On civility

Navigating politico-religious disagreements in a spirit of civility is nigh-on impossible in eras in which the meaning of civility itself is contested. How do we speak to each other civilly in a time of incivility?

Girolamo Savonarola's execution on the Piazza della Signoria in Florence in 1498. Credit: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.

This essay originally appeared in ‘City, Civility and Capitalism : A Historical Perspective‘ published by Bokförlaget Stolpe, in collaboration with the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation, 2020.

Civility has become one of the more grandiose catchwords in recent public debates. It tends to crop up in discourses about the manner in which discussions – especially public debates – are conducted, and especially how leaders, journalists, and ordinary citizens on the internet or in classrooms talk about controversial political and cultural issues. Whether one’s Facebook feed and media preferences are right, left, centre, or complicated, every day we hear or see our friends and pundits of choice bemoan their opponents’ uncivil ways. The people they disagree with, we’re told, are guilty of shouting down, vituperating, or misrepresenting views they dislike. Another form of incivility – one arguably worse than mere vitriol, since it makes it even harder to find political common ground – is the refusal to engage at all with anyone or any views that disagree with one’s own. One party perceives such refusals as ignorant, another as arrogant. And so the civility battles rage on, until the combatants reach some kind of modus vivendi, or drag each other towards civil war.

As rhetoric, then, civility’s standard function is simple and polemical. People who invoke it want to defend some sort of properly ‘civil’ order – social, cultural, and discursive – against attacks by uncivil others. This creates an obvious problem. Since we find champions of civility across the political spectrum, each pouring scorn on other notions of civility, it is tempting to think that the word must be a meaningless cipher. All we have are various, ideologically-saturated claims dressed up as civility, with clashing views about the behaviour civility demands or damns. Far from trusting it to work as a strategy of conflict management, we might have good reason to see civility as part of the problem, not the solution. Someone, after all, has to decide what counts as civil or uncivil conduct. And who should have this authority: educated elites, or the public at large? Do longstanding members of a national community have the final say, or should newcomers with perhaps different views take part in defining and redefining norms of civility?

In addition to such all-too-familiar disputes, two other clashes over civility’s content and authorship stand out in the history of civility wars. One is a clash between lighter and heavier views of what civility requires. ‘Light civility’ (or ‘civility lite,’ to those who see it as insufficient) aims merely to contain conflict in conditions of diversity, and does not demand people to see eye to eye on most social or cultural norms. Its chief virtues are politeness, toleration of different views, and respectful engagement with interlocutors. More demanding or heavier accounts say civility requires a fairly high degree of conformity to particular practices – often those of a majority, or of a small but powerful elite. People on the liberal or left end of the spectrum tend to associate heavy-handed civility with conservatives and nationalists who define civil norms in thick, culturally specific terms. But conformist civility is no less rife among liberals who defend diversity, pluralism, and dynamic cultural change. Their critics often accuse them of imposing their excessively open-minded views on everyone else, or of refusing to engage with culturally conservative opponents in serious debate.

Another clash between different understandings of civility is that between older dominant views and new, ascendant ones that threaten more traditional notions of respect, decency, and social order. Here’s one way to see it, harking back to our remotest ancestors:

The highly civilized apes swung gracefully from bough to bough; the Neanderthaler was uncouth and bound to the earth. The apes … lived in sophisticated playfulness, or caught fleas in philosophic contemplation; the Neanderthaler trampled gloomily through the world, banging around with clubs. The apes looked down on him amusedly from their tree tops and threw nuts at him. Sometimes horror seized them: they ate fruits and tender plants with delicate refinement; the Neanderthaler devoured raw meat, he slaughtered animals and his fellows. He cut down trees that had always stood, moved rocks from their time-hallowed place, transgressed every law and tradition of the jungle. He was uncouth, cruel, without animal dignity – from the point of view of the highly civilized apes, a barbaric relapse of history.

This is Arthur Koestler in  Darkness at Noon. He had in mind different apes and Neanderthals than their closest analogues today – whoever we might think they are – but it illustrates the point that some champions of civility see others as barbaric destroyers of established, comfortable, or at least familiar orders. One person’s fight for human progress is another’s Armageddon.

