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Open for Debate

Two Types of Civility

3 October 2022

What is civility? It sounds fancy, but if we start with incivility we may get a better idea: incivility is obnoxiousness, rudeness, and generally a lot of what we would call ‘anti-social’ behavior. Civility, in its more common understanding, is a fancy word for the opposite of this: pleasantness, politeness and prosocial behavior. Many philosophers suppose that there are two types of civility. While these two types go under various different names, one can call them ‘political’ civility and ‘everyday’ civility.[1] The everyday civility concerns manners, pleasantries, and the like. ‘Making nice’ is part of everyday civility. Political civility concerns something much broader: how we live a common political life together as citizens, and how we interact as citizens. Being a good citizen is part of political civility. It is fair to say that most philosophers are interested in political civility, but those who are and who acknowledge this dichotomy of civility invariably like to include the manners and pleasantries of everyday civility in political civility. Thus, they treat the two concepts as not entirely distinct. However, I would like to suggest that the ideas of everyday civility and political civility are distinct, that there is effectively only one civility (the idea captured by ‘everyday’ civility) and that the other is a wholly different good. Moreover, I want to suggest that these two ideas can and often will conflict meaning that we will often have to decide between deploying the one or the other.

The importance of politeness and niceness in everyday civility is in that of communicating to others the basic attitudes of kindness, respect, and such.[2] It is important that the other person(s) interpret your actions as respectful and kind—not rude and hostile (incivility)—and that requires use of a shared language. That language is the customs of norms and forms particular to the locality in which you find yourself. If respectfulness requires taking off one’s shoes, bowing, or using particular titles of address, then you need to deploy those norms for the other(s) to interpret your respectfulness. Sometimes this involves engaging in practices which may not be objectively respectful (men holding doors open for women, for example) but still one faces a choice between acting in what one judges to be the morally correct way and causing upset, on the one hand, and conforming for the sake of pleasantness, on the other. There may be several reasons why communicating such attitudes is important—recognition of basic dignity, inclusion in the same moral universe, the importance of esteem—but anyone who has ever sought to adapt their behavior to a new social environment (a particular venue or a whole new culture) recognizes the importance of conveying these attitudes of respect and kindliness in a shared language. The aim of everyday civility is to make for a pleasant social environment in which people feel esteemed or at ease.

Political civility is about the importance of citizen interaction. This is generally said to have two parts to it: the side which concerns what it is to be a good citizen in this respect, and the bond of citizenship to which civility responds. Being a good citizen usually sees things like engagement, listening, open-mindedness included in civility; sometimes it includes a general disposition towards the common good. Whereas everyday civility may be content with you appearing open and receptive, political civility (especially in a deliberative democratic context) requires you really listen.[3] As for the bond, this is often considered a form of ‘civic friendship’ which may seem rather grand, but we can understand the bond as making our shared citizenship in some sense relevant to the deployment of political civility: it matters that we are fellow citizens. The aim of political civility is to see us interact well as members of a political community which, in the context of deliberative democracy, tends to mean a productive exchange of views which enable consensus or compromise on matters of policy. Everyday civility is considered to play only a minor role in this, political civility pushes civility much further.

However, imagine you are somewhere like a waiting room or a bus stop and some stranger ends up chatting with you. Initially this is fairly straightforward small talk: the weather, or what a busy day it’s been. Everyday civility requires you appear open, nod along, make some sympathetic noises as appropriate and maybe add some trivial comment on the subject yourself. But suppose the next topic aired is something political (perhaps they bemoan the bus or medical service) and they suggest that this is the fault of the government who should have followed policy X rather than Y. Political civility now demands something quite different of you. For one thing, you must be genuinely open to their opinion and not merely feigning interest; your goal now is to discuss the matters of mutual concern as fellow citizens. Not only does this seem a wholly different demand of civility, it also seems that many of us would find in this example a conflict between the two types. Are we aiming to keep this conversation pleasant or are we aiming to achieve consensus or compromise on policy? Targeting the latter very much risks the former.

Maybe the location of that example is not really the place for political civility. However, I would suggest that almost all of our interactions with fellow citizens are not actually political but social; even when political ideas are floated. So, the scope for political civility seems narrow indeed. But what about a local sports team’s committee meeting? Here we have a blend of social and political, a social environment with a more directed aim like deliberative democracy. Suppose Tim attends and is nice and polite with his fellow committee members, he respects the formalities of the meeting too, but his mind is elsewhere and so he doesn’t actually listen to the discussion. Assuming that Tim does not fail to appear receptive, he will succeed in esteeming others and making a pleasant atmosphere; but, he will not succeed in contributing to the task of the committee. However, in judging Tim and knowing his mind is absent, it seems that we cannot call him rude or uncivil. We can, however, charge him with being a poor member of the committee: a bad participant.

It seems to me that the idea captured by political civility is wholly different from that of everyday civility. They provide two different lights by which to assess someone and, sometimes, they may conflict. We should be careful to identify these two ideas as different things and, therefore, it would be better not to confer the name of civility to both. This sharp distinction between the two ideas leaves open the possibility that one may sometimes be a better citizen by being rude and obnoxious.[4] It also makes sense of why political theorists have wanted to include politeness in political civility. We do want citizens to be generally pleasant with one another in a sense. But that is because we desire that people are generally pleasant in their dealings with one another; it is this which general, social nature is relevant to civility, not one’s citizenship or lack thereof. So, I suggest we take the everyday civility as civility proper and let the idea captured by political civility do its own work as civic virtue, good citizenship, or some other name which captures the decidedly different task of being a good participant in a political community. Civility may not be the finest of all virtues, but it has its gentle task that I think is worth considering on its own terms not least because we live in a world filled with differing conceptions of politics and morality; you’d have to be worryingly certain of your own views to discount the value in making nice with others.

[1] Peterson, Andrew. 2019. Civility and Democratic Education. Singapore: Springer.

[2] Calhoun, Cheshire. 2000. ‘The Virtue of Civility’. Philosophy & Public Affairs 29(3): 251–75.

[3] Snow, Nancy. 2020. ‘Citizens’ Relationships, Political Civility, and the Civic Virtue of Listening’. The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues Insight Series. (January 1, 2021).

[4] Edyvane, Derek. 2019. ‘Incivility as Dissent’. Political Studies 68(1): 93–109.

Picture: August De Richelieu Business People Talking