Mere Civility

sɪˈvɪlɪti

noun – formal politeness and courtesy in behaviour or speech.

“I hope we can treat each other with civility and respect”

(Courtesy, courteousness, politeness, mannerliness, graciousness, consideration, respect, urbanity, cordiality.)

It’s autumn; the clocks have gone back and the nights are getting dark…. So it’s time to start rolling the ‘relevant complexity’ dice again – for audio accompaniment to cooking, cleaning up the kitchen and stacking the dishwasher.

On Tuesday the dice said listen to a Philosophy Bites podcast

So I did; and listened to a fascinating one with Teresa M. Bejan from Oxford University on the topic of civility:

It’s here

Looking for more, I found her book ‘Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration’

As the synopsis rightly says:

Today, politicians and intellectuals warn that we face a crisis of civility and a veritable war of words polluting our public sphere.

In liberal democracies committed to tolerating diversity as well as active, often heated disagreement, the loss of this conversational virtue appears critical.

But is civility really a virtue? Or is it, as critics claim, a covert demand for conformity that silences dissent?

This is exactly what I was talking about with a former colleague of mine, in a lovely walk in the autumn sunshine past the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ yesterday.

Surely the disfiguring scaffolding all over it, is a reminder of how much democracy and civility need bracing in this country – and many others – right now.

Back to ‘Mere Civility’… it turns out that:

Many of the pressing questions facing liberal democracies today – what the proper scope of liberty should be and how to handle partisanship and hate speech – closely recall early modern concerns about the limits of toleration and the dangers posed by sectarianism, evangelical expression, and so-called “persecution of the tongue.”

Then as a now, thinkers appealed to civility as a way to reconcile the tension between diversity and disagreement, but determining what civility requires can be complicated.  While some restraint on expression is surely necessary to make disagreement tolerable, accusations of “incivility” can easily become pretexts for persecution.

The issue with civility is it feels weak and insipid, if it appears to allow bad things to be said. But when institutions close ‘protest’ down, there’s an equal fear that ‘free speech’, the legitimate right to be angry and to demand change is being curtailed.

I’ve spent significant parts of the last few weeks – at my university – writing new policies and procedures which walk this tightrope.

In work, in politics and at home, I’m an advocate for civility – if you’re not even prepared to listen there’s not much hope of reasonable accommodation or collective progress.

But the suffragettes weren’t civil, Malcolm X wasn’t civil and some of the protesters we host at work aren’t either; but the things they were and are fighting for are good things.

Theresa Bejan argues for ‘mere civility‘ – the absolute bare minimum of it:

that allows for rude, rambunctious, honest debate without the disputants attempting to eject each other from society, 

That’s the baseline I’m defending at work; but I must say I’d like to see a bit more civility than we have.

As a middle-aged, middle-class white ‘family man’ that’s easy to say – all society’s norms are tuned to me. If I was a woman, black, gay or poor I might see things very differently.

Perhaps ‘mere civility’ is right – we shouldn’t seek to be too comfortable in a world full of inequality.