How Civility Works
Keith J. Bybee


Contents and Abstracts
1 The Promise of Civility
chapter abstract

This chapter first outlines the standard argument for returning civility to American public life, and then raises key questions that any advocate of civility must confront. Given the long history of rudeness in the United States, why should we think that civility is possible? Given the strong American tradition of free speech, why should we want to be civil? Why not instead encourage people to speak their minds and to develop thick skins? The chapter concludes by suggesting that we can only understand how civility works if we learn to see that, paradoxically, civility's strengths are in its weaknesses.

2 Civility Defined
chapter abstract

This chapter defines civility as a form of good manners and as a code of public conduct. Civility is distinguished from other types of good manners, including politeness, courtesy, chivalry, and gallantry. The chapter then surveys the competition between different varieties of civility in the United States, dating from the ratification of the Constitution to the presidential election of 2016. The possibility of enforcing civil etiquette through law is considered. The chapter concludes by observing that the profusion of different beliefs about civility creates an environment in which common courtesies do not seem very common.

3 The Excellence of Free Expression
chapter abstract

This chapter examines the argument against civility's repressive use made by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. Contemporary examples of repressive civility in the context of AIDS activism, hip-hop music, and on-campus free speech are discussed. The chapter argues that even though civility can obstruct free speech, civility also underwrites free speech by creating an accessible, easily employed means of communicating good character and personal decency. The importance of civility as a means of communication is illustrated through discussion of Aristotle, Erasmus, table manners, and decorum in the United States Congress.

4 Are You Just Being Polite?
chapter abstract

This chapter begins by arguing that even though civility has the great virtue of giving people a method for publicizing their good character, civility also has a glaring vice: the messages that civility communicates can easily be faked. The disadvantages of hypocritically exploiting civility are detailed, and the possibility of controlling such hypocrisy by treating civility as a form of morality is discussed. The chapter then argues that the inauthenticity of civil behavior has the advantage of allowing flawed people appear to be better than they actually are. This positive use of hypocrisy is examined through discussion of Lord Chesterfield, Edmund Burke, Dale Carnegie, Judith Shklar, Ruth Grant, and Miss Manners.

5 Strength in Weakness
chapter abstract

This chapter summarizes how civility relies on a series of paradoxes. We feel civility's absence as a result of its abundance. We see civility as an impediment to free expression, and at the same time we demand civility to sustain the free exchange of ideas. We encounter civility as a bulwark of hierarchy and domination, and we also enlist civility to level social relations and promote inclusion. We condemn civility's inauthenticity, yet we depend on the many opportunities for hypocrisy that civility affords. The chapter concludes by arguing that the work of enacting better and more acceptable means of getting along requires us to embrace the paradoxes on which civility depends.