Can We Ever Be Civil Again?

My father was a pastor for most of my life. For more than 20 years he served two different churches as the lone elder. Being a pastor’s kid, positioned so closely to the day-in, day-out workings of a church, can give you a unique perspective on the inner life of an institution. The local church, with its relationships tied tightly into a community’s rituals and practices, lay bare the tender and flammable nature of membership in a way most other public activities can’t. A coworker’s drug-addicted teenage son doesn’t factor into your professional relationship nearly as much as it does if that person is a fellow church member. Your physician’s decision to get a divorce means nothing for the yearly physical, but if she’s the pastor’s secretary, it means late-night phone calls, angry words, and years of taking the blame for why she decided to leave the church.

Belonging to a church for more than 10 years affords an opportunity that is scarce in contemporary American life: an opportunity to form and watch truly “thick” social ties. In fact, the local church is arguably one of the few public institutions where thick social ties can be seen. As countless cultural critics have observed, ours is an age of atomization, splintering, and hyper-individualism. We’re “lonely together” while we “bowl alone” in a “fractured republic.” 

Most observers agree that these trends are troubling. What is less clear is how to reverse them. Some insist we roll back technology, both personally and legally. Others say we need to use politics to create more “social capital” for all. Interestingly, many of these writers lament hyper-individualism and extol the virtues of communitarianism in such a way that it is utterly baffling why anyone would choose the former. Seemingly everyone agrees that thick communal ties are better than a Facebook feed. So a good question might be: How did we get to this point? If the case for interpersonal relationships and institutional belonging is so obvious, why did we ever abandon it? 

One possibility, I would submit, is that we’ve given up on something fundamental to genuine membership: civility. What if digital technologies and upward mobility have displaced and isolated us because we find their moral demands on our relationships much easier than the demands of true civility? What if the path to a more humane, more real, and spiritually healthier culture is the path toward self-denying, other-preferring practices of Christian civility? 

Is Civility a Trick?

It’s been troubling to me to witness the spectacle of journalists on social media announcing that “civility” is a deceptive moral equivocation that no one should bother trying. Denigrating civility is the new intellectual fashion, evidenced both by its growing chorus of critics and also by an increasingly uncivil political culture. Civility, some suggest, is just a way for powerful people to preserve the status quo. Those babbling about “civility” are really tone-policing, while using terms like “respect” and “free inquiry” to hold onto power or a comfortable status quo. Thus (the argument goes) we don’t need civility; we need people brave enough to do the moral thing, and brave enough to damn anyone who questions how they do it. 

What if digital technologies and upward mobility have displaced and isolated us because we find their moral demands on our relationships much easier than the demands of true civility?

The sharpest critics of civility say far more than they intend. The idea—that how you treat others is immaterial, in your moral quest for righteousness—drips with privilege. The only kind of people who can afford to go through life without civil norms of discourse are those who can structure their lives so as to not require meaningful interaction with anyone—in other words, the already wealthy or powerful. Meaningful civic life requires self-sacrificial respect and deference, because by definition it exposes members in vulnerable ways; and the deeper the social ties, the more vulnerable the relationships. When writers and intellectuals yearn for a more meaningful American community while denigrating the things that fuel and empower it, it’s time to wonder whether we know what “community” actually means.

Why Civility Matters

A “thick” community means a public space in which, at least on some level, people know each other. In his recent book Three Pieces of Glass: Why We Feel Lonely in a World Mediated By Screens, Eric Jacobsen argues that many Americans’ feelings of loneliness and isolation are driven by their lack of civic belonging. Even folks with lots of Facebook friends report feeling alone and anonymous because their daily life doesn’t feature regular encounters with others who know them: an experience that fosters a sense of really belonging somewhere. You don’t need to be intimate friends with your barista or the bus driver, but the rhythm of learning the names of people in your daily routines, and growing in general familiarity with them, creates the sense of membership that thickens local community.

You can quickly understand how absurd anti-civility arguments are if you imagine what these kinds of relationships would look like without civility. You give the barista your coffee order; he responds by yelling in frustration that they are out and can someone give him a break. Or, reverse the roles: your barista tells you they’re out of your favorite order; you respond by insulting and berating him. Most of us can remember watching moments like this and the intense awkwardness we felt. Why? Because a lack of civility in daily life unsettles us, makes us feel unwelcome, and damages valuable relationships.

You can quickly understand how absurd anti-civility arguments are if you imagine what these kinds of relationships would look like without civility.

Certainly different public spaces call for different levels of intensity and seriousness. A coffee shop isn’t a political debate, and a bus driver isn’t an opposing city-council member. Civility doesn’t mean a milquetoast, customer-service countenance in every situation. But political or social activism doesn’t cancel the fundamental requirements of considerate, respectful behavior, simply for the fact that a democracy mediates its political process through social bodies—which civility preserves and a lack of civility rips apart.

Samuel James

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

%d bloggers like this: