“Mere civility” a basis of tolerant society?

Teresa M Bejan

There are few perennials in politics as predictable as the “crisis of civility”. Over the past three decades, this crisis has become a permanent affliction in liberal democratic societies — particularly those that define themselves by their aspiration to be tolerant, open, and free.

So in the United States, or in the UK — where I live now — or Canada, or Australia, whenever the national conversation gets heated, the calls for conversational virtue begin, only to be met in turn by eye-rolls from the civility-sceptics, suspicious that the self-appointed guardians of civil discourse are more concerned to silence their opponents than to have a serious debate. All that’s changed, if anything, in recent years is that the eyes roll a little faster after several decades of practice.

And who can blame them? While civility’s boosters continue to insist on the profound importance of what we say to each other, or that civility is kind of panacea for all that ails us, the sceptics note that, as a solution to the problems facing (deeply divided) democracies the world over, “civility” seems inadequate, at best, and at worst, counterproductive. Why on earth should we think that talking to each other, at length, about the fundamental questions that divide us, should bring us closer?

Moreover, political developments over the past five years have attuned us, more than ever, to the downside — even the dark side — of civility. In the face of gross injustice, good manners seem tantamount to complicity. Thus its critics claim that “civility” isn’t a virtue at all, but a vice ― one that demands deference to an unjust status quo: delegitimising dissent while marginalising already marginal groups.

While such complaints have been commonly voiced on both sides of the political divide, in more recent years there has been an all-out assault on civility itself. Many activists, pundits, and even members of the US Congress have declared that the time for civil disagreement is over, that the time for righteous outrage against, public shaming of, even harassment towards our political opponents has begun. And many people, it seems, have taken their advice to heart.

The fear and frustration on the part of those who find civility wanting are understandable. Still, despite all the moral clarity on both sides, in this latest crisis of civility, as in others before it, a fatal fuzziness remains: What, exactly, is civility? It’s striking to me that in the midst of all the hand-wringing ― and grandstanding ― this basic question remains unanswered.

But surely, before we reject civility altogether, we ought to be quite clear on exactly what it is that we’re rejecting, lest we miss it when it’s gone. So what I propose to do here is answer that question by exploring our modern concept of civility in light of its long and complicated history ― a history that came to a head in early modern European debates about religious toleration Europe in the years following the Reformation.

This close connection with toleration explains, I think, why citizens of twenty-first century liberal democracies find ourselves continually appealing to this unapologetically antiquated and old-fashioned concept today whenever we feel our own fundamental disagreements driving us farther and farther apart. But as such, civility has always been controversial ― for the rebellion against civility began as soon as the concept was first invoked to quiet a religious controversy. Thus some of civility’s earliest critics were justifiably suspicious that the prosecution of incivility was just another way to persecute dissent.

While this forgotten history suggests that the modern sceptics of civility are right to be suspicious, I hope to demonstrate how one of the earliest defenders of religious toleration stumbled upon “mere civility” as the key to unmurderous coexistence between those who not only differed, but profoundly disagreed, on “the fundamentals”.

The idea of “mere civility” that I find in Roger Williams, a Puritan dissenter and founder of the colony of Rhode Island, certainly challenges many of our preconceptions about what a tolerant ― or civil ― society should like. Nevertheless, I’ll argue that it both offers a promising way forward, and that it constitutes a virtue of which tolerant societies are now in desperate need.

What is “civility”?

Most people tend to associate “civility” with good manners or politeness. And if this were all there was to it, it would suggest that civility is, indeed, something trivial, scant stuff to stake our democratic hopes on. But the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that defining “civility” is quite a bit more complicated; for what we tend to think of the first definition of civility (as “politeness, courtesy, or consideration”) there is offered only as the twelfth. If we want to be more precise, we might say that civility is a conversational virtue akin to politeness, courtesy or respect, but that it is distinguished by several peculiar features:

First, by “conversational virtue” I mean a virtuous standard of behaviour that is meant to govern how people speak to each other ― both in the substance of what they say and in the manner in which they say it. But right away, we can see that civility, unlike politeness or decorum, is meant to govern one kind of conversation in particular ― that is, how we disagree. As the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes pointed out, there is a reason that “disagreeable” is a synonym for “unpleasant”; as he put it in his 1642 work De Cive: “the mere act of disagreement is offensive”, because “not to agree with someone on an issue is tacitly to accuse him of error … just as to dissent from him in a large number of points is tantamount to calling him a fool.”

