Many say that civility is quite important. But the standard argument for it rests on shaky foundations. To begin with, it is not clear how we can rely on a settled store of past courtesies to save us when there is in fact no period in the past when civility was fully established and secure from challenge.
It is true that many people today feel that civility has vanished, and true that the cause can be traced to contemporary factors like political polarization and the rise of the internet. Yet it is also true, as historians of civility have noted, that generations of Americans have felt threatened by escalating incivility and they had no trouble finding causes in their own time. At different points during the twentieth century, Americans chalked up the deterioration of public conduct to jazz music, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, rock and roll, and the large-scale entry of women into the workforce. Nineteenth-century Americans blamed the Civil War, new immigrants, urban life, the vulgar rich, and the insolent poor. Talk of social crisis and fear of coarsening relations were also easy to find in the eighteenth century. James Madison along with many of our Founders complained about the truculence and crass materialism produced by the grasping, interest-ridden politics in the states. Given such a long history of rudeness, why should we believe that people are capable of getting along now?
In addition to this question of capacity there is also a question of motivation. The standard argument for civility begins with the assumption that our current ways of interacting are obviously dysfunctional and in need of repair. Yet instead of stipulating that we have failed, one could argue that our contentious public culture is a genuine accomplishment that we should wish to preserve.
For much of the modern era the courts have broadly interpreted the guarantees of the First Amendment. The result, as the Supreme Court noted in its landmark decision New York Times v. Sullivan, is that our public discussion has intentionally been kept “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” Caustic critique, furious rants, and outright lies go largely unchecked by the Constitution to ensure that the greatest possible diversity of claims floods into the public sphere. Some views may seem too abrasive and offensive to endure. But as Justice Holmes observed almost one hundred years ago, “when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe, even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct, that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas—that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.” Nor does the value of untrammeled opinion stop with the discovery of truth and the exposure of injustice. Liberty of expression also allows for expansive breadth of thought and an extraordinary range for self-definition. Both of these things are very valuable. Indeed, according to Justice Brandeis, the development of conditions necessary to “make men free to develop their faculties” is nothing less than the final goal of government.
In short, our free speech society provides many advantages and in return asks only that we speak our minds and have thick skins. Why should we seek a more genteel means of managing our behavior?
The question of whether we are able to be civil, as well as the question of why we should want to be civil, can be answered by examining how civility works. The following pages are devoted to such an examination. As we shall see, there is substantial disagreement over what should count as civil behavior; strong criticism of civility’s repressive regimentation; and serious concern about civility’s authenticity. These disagreements and criticisms are themselves tied to underlying conditions, including the heterogeneity and dynamism of American society, a robust tradition of free expression, and our frequent inability to live up to our collective ideals.
Although my examination will turn up reasons to doubt civility and to worry about the endless proliferation of conflict, I will argue that the deeper, incongruous truth is that civility’s strengths are ultimately in its weaknesses. The very features that make civility ineffective and undesirable also account for civility’s power and appeal. Can we all get along? If we live by the paradoxes on which civility depends then yes, we can, and yes, we should.