Civility in Modern Discourse: A Brief Reflection

In the foreword to her book Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman offers what at first blush feels like an out-of-place observation: Evils like domestic violence or child sexual assault persist because people are too polite to confront it. Thus, witnesses’ eyes avert and people adopt a not-my-business demeanor to rationalize their lack of courage to stand up for the helpless.

In a book about complex post-traumatic stress disorder, an introduction about evil — and how civility enables evil — represents a curious rhetorical strategy. Yet it fits. Stories abound about how no one intervened to help a battered wife or molested kid, but after the news became public friends and neighbors said there was something they coudn’t quite pin down that felt amiss.

Yeah. That something was their own moral cowardice, conveniently obscured under the color of civility.

Civility as a civic virtue has taken something of an odd turn in the last half-century. Whereas once it represented the mutual respect of citizens and the observance of polite manners, now it’s morphing into something less coherent. Consider:

  1. The new civility says we shouldn’t judge others, for anything, at any time. If you disapprove of the behavior of another, you’re socially obligated to keep your own counsel, even when you believe that the other person’s behavior is wrong or harmful. Civility and nonjudgmentalism are becoming increasingly synonymous.
  2. Civility applies only to people within the in-crowd. Social demonstration that you’re not in the in-crowd means you’re no longer worthy of civil treatment. This strategy of moral isolationism is particularly effective on the Left; if you don’t support certain policy goals like “marriage equality” or “environmental protection” then you’re not just wrong, you’re outside the scope of respectability and may therefore be treated cruelly, dismissively or unfairly as punishment for holding a contrary opinion. In a sense, civility is the social mark of tribalism: You extend it to fellow travelers and withhold it from the tribe’s enemies.
  3. Civility has become something of a scare word for political moderates, who seem to think “civility” requires everyone to accept half a loaf for comity’s sake. A good No Labels kind of moderate would look at an NRA member and a Brady Campaign member and decide that virtue meant banning only half the country’s guns. Perhaps those with an odd-numbered serial number. Whether the half-a-loaf strategy is even coherent never seems to matter; what matters is that the Civil Moderate gets to feel smug for playing a modern-day King Solomon.

The ties that bind us in community have been fraying for a long time. The idea that neighbors have a responsibility for each other, or that everyone deserves to be treated decently even when you disagree, seem to be derogating in favor of a civility-as-nonjudgmentalism that undermines the power of public expectation to maintain public morals.

Once upon a time, if a man backhanded his wife in public, everyone would know and he’d either have to reform or be ostracized. Now, people simply avert their gaze when they witness domestic violence — or at the least, decide it’s solely a police matter.

Thus does the new civility undermine the old community.