But if disagreement itself is difficult, the conversational virtue of civility is salient to one kind of disagreement in particular ― namely, those in which the issues at stake are those we consider somehow “fundamental” to our worldviews, as well as to our personal and social identities. These would include questions of religion, politics, culture or identity that go straight to the heart of how we see the world, and each other. One simply does not discuss religion or politics at the dinner table because these are the commitments that people really disagree about, and those disagreements become heated and hateful because we define ourselves and our opponents in the controversy. These disagreements of believing and belonging feel particularly fraught ― but civility holds out the hope that they are not only possible, but they can also be productive.

The role of civility in regulating conversational conflict brings us to its second peculiar feature. In contrast with other conversational virtues like politeness, respect or deference, civility is distinguished by its minimal character, and occasionally negative overtones, as a low bar often grudgingly met. So, when we call for “more civility” from our opponents, we have something less than deference or respect in mind. As a conversational virtue, civility is at home in the uneasy relations between ex-spouses and bad neighbours, as well as between members of the other party or religious sect. That’s why I call this virtue “mere civility” ― though, unlike many virtues, it operates not as a ceiling, but as a floor, and woe betide those who fall below it!

This brings me to civility’s third distinctive feature: its agents or subjects. Consider civility’s many cognates ― words like “civic”, “civilian”, “civilisation”, and “citizen”. All of these are derived, like civility itself, ultimately from the Latin civitas, meaning the body of citizens, or state. This suggests that civility doesn’t govern disagreement between just anyone, but that it’s proper practitioners are those who stand in a particular relation to one another, as those who live together as members of the same civil society or state.

Taking these three features together, we might define civility as follows: It is the conversational virtue expected from all members of a civil society as such, meant to regulate the fundamental disagreements between them.

And this explains why, despite the widespread assumption that “civility” is just a synonym for politeness, being labelled as “uncivil” is clearly so much worse than being called “impolite”. It is a signal to the recipient that she is somehow “beyond the pale” of our society; it indicates that she is intolerable in a way plain rudeness is not. Interestingly, however, treating her uncivilly has the same exclusionary effect. Uncivil treatment is, after all, not just an unpleasant experience for those on the receiving end ― like calling someone “uncivil”, treating them uncivilly is an indication that the disagreement is over, no further conversation is possible. It’s tantamount to taking one’s ball and going home, and perhaps hitting them in the face with it on the way out.

Here the close conceptual connection between civility and tolerance comes into view. In modern liberal democracies ― societies that aspire to be tolerant societies, as well as civil ones ― we see civility as essential because it enables us not only to differ, but also to disagree and to live together with others despite the disagreeableness of our fundamental disagreements. In such societies, mere civility is a sign that we are willing to tolerate others, no matter how much we might dislike them or their contrary commitments. It gets us in the room and talking despite our differences, and keeps us there during our disagreements about the things that matter most.

But on the flipside of every civil disagreement is the spectre of suppression or exclusion: the suspicion that those who fail to meet the bar of even mere civility are unequal to the task of toleration and thus have no place in a tolerant society ― they are intolerable themselves.

Civility and its discontents

The conceptual complexity of civility that I’ve outlined thus far is a fitting reflection of an equally complex history. Which of its etymologies modern commentators choose to highlight often depends on where they stand on whether civility is or is not a virtue.

Civility’s boosters tend to emphasise its classical roots, in the Latin civilitas as an ancient ideal of “good government” and civic virtue. Its critics, by contrast, prefer to highlight the exclusionary potential of these ideals, and how they became handmaidens of colonialism and empire. So, in 1755, Samuel Johnson defined civility as “freedom from barbarity; the state of being civilized.” And as a synonym for “civilisation”, ideals of civility worked to justify the displacement and oppression of so-called “savage” and “barbarous” peoples in the European conquest of the New (and then “the known”) World for centuries.

This history suggests that the critics are right to be suspicious, and that civility was, is, and will remain part and parcel of a civilising discourse. Still, I want to suggest that the origins of our modern concept of civility, with all of its peculiar features, lie not in the eighteenth, but in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in the aftermath of the Reformation and the long controversies over religious toleration that it inspired.

As this alternative history reminds us, not all civilising discourses are created equal ― and whether in the seventeenth century or today, how one defines civility, and how one proposes it to enforce it, matters quite a lot.

“Civility doth but wash the outside …”

Arguably, the first modern crisis of civility was kicked off by none other than Martin Luther, self-made master of that recent revolution in communications technology: the printing press. When the Pope finally responded to Luther’s 95 theses, by declaring 41 of them to be heretical, Luther responded by calling the Pope “the Antichrist”. In The Murderer of Dresden (1531), Luther announced himself “unable to pray without at the same time cursing”:

If I am prompted to say “Hallowed be thy name”, I must add “Cursed, damned, and outraged be the name of papists and of all those who slander your name” … thus orally, every day and in my heart without intermission.

He concluded: “I am well convinced that God will hear our prayers.” The long-standing Protestant tradition of calling Catholics “papists” and “Anti-christians” (as followers of the papal antichrist) originated here.

The Catholics, of course, gave as good as they got with traditional labels like “heretic”, while experimenting with other insults ― including the term “Protestant” itself. When Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther in 1521, he bestowed upon Martin’s followers the insulting “denomination” Lutherans so that they might share in his punishment and shame.

When critics like the high-minded humanist Erasmus accused Luther of lowering the conversational tenor and violating the standard of civilitas, Luther retorted that the truth would always be offensive to those privileged by an unjust status quo: “You can’t turn the sword into a feather”, he wrote, “and the Word of God is a sword.” As he helpfully reminded his followers: the Greek term euangel could also mean “a shout”.

Many of the self-described “evangelical” Christians who emerged in the ensuing years took Luther’s advice to heart, often to his chagrin. One particularly striking example in seventeenth-century England were the early Quakers, who experimented with many different forms of “enthusiastic” evangelism deliberately offensive to social mores. To those familiar with today’s pacifist Society of Friends, this may come as a shock. But the early Quakers were a rambunctious bunch ― known, among other things, for taking off their clothes in public “for a sign” and disrupting Anglican church services by banging pots and pans and demanding to know “by what authority” the minister preached. In one case, a Quaker man reportedly took off his pants and lay down on the communion table.

The Quakers and other sectarians coupled their “free speech fundamentalism” with a principled critique of civility itself. Like Luther and other Puritan dissenters within the Church of England, the Quakers argued that a truly evangelical Christian had a duty to offend the sensibilities of those invested in a corrupt status quo. To these critics, conversational virtue was cover for hypocrisy: “Civility doth but wash the outside, the inwards must be washed … A sow may be washed, yet a sow still.” It was thus as far from true spiritual virtue as “strewing flowers on a dead corpse”. By contrast, the spirit of protest at the heart of Protestantism demanded conscientious incivility in the form of disruptive witness against the powers that happened to be. Little wonder, then, that: “The civil person hath an aching tooth at religion; his heart riseth against holiness … [and] hath a secret antipathy against the ways of God.”

The growing impression that the prosecution of incivility was just another way to persecute dissent in the seventeenth century was confirmed by the popularity of adverbial redefinitions of heresy ― that is, definitions that focused, not on the matter of doctrinal heterodoxy, but the manner in which a religious opinion was held, or held forth, whether “factiously”, “obstinately” or “pertinaciously adhered to”.

