What Civility Isn’t

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

In ordinary contexts, one is said to be civil when one maintains a soft tone and calm manner in the face of opposition. It is consequently seen as uncivil to be uncompromising, trenchant, and exercised in debate. Civility, it seems, is the requirement that disputants adopt a stance towards one another that minimizes the escalation of hostility. The thought is that disagreement tends to be most productive when enacted in cooler temperatures.

Civility in this ordinary sense of the term is something to be commended. When disputes become needlessly heated, they fly off the rails. And when disputes escalate in this way, the problems and questions over which people divide go unaddressed. Incivility leads either to standstills or to circumstances where one side simply imposes its will on the other. Neither makes for healthy relations.

However, when it comes to political disagreements among democratic citizens, ordinary civility presents a puzzle. Although democracy is commonly associated with its most familiar institutional mechanisms such as elections, voting, campaigns, representative offices, and so on, these draw their justification from the deeper moral ideal that democracy serves. This ideal is self-government among social equals. In other words, democracy is the moral proposal that a relatively stable and just political order is possible in the absence of rulers, lords, and bosses. To be sure, all politics involves the exercise of coercive power; however, in sharing political power as equals, democratic citizens are never simply subjected to force. In a democracy, political power is both constrained by constitutional provisions that protect individual rights and accountable to those over whom it is exercised.

At any rate, that’s the ideal of democracy. It goes without saying that real democracies fall far short. Hence the question arises of whether any existing political order is truly democratic.

Notice, however, that even in an ideal democracy, persistent political disagreement is inexorable. Here’s why. One aspect of political equality is that no citizen is required to surrender their judgment to the say-so of others. As social equals, democratic citizens are entitled to make up their own minds about important political matters. As John Rawls famously observed, ongoing political disagreement is itself a consequence of political equality. What’s more, in a society of democratic equals, there will persist a wide spectrum of divergent political opinion among responsible citizens.

Here is where the puzzle regarding civility emerges. Political disagreements often engage competing ideas of fundamental social values such as liberty, dignity, autonomy, justice, and integrity. When citizens are divided over matter that invoke their different conceptions of these values, it is natural to expect their disagreements to provoke passions. After all, political disagreements are disputes about our shared lives and how coercive power will be exercised among equals; such disagreements matter. Accordingly, political disputants often cannot regard their opponents as merely having a different view of the matter under dispute – they must see the opposition as being on the wrong side of the dispute. To regard one’s opposition as being on the wrong side of an important political dispute is to regard them as being on the side of injustice. Thus, heated tones, raised voices, and spicy language – not to mention a measure of frustration, impatience, and resentment – are precisely what should be expected in many democratic disagreements.

This gives an indication of what civility – now understood in the explicitly in the context of political disputation – cannot be. If civility is a duty of democratic citizenship, it must be consistent with fervent and exercised argumentation. In other words, political civility cannot require citizens to adopt a calm, reserved, concessive, and cooperative posture. Whatever the duty of civility is for democratic citizens, it must allow for real disagreement. Thus, calls for civility in politics that insist upon only serene and coolly detached interaction are misguided. In fact, in the political context, ordinary civility often serves to advantage the status quo by unduly burdening the expression of new and unfamiliar ideas. Thus, political civility must be different from ordinary civility.

This prompts the question of what, precisely, political civility is. Our view is that the it is among the duties of democratic citizenship to engage one’s political opposition in argument. This means that citizens must not only express their views and provide their reasons; they need to address objections and criticisms while also engaging critically with the positive proposals of their opponents.

But there’s the rub. As we have noted previously in this column, proper argumentative engagement is easily mimicked. A familiar kind of pseudo-interaction with opponents now prevails in democracy: one pantomimes argument with an interlocutor while in fact using him or her only as a prop in a performance addressed to sympathetic members of an onlooking audience and designed to score points with them. We have elsewhere called these tactics dialectical fallacies. These are ways of seeming to address one’s critics while in fact only preaching to one’s own choir.

Return to the ideal of democracy as self-government among equals. Vigorous political disagreement is central to democracy precisely because political decision always involves the exercise of coercive power over our fellow equal citizens. The only way such exercises of power can be consistent with political equality is that they are guided by competent reasoning and authentic argumentative engagement among the citizenry. The duty of civility, as we see it, is fundamentally the duty to actually address one’s interlocutors in political argument – to attend to what they actually say, to respond to their actual questions and objections, to offer criticisms of their views that one sincerely expects them to recognize the force of, and so on. Understood in this way, political civility is consistent with certain modes of ordinary incivility: heated tones, defiant language, various forms of refusal and resistance, and a good deal of negative affect. Again, these are what one should expect when citizens, in full acknowledgement of their political equality, engage over important matters.

This conception of political civility also helps to identify a site of overlap between political and ordinary civility. In political disputation, lapses of ordinary civility can signal failures of political civility. Especially pugilistic argumentation is often (though not always) a symptom of a failure to sincerely attend to one’s interlocutors’ ideas, and dialectical heat can signal sheer frustration at the fact that one’s critics won’t simply roll over. The crucial task is to keep the two ideals of civility distinct.