And even before warring ideas of civility collide outright, the sheer diversity of such ideas is a constant source of tension in public interactions whether local or on a much larger scale. For ‘not every country only, but every city and every society has its particular forms of civility.’ This is not a contemporary relativist, but Michel de Montaigne, writing at the height of the religious wars in France in the sixteenth century. Obvious as it sounds once spelled out, partisans caught up in civility wars easily forget there is no single, uncontroversial way to be civil. Different countries or cultures have worked out the lines between acceptable forms of public speech and behaviour and those that cross into incivility. Shouting and heckling is a venerable tradition in Britain’s Houses of Parliament; the same conduct would look like the end of civilisation if it happened in Japan’s sedate Diet. Some of civility’s customary local boundaries are so longstanding, so embedded in locals’ understandings of themselves and their particular ways of hashing out differences, that many people see any serious challenge to them as an existential threat, and cast challengers as barbarians whose attacks on local civility are a prelude to much worse.

For though wars over decorous speech and manners might appear shallow as a cause of strife compared with wars over territory or people’s basic livelihood, they usually reflect deeper conflicts over power, whether economic or political or cultural. The power to define basic norms governing public debate is a significant part of all these conflicts over more tangible goods. None of them, including conflicts over who defines the boundaries of civility and how, has to be zero-sum. In well-ordered pluralistic societies, compromise – even somewhat messy compromise – is the official ideal. But when it comes to disagreements over civility itself, there’s another problem: namely, that you need some broadly accepted standards of civilised conduct to arbitrate those disagreements, or they soon go the way of wolves. Challenges to dominant standards may start as merely part of a conflict over resources or class conflict or as a partisan bid for power, or some combination thereof. But once civility wars get going, they corrode the resources human beings have for managing their conflicts, which are principally the resources of language and other forms of communication. As the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes writes in Leviathan:

The most noble and profitable [human] invention … was that of Speech … whereby men register their Thoughts … and declare them to one another for mutuall utility and conversation; without which, there had been amongst men, neither Common-wealth, nor Society, nor Contract, nor Peace, no more than amongst Lyons, Bears, and Wolves.

Yet if speech furnishes the means of creating firm bonds and negotiating differences, human beings’ dependence on its good offices is also highly problematic for, as Hobbes says here, it is the main thing that stands between society and a state of war. The stakes in keeping speech practices in good shape are extremely high. And the problem is not just that disordered language deprives us of our chief instrument for settling quarrels and making pacts and contracts. The variegated resources of language can also do a great deal of damage in their own right. Hobbes was writing near the end of the English Civil War in 1651. For several decades leading up to that war, he witnessed what he saw as the perversion of political language in England, and saw this as a basic cause of his country’s calamities. He blamed firebrand orators who used their ‘eloquence’ to whip up hatreds among basically peace-loving people. They used the ‘art of words,’ to represent ‘Good, in the likenesse of Evill; and Evill, in the likenesse of Good; [thus] discontenting men, and troubling their Peace.’

Hobbes detected an even more pernicious breed of troublemakers behind the orators: scholars in the universities. Universities are, in his words, what ‘the wooden horse was to the Trojans’: a poisonous gift of counterfeit wisdom that wreaks havoc in civil societies. Academics, he says, worked as propagandists for rival factions. They also taught future clergymen and politicians how to appear wise and morally superior to less educated people, and how to ingratiate themselves with whoever might serve their advantage.

Not much has changed. Today many people, among them academics, claim that universities fuel incivility by nurturing corrosive self-doubt among liberal elites and promoting forms of ‘political correctness’ that feed the ‘disconnect’ between elites and others. But whether or not one traces the root of present-day incivilities to academic sophistry, Hobbespoint still holds. Social life depends, inter alia, on maintaining reasonably stable and widely shared understandings of the norms and borderlines of civility. In the heat of battle, civility may look like a mere polemical pawn, used by different sides for their own purposes and signifying nothing in itself. Even in calmer times it may look merely epiphenomenal, parasitic on deeper, more concrete political and economic conditions. On closer scrutiny, however, the word turns out to recommend some extremely useful practices, hard though they are to specify.