The witness of Roger Williams

Today, we tend to think of religious toleration as the “obvious” solution to this problem, but this history reminds us of just how not obvious this solution was, either in theory or in practice. From the perspective of the participants, persecution of the tongue by uncivil evangelicals was just as pressing a danger as persecution by sword or stake ― and toleration seemed a certain way to make the wars of words worse by bringing evangelists into closer contact and encouraging them to compete.

Thus by the mid-seventeenth century, the consensus among many English dissenters ― much like civility’s modern critics ― was that civility was the latest watchword of the would-be persecutor, nothing more. And this, in turn, confirmed the impression of those, like Thomas Hobbes, on the opposing side: all seemed to agree that a civil society could not now and could never be a tolerant one, because the permission of religious differences would lead inevitably to uncivil evangelical disagreement, mutual offense, and, from there by degrees, into the secular hell of civil war.

But lucky for us, a few dissenters dared to challenge this consensus and think differently. And even though he shared his fellows’ suspicion of civility, one dissenter in particular floated the frankly ridiculous notion that unmurderous coexistence in a tolerant society might be possible, after all, and that mere civility might hold the key. That man, of course, was Roger Williams. And to get a sense of just how unlikely a defender of civility he was, one has to understand a little of where he came from.

Like most Puritans, Roger Williams left England in the 1630s not just to flee the rising tide of persecution within the Church of England, but because he had had enough of living in a society of people he considered to be sinners and wanted to live in a society of “saints”. Inspired by John Winthrop, Williams hoped that Boston might become a perfectly just and virtuous “city on a hill”, in which the righteous could live among the like-minded as models of Christian charity far apart from ― and above ― the “damned”.

But Williams was soon disappointed. Before he even arrived, he began to see the “unchristian Christians” of New England as hypocrites, who ostentatiously condemned and “cried out against the sins of others” while living on land they had stolen from the Native Americans. This was not Williams’s only offensive opinion, however. In addition to floating the suggestion that women should wear veils in public (in keeping with St. Paul’s counsel in Corinthians), he preached against the sinfulness of swearing civil oaths and was apparently caught defacing an English flag by cutting out the cross of St. George ― as a sinful combination and conflation of civil and religious power, and a violation of the necessary “wall of separation” between church and state.

All of which is to say that Williams was, in effect, too puritan for his fellow Puritans! Which perhaps explains why he soon left Boston for Salem (later famous for its witch trials, and which he found decidedly more congenial).

But in addition to what we might call his strong views, it’s important to remember that, as an evangelical Christian, Williams also saw it as his duty to witness tirelessly (and “vehemently”) to his fellow New English and the Native Americans, too, against what he saw as their spiritual errors. And he was at this for years, before his fellow Puritans finally decided to banish him for his incivility. This should remind us of an important fact that the modern revivers of Williams are often all too willing to forget: Roger Williams could be obnoxious. After all, even he conceded that his banishment from Massachusetts had had something to do with his “constant admonishing of them” in their “unclean walking”.

Like Luther, Williams was a virtuoso of what we today might describe as “hate speech”: although he would later propose to tolerate them, he never called Catholics “Catholics”, but always “Anti-christians” or “Papists”. And as for the Americans, while some recent commentators have been tempted to romanticise Williams as America’s forgotten “First Founder” and a modern multiculturalist avant la lettre, it was more than “a respectful curiosity about the varieties of humanity” that led him to “lodge with [the Naragansett] in their filthy, Smoakie holes [and] gaine their Toung!” He went there because he wanted to convert them, and he made it very clear to them and to others that he viewed their religion as devil worship and abhorred most of their “barbarous” customs.

Still, Williams was emphatic: that there was more civility to be found among these American “barbarians” than the “unchristian christians” of New England, and he would later plead for religious toleration on their behalf to Parliament itself.

