conservatives and religious leaders traditionally have recognized the importance of the family to civil and political life. For instance, Charles Murray’s Coming Apart records how the American lower classes suffer from the erosion of family and therefore community life; John Paul II’s encyclical Familiaris Consortio speaks about the value of the family and the challenges realizing that ideal; and the “family values” movement seeks to defend the traditional family by opposing abortion, same-sex marriage, and feminism. For this group, the family is the crucial element that makes civil society and political civility possible.

Alternatively, the left sees the state as the key institution in political life and usually perceives the family as an obstacle to achieving its political ends, e.g., feminism. When the left does support the family, it is usually a nontraditional one, such as the poly family, because it is the “other”—a family structure so different than the traditional one that it requires people to show tolerance, respect, and acceptance in order to be considered a morally good person. Libertarians likewise subscribe to a similar conception of the family as the left, but they do so under the banner of freedom. What both the left and libertarians fail to recognize is that the family is not a vehicle for virtue-signaling or ideological affirmation but instead serves as a fundamental unit for society. Without it, we cannot cultivate the requisite behavior and values to sustain a decent civil and political life.

Today tolerance, respect, and acceptance have supplanted civility in civil and political discourse and therefore each one deserves some discussion. When we speak of tolerance, we mean to put up with or countenance beliefs, actions, and practices that one considers wrong but should not be prohibited by law. Consider a hypothetical American example: a religiously devout Baptist and a Catholic integralist might peaceably live as neighbors, but find that the religious differences that infuse their daily lives are so great that they do not socialize with each other. However much they may fantasize about a regime that would appropriately contain each other’s heresies, they enjoy the fruits of toleration. While never easy, tolerance is feasible because the state determines the parameters of what is tolerable.

Thus, the question what is tolerable is ultimately a political one with the state deciding the boundaries of tolerance: what type of speech remains permissible and what type of behavior the laws forbid. Broadly speaking, liberal democracies have adopted John Stuart Mill’s “no harm” principle to guide our understanding of tolerance with restriction only if it prevents harm done to one person by another.

Distinguishing Civility from Its Neighbors

While tolerance and civility may have shared origins, as Teresa Bejan in her Mere Civility claims, I think today they are distinct from one another. Because tolerance is premised on the dislike of differences, even though one may not act upon them, it does not require a person to socially engage with another while civility does. Extending our hypothetical, while the devout Baptist and integralist Catholic tolerate each other and therefore do not socialize, the practice of civility might nonetheless enter their lives when their Mormon neighbor invites them over to his house for dinner. Despite the great theological distance between each of their faiths, a Mormon believer in civility would be willing to socially engage his neighbors: he is willing to make the compromise to avoid arguing about religion for the sake of the good of neighborliness.

When compared to respect and acceptance, civility provides a path for a person to socially interact with another while not necessarily affirming the other’s beliefs, actions, and practices.

While tolerance offers a type of benign neglect to maintain civil peace, civility is a type of political friendship to ease social tension in order to facilitate social interaction and collaboration across differences and disagreements. Civility also affords a type of dignity to another person by social engagement. Although these two functions are analytically distinct, civility in practice often accomplishes both simultaneously. Civility allows its practitioners to convey dignity at work, at home, and at play. While tolerance at most yields a modus vivendi, civility can create a common good for all members of society.

Respect (or recognition, as some prefer) is the second pillar of contemporary morality which is the affirmative acceptance in one’s behavior of the other’s beliefs, actions, and practices. Whereas tolerance is a type of benign neglect, respect is to actively recognize in action and behavior the other irrespective of one’s own personal beliefs. A clergyman may tolerate a civil ceremony of gay marriage, considering it sinful but not advocate for its legal prohibition, while a Silicon Valley technology executive may respect gay marriage, in spite of his personal beliefs against it, by making public statements in its support and donating money to an LGBTQ organization. In this example, both the clergyman and the executive are personally opposed to gay marriage but only the executive respects it by his supportive actions while the clergyman’s behavior merely tolerates it. Whether because he is afraid of public opinion about his company’s reputation or wants to make sure all his employees feel valued regardless of sexual orientation, the executive acts contrary to his personal beliefs because he prioritizes his company’s profitability and productivity over his own personal opposition to gay marriage.

When the New Left emerged in the 1960s, respect was a cornerstone to the movement’s goals in recognizing the rights of women, homosexuals, and other marginalized groups. Tolerance was perceived as outdated and incapable of providing the social justice that the New Left advocated. However, over time, the New Left and its children were not satisfied with simply regulating one’s own behavior because of the hypocrisy between one’s actions and one’s beliefs. Back to our Silicon Valley executive example, when his private conversations that he opposed gay marriage becomes public, his previous public statements and donations in support of gay marriage are perceived rightly as insincere and deceitful. Instead of respecting gay marriage, the executive was cynically misleading people to protect his own company.

The Necessity of Civility

Respect therefore was not enough. One’s interior life had to be transformed for social justice to be fully realized. Thus, the idea of acceptance: the affirmative acceptance in one’s thoughts, values, and disposition of the beliefs, actions, and practices of others. Both behavior and thought had to be transformed. While a Catholic may think Mormon theology is heretical, the Catholic may attend a Mormon fundraiser for poor children because he respects this particular Mormon act of charity. With acceptance, the Catholic would have to be reeducated to reject any belief or inward disposition that might offer any resistance to Salt Lake City. Hence, the advent of cancel culture, online shaming, and rhetoric of white privilege. In fact, a whole new industry has blossomed in colleges and corporations, where experts fly across the country to teach students and employees that they suffer from false consciousness. As one of my colleagues pointed out to me, your conscience isn’t sacred anymore—it’s just bigoted; or, rather it is sacred only if you accept the ideological tenets of the New Left, such as being woke. The privacy and protection that was afforded to your conscience under tolerance and respect is now stripped away under acceptance.

Unlike tolerance, which permits a pluralism to exist that one may dislike or ignore, respect and acceptance seek to impose an ideological uniformity onto society in both thought and action. The civic peace that tolerance makes possible is threatened by those who insist that a person must respect and accept the other’s beliefs, actions, and practices, even if that person believes them to be morally wrong. It is one thing for a pious Catholic to tolerate Roe v. Wade for the sake of civic peace; it is entirely another thing for a Catholic to be coerced to fully support it.

When compared to respect and acceptance, civility provides a path for a person to socially interact with another while not necessarily affirming the other’s beliefs, actions, and practices. As stated earlier, civility is a type of political friendship that makes cooperation conceivable, although admittedly it may be difficult for a person who absolutely insist upon respect and acceptance. Nevertheless, civility makes social engagement possible in a way that overcomes a person’s dislike (tolerance) while simultaneously recognizes a diversity of perspectives that both respect and acceptance seek to eliminate.

By requiring a person to be active and sociable while limiting their disapproval, civility avoids the defects of toleration; and by stopping short of affirmative acceptance of the other, it avoids the problems of respect and acceptance. Civility consequently plays a meditating role between toleration, respect, and acceptance. While it may be a modest, middle-age virtue, civility is foundational to sustain a pluralistic liberal democracy, for neither tolerance, respect, nor acceptance can make strangers political friends.