Which Civility do You Want?

In Western Europe, the 16th century Reformation and its long aftermath broke the Christian churches’ hope for concord in church and society, if by concord we mean peace based on unity grounded in religious belief and practice. While some leaders are hardheaded and have delusions of returning to a religious-based unity, Christian churches cannot claim, through doctrine and right worship, to provide the vinculum societatis, the bonds that hold society together in harmony. We can’t even keep unity or unbroken community in the visible body of Christ.

So, what ensures enough social glue, a sufficiently strong vinculum societatis, to hold a diverse society with unceasing disagreement together? This is an eternal problem for democracies. For several centuries, we’ve been trying something called civility. But what civility is and what civility requires are, themselves, matters of disagreement.

Before I expand on what civility might mean, here is a list of the strategies that have been used in modern societies to deal with social disagreement and conflict. One can find examples in the U.S. of all but maybe two just since the 1940s.

  • Conversation, dialogue, persuasion
  • Argument
  • Toleration
  • Legislative action
  • Court action
  • Executive order
  • Boycott
  • Comedy/satire
  • Jeremiad
  • Shame-inducing shunning, ghosting, canceling, marginalizing, silencing
  • Civil disobedience
  • Violent protest against property
  • Violent protest against persons
  • Forced conversion/re-education
  • Voluntary withdrawal/succession
  • Excommunication/expulsion
  • Extermination
  • Containment—camps, walls, reservations
  • Revolution

To which of these does civility apply? The first four. And as one reflects on those four, we might infer there is something very difficult about being civil, for change and conflict in U.S. society are not being addressed effectively through conversation, argument, toleration, or congressional deliberation.

So, when talking about civility, we mean just one, highly limited form of dealing with conflict.

The cover of the book Mere CivilityAfter reading Teresa Bejan’s brilliant book, Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration, I am pondering anew what civility in the U.S might mean, in theory and in practice.

Bejan holds up a 17th-18th century mirror for us. She examines the philosophical roots of civility as the vinculum societatis in post-Reformation Europe as according to the writings of Roger Williams, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke. To jump to her conclusion for a moment: Williams is the hero of her story, and Locke is the villain. In brief, this is her argument.

Thomas Hobbes—civility is keeping your silence in public when you disagree with your neighbors or the state; unity in public and with the sovereign is the social bond.

To avoid a war of each against all, persons give up some of their liberty to form a social compact, governed by a sovereign. Church and state are two sides of the same entity, both governed by the sovereign. The sovereign decides what and who is to be tolerated and what and who is not.

Among the public, citizens may disagree with their fellows privately. In public, they are to seek agreement or remain silent. For, to disagree is itself an offense, as one is claiming the other is in error.

“Difference without disagreement required complaisant individuals to voice only those things that united them, rather than using their cutting tongues to tear the members of the commonwealth apart. The sovereign, too, must discipline citizens’ civil worship and speech so as to realize the virtue of civil silence on a social scale.” (107)

John Locke—civility is tolerating differences in belief in order to build trust, for trust is the social bond.

Keep your fundamentals that must be believed few and large and your “things that really don’t matter fundamentally” many and small. Exercise mutual respect. Approach the table with love and charity. Argue in an honest, loving, sincere way and thereby strengthen the bonds of trust with each other even as we disagree. One must believe in “God, the Duty of Toleration, and the Golden Rule.” (138) Oh, and Catholics and non-Christians can’t be trusted.

For Hobbes, one might believe differently from one’s outward actions; keep your disagreement to yourself. For Locke, the inner beliefs and dispositions and outer behavior must align, or there is not sufficient trustworthiness in negotiating conflict.

Roger Williams—civility is the toleration (non-persecution) of disgusting people, beliefs, and practices in order to be free to try to persuade them—repeatedly—of their error; and they can do the same with you!

Playing off of Hobbes, one might call Williams’ position “the evangelization of each against all.” Williams’ did not assume mutual respect, at all. Insulting each other is fair game. One tolerates the other because of a sense of one’s own partiality and fallibility, but also in hopes of eventually converting the other.

This toleration extended to all forms of Christianity, and all religions, even the most disgusting sort (for him, that included Quakers, who were so uncouth that they refused to doff hats and insisted on shaking hands). Civility means practicing the prevailing social customs, following the laws, respecting society’s hierarchies. One can voice one’s disgust with a practice, but tolerate it nonetheless. Williams also drew a wall between civility and spirituality.

Civility is strictly about “bodies and goods,” and excludes worship and soul-matters. He was the most careful in dividing between community as it ought to be in a church and community that is possible in civil society. Williams’ “mere civility,” as he called it, required that everyone who engages in public disputes needs a very thick skin and “patience and indifference to offense” (79).

So, in summary (and not doing full justice either to Bejan’s work nor to the men she studied):

Hobbes—keep silent about disagreements and defer to the sovereign.

Locke—tolerate beliefs, love and respect others if the other shows themselves to be trustworthy.

Williams—observe outward customs, hold your nose in the presence of those who disgust you, but stay engaged and fight with words to convert the other (never, ever coerce), and ensure that everyone else (well, nearly everyone else) is accorded the same right.

Bejan’s discussion concludes by contrasting Locke and Williams. Locke, she argues, expects too much. One must agree to the rules of the game in order to engage. Modern critics of a Locke-type position claim disputants have to agree on nearly everything but their point of contention in order to sit down and talk.

Such agreement is unlikely in real life apart from an academic colloquium (she was educated at Oxford) or the white rhino of “the ideal speech condition.” Marginalized persons who are not in a position to be “civil” by this standard, or whose very status is evidence of the incivility with which the dominant culture has treated them, are excluded by the rules of the game.

She ends by claiming Williams offers the most realistic option, an option radically different from contemporary thinking and practice. Conflicts can be managed, not solved. Society needs less agreement than we think it does, and we should NEVER confuse the rich level of fellowship we expect in spiritual community with the thin soup we should expect in civil society.

Remember we all see in part, even as we argue to convert others. Never, ever involve the state in coercing the beliefs of another. Hold your nose. Develop thick skin. Practice mere civility.

Bejan is not attempting to offer the last word on the subject, but she does provide a distant mirror in which we can look and reflect on how we, as religious communities and as participants in the nation, see our conflicts and vinculum societatis anew.

And remember: if we don’t practice civility well, whatever it means, the defaults for dealing with conflict will be one or more of the last 15 on my list above.

What do you see?

(Bejan did an engaging, 13 minute TED Talk on her work. Title: “Is Civility a Sham?”)


Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.