And this experience perhaps explains why Williams, unlike other dissenters, never rejected civility itself, but took a different tack. Sheltered by the Narragansett, he became convinced that even those who disagreed on the fundamentals of faith and were mutually intolerant of each other’s errors could still share a common life. He had, after all, learned the hard way that “one must goe out of the world” if one would “not keep civill converse with Idolaters”. Still, he insisted, that if “Men keep but the Bond of Civility”, they might live together, despite their many “spirituall oppositions”.

It should be clear by now that by “civil” Williams clearly did not mean polite. As a tireless and often obnoxious evangelist, he knew from experience just how uncivil this seemed to those on the receiving end. Yet unlike Luther, Williams refused to reserve the right to be offensive to the righteous alone. Civility, like religious truth, he insisted, was in the eye of the beholder:

That our selves and all men are apt and prone to differ … that either part or partie is most right in his owne eye, his Cause Right his Car[r]iage Right, his Argum[en]ts Right his Answeres Right [is] no new Thing in all former Ages [or] in all parts of this World …

It should be pointed out that, as a good Protestant, Williams also believed that the truth would always be particularly offensive to those privileged by an unjust status quo:

When a kingdome or state, towne or family, lyes and lives in the guilt of false God … no wonder if sore eyes be troubled at the appearance of the light … [or] if persons sleepy loving to sleepe be troubled at the noise of shrill (though silver) alarums.

But rather than rejecting conversational virtue, for Williams this meant simply that civility could not be a matter of policing others’ speech or avoiding controversial topics. Rather, mere civility must begin at home, with the willingness to hold one’s nose and remain present to one’s opponents, no matter how intolerable (or, indeed, deplorable) one found their views, and to talk about their errors to them ― that is, to their faces, and not behind their backs with one’s like-minded friends ― and to do so ideally until the deplorables recognise that you, not they, were in the right.

And so, when the Narragansett sachim, Canonicus, granted Williams the land that would become Providence, he decided to put his controversial ideas about civility and tolerance to the test. Even then, however, it’s not clear that Williams intended to found a society, let alone a tolerant one. The founding of Rhode Island seems to have been an accident. Williams did not set out to lead, but he was certainly followed by fellow exiles and trouble-makers like Anne Hutchinson and Samuel Gorton, who were just as obnoxious as he was and who joined his plantation ― much to his chagrin.

To say that the success of Williams’s “livelie experiment” in “Rogues Island” (as its critics called it) was not a foregone conclusion, then, is an understatement. The self-styled saints next door complained that Williams’s colony had become the “latrine” of New England, and a “receptacle” for all sorts of riff-raff.

But apart from the normal challenges of life among evangelicals on the colonial frontier, what was truly exceptional about Rhode Island was not just the absence of an established church, but that Rhode Island welcomed Protestants of all stripes, Jews, Muslims, American “pagans” and even Catholic “Anti-christians” to live together on terms of equal liberty ― including the liberty to proselytise. In Williams’s colony, as long as one was willing to fight for their faith with words, not swords, no one was beyond the pale.

Indeed, only one group ever to seriously test the limits of Williams’s toleration was ― guess who? That’s right: the Quakers. When Quakers began flocking to Rhode Island in the 1650s, Williams was terrified that they would prove the critics right ― that toleration was, indeed, a recipe for disorder and civil strife. But Williams’s main objection was, perhaps surprisingly, to what he saw as the intolerance implicit in Quaker incivility. That their religion led:

To a sudden cutting off of People, yea of Kings … opposing them … [and to] as fiery Persecutions for matters of Religion and Conscience, as hath been or can be practiced by any Hunters or Persecutors in the world.

Given that Quakers would soon be put to death by the colony of Massachusetts, this may sound a bit rich, but Williams insisted that evidence of Quaker intolerance could be found in their uncivil habit of falling into silent prayer whenever someone tried to disagree with them, and so shutting down the conversation.