In view of all these difficulties, can we still identify some ways of thinking about civility and incivility that are more helpful than others? I’ll suggest that some aspects of classical republican thinking about the civil life – what Machiavelli called the  vivere civile – can help us understand what’s at stake in contemporary civility wars and offer reflections on how to avoid the worst excesses of incivility. This tradition does not play down the disputes just outlined, or deny that the language of civility can be used as window-dressing for partisan and uncivil aims. But the Roman, ancient Greek, and early modern writers who defended republican forms of government still insist that we need civil virtues and practices to preserve free ways of life – and to help defuse explosive disputes about civility itself.

The Latin word  civilitas  referred to the virtues needed to sustain shared public life in a  civitas or city. Ancient writers rarely use it. It appears three times in Quintillian’s famous treatise on rhetoric, as a translation of Greek  πολιτική [politiké], meaning the art of government; the historian Suetonius uses   civilitas  to mean politeness or courtesy. In the writings of medieval and early modern authors,  civitas came to signify much more than the distinct urban space and population of a city like Rome or Athens. They gave it a metaphorical and ethical sense too, one close to the English ‘commonwealth’: ‘city’ could stand for any political association, large or small, both urban and rural, where people came together for their mutual benefit and acknowledged certain common rules that regulated their interactions. Some of these rules were formal laws, others informal customs and manners or mores. During the Italian Renaissance, especially in the city of Florence with its centuries-old traditions of popular self-government, Machiavelli and other writers breathed new life into the notions of  vivere civile and  civiltà, linking them to the concept of  libertà  and to the virtues of the citizen.

What were these virtues? A citizen was a free man living under a specific form of government, a republic where each citizen had a share in public authority. Being free, he was entitled to his own opinions, which meant he was bound to disagree with other citizens. The need for civility springs from the inconvenient fact of disagreement among people who see themselves as free and fairly reasonable. In a free republic – unlike under despotism or in narrower oligarchies – citizens are expected to disagree about all the big and small questions of collective self-government: taxation, religious freedom, war and peace, how far to enforce social codes of conduct, or to treat matters of sexuality or dress or reading matter as private. Since disagreement about such matters is naturally and frequently vehement, one of the cardinal citizen virtues is an attitude of forbearance toward people whose views differ from one’s own.

As Machiavelli points out, it’s far from obvious when the norms of civil communication have been violated. After long centuries of monarchy-centred political thought that treated harmony and unity as the highest virtues of commonwealths, he stepped out of line – also challenging his more oligarchy-friendly contemporaries in Florence – and insisted that harmony and unity can be deceptive signs of poor civic health, masking repression, fear, or citizen indifference to the common weal. One of Machiavelli’s favourite ancient writers was the Roman historian Tacitus, whose masterfully subtle writings contain veiled critiques of the ways that Rome’s new emperors had stifled the republic’s cherished freedoms. In his  Dialogue of Oratory, Tacitus contrasts the now-defunct, ‘ancient’ styles of political rhetoric with the new, ostensibly more sophisticated, rule-bound, and sedate modern styles. Defenders of our modern ways of debating, says the dialogue’s main speaker, sneer at old-fangled rhetoric as ‘undisciplined’ and far too idiosyncratic, reflecting the individual styles of orators instead of following conventional rules. Tacitus does not say which style he prefers. But he raises the question in readers’ minds: which would they rather have, some measure of wild individualism and ferocity in debates, or the heavy-handed, uniform rules imposed in modern, aka imperial,  times? Imperial authorities blamed pre-imperial orators for fomenting ‘license’ and destabilising the republic by appealing to popular passions, and Tacitus’ speaker concedes that this is partly true. But he asks readers to consider whether conduct called licentious, however harmful, was really worse than the so-called ‘good order’ that suffocated freedom in the empire.

Machiavelli boldly revives this anti-authoritarian, pluralistic tradition of Roman thinking. Too many of his contemporaries, he observes, hark back to the lessons of Rome and agree with the ‘modern’ friends of imperial order. Noting the noisy civil strife in ancient and modern republics, they rush to conclude that all such strife poses a threat to good order, and look for ways to curtail it. This is a serious mistake, says Machiavelli. ‘I say that to me,’ he writes, ‘it appears that those who condemn the tumults [tumulti] between [Rome’s] nobles and the plebs blame those things that were the first cause of keeping Rome free.’ Free cities are made of free citizens with diverse and sometimes sharply conflicting interests. One of the hallmarks of the  vivere civile  is that it welcomes different opinions and values and encourages hard-hitting debates among them. Public debate, including fierce arguments that push standards of decency to their limit, is the means by which citizens set out their conflicting concerns and defend their frequently irreconcilable values. Roughhouse, tumultuous argument is part of how they bargain with each other; it does not always mean that they are abandoning the search for a  modus vivendi. People who blanch at the political tumults in a lively republic ‘consider the cries that would arise in such tumults, more than the good effects that they engendered’ in Rome.

Machiavelli’s argument that tumults ‘cause’ freedom is that when political systems allow vigorous arguments among citizens, they end up stronger and more stable than systems that repress debate. Pluralism and freedom create strong political associations because they do a better job than less free societies at getting citizens from all walks of life firmly behind them – giving them a stake in their country’s political fate because they’ve all played some part, however small, in deliberating what it should be.

One of the great themes in ancient and early modern republican thought is: how open should republics be to ideas that seem really new, or to letting large numbers of outsiders into the city? The new and the foreign have always bothered some people more than others. Machiavelli’s model was republican Rome, where collisions between new and old, local and foreign, were the stuff of everyday life. His idea of the  vivere civile  reminded people that challenges to customary ways are an inescapable part of life in any city, because cities are dynamic things: they’re centres of densely populated, intensely shared human life, and such dense and intense sharing creates a need for constant adjustment. Calls for civility therefore urge people to realise that traditions can be flexible rather than closed and exclusive; that strangers and long-time locals have the same basic human make-up; and that engaging with people who make you uncomfortable at first can bring great personal and civic benefits.

All this means that we should avoid panicking too soon when practices of public argument veer towards the frontiers of civil decency. Free citizens can disagree passionately with each other, and even hurl verbal abuse at interlocutors, without fatally compromising political order. Up to a point. What then is the limit at which healthy ‘venting’ of diverse desires and passions crosses the treacherously fine line between civil and uncivil conduct? What, in other words, are civility’s limits? Political philosophers of the past several decades have tried to answer this question by outlining ideal standards of deliberative reason and communicative rationality that they think should underpin civil discourse. Machiavelli says there are no such simple answers. Even if we can establish some firm lines and legislate them so that the grossly uncivil are punished – as Machiavelli thought should happen to those who perpetrate calumnies – the most threatening incivilities in republics occur in public orator or in the closed-shop, partisan circles where the like minded stoke each other’s wrath against their enemies. Bearing this in mind, instead of setting out ideal speech norms, we do better to study ancient and recent histories and try to track the various shifts in communications that turned tumults into dangerous ‘discords’ [discordie]. Titus Livy, the historian of Rome’s republic and another of Machiavelli’s favourite authors, helps readers do this kind of tracking: his history does not just narrate events, but includes dramatic political speeches that swayed Rome’s class-divided citizen body to settle their differences or push them towards civil war.

Machiavelli imitated Livy (and Livy’s Greek model, Thucydides) in his own Florentine Histories. One of the most brilliant speeches he composes there illustrates well how easy it is to cross the line from reasonable arguments defending reasonable interests to civility-destroying tones and assertions. After Florence’s poorer workers had been pushed out of the guild system and deprived of a political voice, they gather to discuss how to defend their livelihood. A nameless lower-class artisan addresses the crowd. He starts angrily – these people are desperate, some near starving – but at first lingers within the bounds of civility as he repudiates aristocratic doctrines of natural inequality. Instead he borrows the idea of natural right from his opponents and uses it to defend a radical egalitarianism:

Do not let their antiquity of blood, with which they will reproach us, terrify you; for all men, having had the same beginning, are equally ancient and have been made by nature in one mode. Strip all of us naked, you will see that we are all alike; dress us in their clothes and them in ours, and without a doubt we shall appear noble and they ignoble, for only poverty and riches make us unequal.

