ePub Civility ePub

by Stephen L. Carter

Nothing in Stephen Carter's Civility struck me with the force of revelation. But it did strike me as a clear, succinct, and insightful summary of some of the most important habits of citizenship that people in the United States have never been very good at and that we seem to be getting worse at all the time. Carter starts with a clear and valuable definition of "civility" as "the sum of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together." Civility, in other words, encompasses all of the concessions that the natural animal makes to the social animal. We must be civil because there is no other way for very different people to live together in the same society.

This definition of civility obviously includes all kinds of non-political aspects of life, and Carter touches on lots of them: driving, giving gifts, gawking at people in restaurants, and all of that stuff. But Carter really wants to write a book about political discourse, which is perfectly fine with me, since that is what I want to read. And he sees civility as the key to meaningful political discourse. Like most people, I agree. But the general agreement about this fact does not seem to be producing much civility in civil discourse; mainly, it just produces testimonials about how the other side can't ever seem to be civil.

Carter gives us some good analysis about why this might be. in the first place, many people misunderstand the function of civility. It is not to prevent argument, but to encourage it. The fairly minor concessions that we make to civility when we are talking to people that we disagree with allows the conversations to continue, the dialogue to deepen, and the arguments to become even fiercer than they could be otherwise. When civility breaks down, all we have is anger and shouting, and, for all of their benefits, neither one leads to anything like a sustained engagement with ideas that we do not accept.

Civility does not even equal niceness. And it certainly does not mean friendship. There is no need, really, to be civil to our friends, as the discourse of friendship is generally more respectful and more supportive than the discourse of civility. Civility is for strangers and opponents. it does not seek try to send the message, "I like you." It simply says, "I acknowledge your right to exist and to think as you think." We violate the standards of civility when we try to take certain themes, ideas, or arguments off of the table—when we refuse to acknowledge the right of certain perspectives to exist or to be articulated. Carter calls this "bounded discourse," and I agree with him that it is a real problem in political discourse today.

Perhaps the most important point that Carter makes about civility is that it is a moral issue not a policy consideration. There is simply no way to require people to be civil. For democracy to work, people must have the right to free speech, which includes the right to treat other people badly. We can defend this right,but we should not celebrate it. And we should recognize that moral censure is not the same thing as political censorship. As citizens of a democracy, we have the right to act like idiots and make self-government virtually impossible. Carter would just rather we choose to do things differently.

Civility was written in 1998, and it shows its age. Much of what Carter says is timeless, but some of his discussions of the Internet, of cyberspace, and of online discourse really show their age. Many of the drivers of public discourse did not exist 15 years ago. There were no blogs, no social media sites, no RSS feeds, and far fewer people in the fray. Carter's arguments anticipate pretty much everything about how the online world turned out, but it would be interesting to see what he might do with a revised 20th anniversary edition in 2018.

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File info

Book Title
Book Author
PublisherHarper Perennial
GanreNon Fiction
Release date 03.03.1999
Pages count352
eBook formatPaperback, (torrent)En
File size6.9 Mb
Book rating3.63 (105 votes)
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