But thankfully for the Quakers, and for us, Williams also knew that the surest way to convince someone of the righteousness of their wrong and intolerant views was to subject them to persecution. And so, instead, he did the merely civil thing: he challenged several leading Quakers to a public debate, and spent three days trying to convince them they were wrong. Even though Williams was so old and ill he had to be carried into the venue on his sickbed, still he continued to practice what he preached.

Forget the Founding Fathers ― the United States’ peculiar tradition of free speech fundamentalism started here, in Rhode Island. It may not have been the multicultural idyll imagined by some secular liberals. Still, for over a century “Rogues Island” was the most tolerant society the world had ever seen.

And Roger Williams accomplished this by challenging what John Locke would present fifty years later as obvious, or Jean-Jacques Rousseau who declared it impossible “to live in peace with those one regards as damned”. And whereas Locke ― who is celebrated to this day as the “father” of liberal toleration ― excluded Catholics and atheists from toleration, due to their “intolerance”, Williams included both in Rhode Island, and many more besides. Because unlike Locke and Rousseau, Williams regarded living on terms of equal liberty in a tolerant society with “damned” was not impossible ― it was precisely the point. For, as Williams knew from experience, a tolerant society cannot pick and choose its materials and remain tolerant for long.

“Mere civility” must thus serve as a tool of uncomfortable inclusion in a tolerant society ― a society grounded, in turn, in a radical and, frankly, unreasonable faith in the possibility of a common life and shared future with those people we now and will continue to hate.

Two cheers for “mere civility”

This forgotten history should, at the very least, pose a serious challenge to our modern assumptions about what a tolerant, and civil, society should look like today. The tolerant society Williams founded accidentally when his own incivility finally saw him exiled from Massachusetts would never have worked in theory, and yet it worked in practice. This suggests that we should be careful when we repeat conclusions that seem familiar or obvious to us ― conclusions like that of Locke, that of course the intolerant have no place in civil life.

But I also want to go further and suggest that today’s ongoing crises of tolerance and civility show that we still have a lot to learn from Roger Williams ― especially those today who are, like the early Quakers, tempted or prepared to give up on civil disagreement because they fear the soul of the nation is at stake.

These critics are right: a civil society is not necessarily a just one. One should certainly not exaggerate the democratic or egalitarian implications of even mere civility: the norms of civility do indeed work to maintain the status quo, by making and maintaining hierarchies through the ineluctable element of suppression or exclusion. This is as true now as it was in the seventeenth century.

Still, Williams’s understanding of mere civility holds out the hope that the members of a tolerant society might be able to work to make their society more just together, despite their deep disagreements and mutual dislike. Mere civility, on Williams’s model, is thus no obstacle to crying out against injustice, or calling out our opponents’ sins, or their intolerance. But it does demand that we do so without denying or destroying the possibility of a common life tomorrow with the people we believe to be standing in our way today.

So what does mere civility demand of us? That we remain committed to talking and disagreeing — and not to pull our punches, although we may not land them all at once. This also suggests that if you’re talking about civility as a way to avoid having a difficult disagreement, you’re doing it wrong.

Mere civility reminds us that the temptation to achieve a tolerant society through exclusion ― by pushing those we sincerely believe to be “uncivil”, beyond the pale ― is constant. We need to be careful that we are not more concerned to avoid the disagreeableness of disagreement in favour of the more agreeable company of the like-minded, and that we’re not trying to isolate ourselves in the more congenial society of saints covertly ― whether on social media or in everyday life.

As Roger Williams knew well, unmurderous coexistence with the intolerant infidel next door is no picnic, but neither is the society of saints. Infidels, after all, are people, too. So are the intolerant. Continued engagement with them on terms of mere civility may be all we can hope for. Still, it is no less important and miraculous for that. And so I say two cheers for mere civility. We’ll miss it when it’s gone.

Teresa M. Bejan is Professor of Political Theory and a Fellow of Oriel College at the University of Oxford. She is the author of Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration.

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