Machiavelli presents these arguments as far more reasonable than the natural-aristocratic theories that helped justify removing the workers’ rights. But there are dodgy parts too: ‘poverty and riches’ are not the ‘only’ basis for inequalities in cities – age, experience, and skills are also reasons to give some individuals more authority than others, on Machiavelli’s meritocratic principles. Total social levelling cannot provide a stable solution to the problems of class arrogance and poverty. And now comes a key line-crossing move in the artisan’s rhetoric: ‘Now is the time not only to free ourselves [from the oppressions of social superiors] but to become so much their superiors that they will have more to lament and fear from you than you from them.’ Almost imperceptibly, our speaker has moved from an egalitarianism based on claims of natural justice to an unjust call for new and vengeful forms of inequality. And as his speech reaches a crescendo, the artisan attacks the most basic pillars of civil order – or indeed human decency – in the name of just retaliation for the destitute  ignobili. He urges his hearers to smother any scruples that restrain them from using violence against the  nobili. ‘It pains me much,’ he declares, ‘when I hear that out of conscience many of you repent the [violent] deeds that have been done and that you wish to abstain from new deeds.’ For:

if this is true, you are not the men I believed you to be, for neither conscience nor infamy should terrify you, because those who win, in whatever manner they win, never receive shame from it. And we ought not to take conscience into account, for where there is, as with us, fear of hunger and prison, there cannot and should not be fear of hell.

In the course of a short speech, manual workers’ more than fair demands for justice, for their share of political and economic rights in the city, have been twisted into a call for eye-for-an-eye revenge. Whatever injuries the nobles have done to us, the speaker declares, should now be done to them. ‘These persuasions,’ Machiavelli remarks, ‘strongly inflamed spirits that were already hot for evil on their own.’ Acting under the ‘standard of justice’ these men ‘burned the houses of many citizens’ and hunted down others.

In short, despite its first good appearances and very fair complaints, this kind of speech pushes the limits of civility then explodes out of them. Like Livy’s and Thucydides’ histories, Machiavelli’s contain many deceptively civil speeches that invite readers to spot the barely-visible moves toward incivility – except for the nameless artisan’s, all speeches of ambitious, highly educated, wealthy men who aspire to seize freedom from citizens and make themselves their overlords.

The most uncivil disposition in republics – Machiavelli calls them disonesto, dishonest or indecent – is the desire to dominate others, not to live as their civil peers. This disposition, he says, is more often found among the well-off elites, the ‘few,’ than among the ‘many.’ It often comes allied with arrogance, dogmatism, self-righteousness, and a sense of entitlement, qualities that make such people impatient with any views that collide with their own, and reluctant to share public space with people who disagree with them.

The main virtues that oppose such uncivil qualities are self-restraint or disciplina and respect for other people’s freedom, a respect that breeds tolerance of different opinions and ways of life and patience when time and effort are needed to negotiate differences. People who have sound civil dispositions have a well-developed sense of when ordinary tumulti are still manageable and when they start turning toxic. They are vigilant but don’t panic. Instead of shunning all discussion with those they deem uncivil, they look for creative ways to re-engage them.

Machiavelli talks mainly of political virtues, those that make for good citizens in free republics. Writing about civility later in the same century, though not in a republic, Montaigne confined himself to describing the personal dispositions that encourage mutual respect and support civilised conduct under any type of government. The essential thing, he said, was to recognise that human beings are inescapably individual, and that demands for conformity in matters of opinion, religious belief or political judgement are both unrealistic and order-destroying:

I do not share that common error of judging another by myself. I easily believe that another man may have qualities different from mine. Because I feel myself tied down to one form, I do not oblige everybody else to espouse it, as all others do. I believe in and conceive a thousand contrary ways of life; and in contrast with the common run of men, I more easily admit difference than resemblance between us. I am as ready as you please to acquit another man from sharing my conditions and principles. I consider him simply in himself, without relation to others; I mould him to his own model.

For Machiavelli the opposite of a ‘civil and free way of life’ is ‘an absolute and tyrannical one,’ where subjects are forced to conform their outward opinions, beliefs, and ways of life to a single, ruling notion of concord. But civility can suffer even in the absence of outright repression. One of the greatest threats to civiltà, he says, comes from people who insist on living better than others, especially the so-called ‘gentlemen’ who ‘live idly in abundance from the returns of their possessions without having any care either for cultivation or for any other necessary trouble in living.’ These sorts are ‘pernicious in every republic and every province,’ for those who are ‘unwilling to rest content with civil equality’ are apt to strive for a ‘government of a few, without respect for any civility.’

