In the wake of the tragic shooting in Tucson, Arizona, a chorus of voices – mainly, if not exclusively on the political Left – arose in denunciation of the decline of “civility” in contemporary political life. Somewhat incredibly, some of the more prominent voices on the political Right – such as Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin – denounced these calls for civility. There were efforts – often successful, in fact – to point out that the Left was just as likely to be uncivil in its words and deeds. Still, it’s a disturbing spectacle to see so-called conservatives defending incivility. It was Edmund Burke, after all - the founder of modern conservatism - who lamented the decline of chivalry in Revolutionary France. Still, in the main, there was at least a moment of circumspection and even conversation after the Tucson shootings about the role of civility in our political lives, though that moment seems largely to have passed with little more than cosmetic efforts to be less offensive (where they existed at all).
One should expect little deep thought about such a matter as “civility” in contemporary political and social life, but there seem to me to be fewer more important questions facing our society today. Yet, the fact is, for all the hue and cry about the dearth of civility in our lives and times, as a culture we are actually more deeply opposed to civility than might even be suspected by its passing proponents. Modern – especially liberal – society is designed largely to undermine civility. Rather than lament its dearth, we should understand more fundamentally the deeper systemic causes of its decline.
Completely absent in the passing fury over the decline of civility was even a momentary reflection on the etymological origin of the word. Like the related word “polite,” civility can be traced back to an ancient word for “city” – cives in Latin, polis in Greek. This is hardly an incidental or irrelevant relationship. The ancients understood that there was an intimate relationship between life in the city and the activity of civilization. The city was not fundamentally understood (as in its liberal conception) as a vehicle of mutual convenience aimed at the pursuit of maximum individual self-fulfillment. Rather, the city was the necessary sphere in which humans became fully human, in which the higher parts of their natures were cultivated through practice and habituation to become self-governing and, with the limits of our inescapable self-ness, to be oriented toward a concern for the common good. The ancients understood that such an orientation required a life-long and concerted effort to combat the human propensity toward self-centeredness, and that it could only be effected in relatively small societies in which the distance between my immediate good and the good of the community was not too vast. Politics, and political life, was thus a kind of schooling in self-governance and common weal, with the aim of political life being the cultivation of citizens, not the encouragement of individual and self-defined goods.
In this context we can understand why “politeness” and “civility” are so closely connected to the ancient conception of politics. Manners – those expressions of civility and politeness – is a basic form of training in citizenship. By enacting a considerateness for others – even where this may not be actually our initial reaction – we become habituated into the practice of being other-regarding. Far from being punctilious and effected, manners are actually those earliest forms of training in civic life, the attendant “formalities” that make civic life more than simply a contrivance for self-interested individuals. They are also a kind of training in self-governance: for instance, table manners exist not to increase our capacity to consume more faster, but to slow us down, to allow us to ingest slowly, to reduce our consumption and at the same time to encourage the arts of conversation and companionship as the primary way we experience our most basic instinctual consumption (courtship customs, of course, afforded the same training in matters sexual).
First Hobbes and then Locke rejected this conception of politics as too confining for individuals. Instead (Locke particularly) commended a conception of politics as an arrangement of mutual convenience that was organized to allow for the individual pursuit of happiness. The cultivation of manners was rendered secondary to the training of people to become useful and productive members of society (“industrious and rational”), better to increase material growth and power that would in turn offer more opportunities for human liberation from natural constraints. Liberty became defined not as “self-government under laws self-imposed,” but as the greatest possible absence of restraint. Manners necessarily faded in importance – instead, liberal society favors “authenticity” and “self-expression” those watch-words of our individualism that excuse all manners of public and private offense.
A mannered society thus relies less on laws as the way we enforce social norms: a polite society needs fewer policies and police. A liberal society inevitably has more of the latter, less of the former. Ironically, a liberal society will come to rely on the enforcement mechanisms of the State as replacements of practices of civility. As Aristotle noted, the law-suit will replace civic friendship as a prevailing norm. Politics itself will come to be understood – in the famous words of Harold Laswell – “who gets what, when, and how.” For the ancients, the emphasis was on the the “who”; for moderns, the emphasis is on “gets.”
To hear contemporary liberals lament the decline of “civility” is thus more than a little galling. Modern liberals are the heirs of a longstanding effort to liberate people from the “little platoons” that tempered and educated individual self-expression. Hearing their decrial of contemporary “incivility” is a bit like the man who, after insisting on his wife dress as revealingly as possible, gets upset that other men are leering at her. By that same token, “conservative” defenses of “incivility” are even more aggravating, perhaps even more than the well-publicized “conservative” re-introduction of polystyrene coffee cups in the House cafeterias.
Civility is indeed a lost art of our time, but not because of talk radio or growing partisanship. These are symptoms of a deeper disease. Until we frankly diagnose our condition, we remain a patient whose diseases continue to metastasize, all the while complaining that what really bothers us is a hang-nail.