DURING HIS SPEECH at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, President Barack Obama brought the crowd to its feet by proclaiming, “America is already great.” That direct if not especially elegant counter to Donald Trump’s campaign slogan — “Make America Great Again” — captured what many people saw as the difference between the Republican and Democratic campaigns. Trump appealed to voters who believe the republic is in decline and that the United States’s best days are in its past. Hillary Clinton was the candidate of self-styled “progressives,” people who feel positive or at least hopeful about the general direction of the country.
So the story goes. But this story is not entirely true, as Teresa Bejan reminds us in Mere Civility. Left-wingers have their own nostalgic lament for American politics, their own declinist narrative about the republic, and their own wish to make America great again. Even before Clinton was retweeting Obama’s claim that “civility is on the ballot,” and before Trump’s candidacy was a glimmer in his eye, public intellectuals and public figures on the left were mourning a loss of civility in American life and arguing for the imperative of its recovery. (Bejan starts her book by quoting Obama’s 2010 speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, a speech in which he declares that “we need to find our way back to civility.”)
The grounds of that lament are familiar. Political polarization means that elected officials are loath to work across the aisle. They prefer demonizing each other to finding shared ground. Rather than believe that good people can disagree on an issue, Americans increasingly seem to believe that people who disagree with them are bad or even evil. Digital and mobile technologies have eroded civil discourse; what psychologists call the “online disinhibition effect” has been popularized as the “Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory”: the theory that a perfectly nice human being, when given online anonymity, becomes a sociopathic jerk. Trolls and cyberstalkers abound, and few of us can bear to read the comments section of any website. In schools, bullying seems to have become a national epidemic.
Bejan does not deny that all of those things are true. But she does deny, rightly, the conventional wisdom that the level of incivility in contemporary American politics is unprecedented. Mere Civility is centered in the years after the Reformation, when the emergence of myriad Protestant sects splintered communities across Western Europe. That splintering was magnified, just as in our own time, by the explosion of a new means of communication — the printing press — which allowed people who had never before had a public voice to spread their ideas far and wide. Invectives and broadsides were the order of the day, as members of different religious denominations fought for each other’s souls, and incivility became a central concern of political thought.
I doubt that for most readers of Mere Civility, this account of social disarray in the Reformation years is a huge surprise. But by keeping a tight focus on the concept of civility, Bejan manages to make that old story feel new — or at least to draw new lessons from it, lessons that are particularly interesting within the context of contemporary political theory.
Take the way in which Bejan’s recovery of that uncivil era challenges the yearning for lost civility that is a commonplace of the chattering class. By revealing that there is little historical basis to justify such a yearning, Bejan exposes that yearning to be more romantic than rational. It is not grounded in deep knowledge of the history of modern liberalism, particularly in the early modern period when questions of civility were at the fore. It is grounded mostly in wishful thinking.
So today, when public intellectuals — political theorists foremost among them — make calls to restore or strengthen civility, their wistfulness clouds out wisdom. They aim at a standard that is more aspirational than actual, imagining civility to augur a society flourishing with mutual respect, empathy, fellow-feeling, open-mindedness, peace, love, rainbows, unicorns, and kumbayas (or at least some of those). Scholars as distinct as Martha Nussbaum, John Rawls, and Jeremy Waldron all imagine civility as the key to social harmony and imbue it with almost celestial importance.
As appealing as those visions of social harmony are, though, Bejan reminds us that they neglect key facts of human psychology. We humans are partial creatures, and we invariably disagree about important matters. When we encounter people with whom we differ about those important matters, we get frustrated with them. We disrespect them. We feel contempt for them. We try to ignore them. At best, we somewhat clunkily navigate through our disagreements. Even if we have deep and abiding love for someone, we can become unhinged with rage when that someone sees important issues differently — a phenomenon Americans confront every year when trying to figure out how to survive Thanksgiving dinner with relatives whose political positions are anathema. You can call it a success if nobody gets stabbed with a carving knife; you’re courting disappointment if you wish for much more.
Civility, therefore, should not be grounded in the unrealistic wish for fundamental human concord, but has to have its roots in what Bejan calls “the messy real word of unmurderous coexistence between individuals divided on the fundamentals and mutually disdainful of others’ contrary commitments.”
In other words, against the contemporary wish for more civility, Bejan would have us aspire to mere civility.
She takes this term from Roger Williams, the political and religious leader who, having been kicked out of Massachusetts by the Puritans, founded the Providence Plantation — what would eventually become Rhode Island — in the service of spiritual freedom. For Williams, the question of how you maintain some amount of order in a society where there are deep and enduring differences was an immediate and practical one. He did not imagine that profound mutual respect was going to emerge under such conditions. To the contrary: He knew that when faced with deep and enduring differences, people were going to want to yell at each other. Williams himself wanted to do that; he was an evangelist who never tired of telling others how damnable their beliefs were. His mere civility was a means by which people could be true to their own partiality within the context of a functioning society. Williams did not think that civility required deep respect for the inner lives of other individuals, just a minimal respect for social order. Bejan describes Williams’s thought this way: “While we are stuck in the same boat with people we hate, we had better learn to make the most of it. There is no reason, however, to think that this will make us respect or like each other more. It is usually the opposite.”
When compared with Williams, contemporary political theorists look pretty darn naïve, or at least pretty darn removed from real politics. Bejan becomes her most passionate self on this point, almost jumping off the page in italics. “In equating civility with mutual respect, theorists necessarily move the discussion to an aspirational realm of ideal theory in which the kinds of problems civility is needed to address do not even arise,” she writes. These are “scholars we might hope would know better and be able to offer something more precise. It seems reasonable to expect theorists to understand reality, first, before moralizing about how to change it.”
One of the subtle but important undertones of Bejan’s argument is the idea that many contemporary intellectuals are blinded by a secularism that is best (if somewhat strangely) described as holier-than-thou. They fail to learn from debates among early moderns because those debates were couched in religious terms; they quickly assume that the debates have little to offer us in this more “enlightened” time. To paraphrase Bejan, they assume that religion was the problem (or that religion is the problem), when really people are the problem. We humans may have achieved many things in the last 500 years, but we have not transcended ourselves.
Contemporary intellectuals too readily forget their own partiality, which means that their demanding conceptions of civility often end up imposing very specific definitions of “civil” and “uncivil” that exclude and stigmatize others. They thus often aggravate the problems they were meant to solve.
Mere Civility rests on lower but sturdier ground. It does not purport to solve the problems of incivility, but it unknots them, making the nature of the problems — both in general and in this time of numbing nostalgia — more evident. Would that more of us might learn to look into the past with such gravity and humility. We might end up with a more (or mere) civil society, yet.
Susan McWilliams is an associate professor of Politics at Pomona College in Claremont, California. She is the author of Traveling Back: Toward a Global Political Theory (Oxford, 2014) and an editor of several books, most recently A Political Companion to James Baldwin (Kentucky, forthcoming).