Civility has, of course, preconditions. The bedrock of a vivere civile, Machiavelli insists, is a certain ‘even equality.’ This indeed is the bedrock of civility, its social foundation. The norms and practices of a vivere civile have poor chances of survival unless they are rooted in healthy social-economic soil; gross inequalities corrupt the deeper foundations of civility. In the episode in his Florentine Histories where the nameless artisan exhorts his comrades to civil war, Machiavelli shows how inequalities can grow inside a free republic and destroy both civility and freedom. In societies with vast differences of wealth or social status, people are apt to grow suspicious of those who are far above or below them in rank. The  grandi tend to demand more respect for their opinions than they are willing to give those of people they regard as less high-born or wealthy or educated – or at least the popolo constantly fear that this will happen, and perceive strong disagreement as contempt. Always hyper-sensitive to class contempt in times of economic strain, the poorer popolo see dominant norms of civility as part of the wealthier classes’ ideological arsenal, invoked to prevent workers from fighting for their share of social goods. And since they lack other forms of power, it seems more than fair that they or their political champions take up the weapons of what their opponents call incivility, as Machiavelli’s artisan-orator argues. By contrast, in conditions of ‘even equality’ where a wide range of social goods are readily available to all, and not especially to the rich and connected, people are more motivated to address their disagreements in mutually respectful ways.

How do these conditions fare under capitalism? Many liberal-minded defenders of capitalist free enterprise and its individualist values will dislike the idea that civility needs a fairly high degree of social equality. Some stoutly defend what I called ‘light civility’ with its values of toleration, courteous or at least non-vehement free speech, and respect for a rich plurality of competing opinions. They might see some sense in the thought that these practices depend on deeper kinds of socio-economic order. But the further thought that such order in turn depends on fairly extensive regulation might go too far for some liberal-capitalist tastes.

The classical republican response to these apprehensions is: if you want to maintain civil practices, be prepared to regulate the conditions that support them. Otherwise your ‘light civility’ will be merely ‘lite,’ and have dangerously shallow roots, so that the mildest tempest can blow it away. The most reliable dispositions behind civility are mutual respect and modest self-restraint; both suffer where inequalities flourish. For as Machiavelli – like Aristotle and Plato before him – saw clearly, complex human societies never maintain moderate equality without a fairly high degree of regulation. The main reason for this lies in human psychology: some people will always want to dominate others, as individuals or parties inside a polity or as whole countries. Even in societies that have a strongly egalitarian ethos, the dominance-seekers, the alpha types, will find ingenious ways to better the system and get more advantages for themselves and their own. Before long, a few have far more of the economic, political, and communicative power to get their way, while the many feel ever more powerless to get theirs, and are thus open to the temptations of incivility or anti-civility.

But unlike Marxist critics of capitalism, civil republicans do not see liberal calls for civility as nothing but a distraction from the deeper incivilities – indeed inhumanities – that capitalism inflicts on labourers, whether at home or far away in some remote impoverished corner of the globe. Nor is it just ideological fig-leafing, holier-than-thou hypocrisy, an indirect means of silencing critics with pious calls for good behaviour. Good civil manners, forbearance towards diverse opinions and ways of living, and self-restraint are very important indeed, even if they are not part of society’s material foundations. Their immateriality makes it easy to underrate their importance for managing differences over time in complex societies.

Civility is essentially a strategy for managing difference and disagreement in conditions where conflicts are frequent, and where the costs of failing to manage them are high. ‘Strategy’ implies that norms of civility aren’t just a natural outgrowth of physical facts about city or large-community life – an automatic response to crowded spaces and the need to interact with many people who may have little in common with you. Clarifying and maintaining such norms takes constant hard work. If the tradition set out here has one take-home lesson for us today in the midst of our own civility wars, it is to avoid demanding too much conformity. The point of civility isn’t to stifle disagreements but to create an atmosphere where they can be freely ‘vented.’ Conflict, disputes, and diversity in social background and origin are good for freedom, for they keep anyone from imposing on others a single stifling set of beliefs, and create energy for improving terms of public life. It’s important that people across the political and social board feel involved in the ongoing, tetchy process of working out standards of civil conduct. What counts as civil or uncivil needs to be openly debated, sometimes spikily, daringly. And the only way to tame clashes between old and new civilities – so they don’t spiral toward wars that turn upright citizens into uncivil monsters – is for people on both sides, even just a few, to resist arrogance and dogmatism in their own camps.


Erica Benner