Civility Wars

Originally published in Newsday on May 31, 1998.

Most observers now agree that American public life is perilously rude and vulgar. Politics, they claim, needs to become friendlier, more respectful—more “civil.”

Promoting good political manners is a cause that has attracted disgruntled elites from the earliest days of the American republic. But the vogue for “civility” dates from the mid-1990s. The first rumblings came from right-wing intellectuals such as historian Gertrude Himmelfarb and one-time education czar William Bennett, who floated plans for the “remoralization” of society, and scolded Americans for neglecting such virtues as reticence and restraint. Before long, civility acquired an impressive, bipartisan array of supporters. Seemingly all at once, pundits and politicians as diverse as President Bill Clinton, Colin Powell and Rush Limbaugh discovered a notion that promised to cure American malaise.

As the decade draws to a close, civility remains the panacea of choice. Last year, 200 legislators from the 104th Congress spent a weekend in Hershey, Pa., to confess regret about the nastiness of their own recent language. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani continues to press his campaign to make New Yorkers more civility-conscious. And intellectuals of all ideological persuasions praise niceness in a steady stream of books and articles.

What explains this obsession with manners? Is the polity actually sliding into anarchy? Yale law professor Stephen Carter argues as much in his newly published study of civility. In the past decade or so, Carter avows, Americans have become “barbarians” who regularly engage in uncivilized, “animal-like” behavior. Robert Bork, too, recently has written that “we are well along the road to … moral chaos.” “Much of the general public must be brought back to the virtues we practiced not long ago,” Bork argues. These pronouncements, of course, are wildly overstated—most of us still use forks, after all.

Why, then, the crusade for civility? The frenzy surrounding niceness is an old-fashioned clamor for top-down social control. Popular attitudes do indicate reduced respect for the ruling classes, and the attempt to install politeness in our political dialogue reveals anxiety among elite scholars and opinion makers about where public insolence might lead.

Of course, civility’s champions deny any such agenda. Yet introducing strict rules into public speech and modulating dissent are mutually reinforcing stratagems. And civility in particular lends itself well to tempering uncomfortable speech, for the concept is versatile enough to mean almost whatever its exponents want it to mean. In Giuliani’s view, civility is a bulwark against the violation of individual rights. “The basic principle” of civility, he has argued, “is consideration of the rights of others. That’s the foundation of any city, and of any functioning society.”

For Stephen Carter, meanwhile, civility means forswearing the “selfish” language of individual rights, and instead advancing “shared values.” Carter also argues that civility is a moral precept that, when most effective, acquires a religious cast—the best hope for civil conduct lies in our willingness to “go to God,” Carter writes. All this ambiguity allows advocates to define away virtually any form of dissent as “uncivil,” and places almost no limits on what—or who—can legitimately suffer exclusion from public culture. Thus Carter’s list of transgressions includes everything from grade inflation to boorish airline passengers to the safety zones that protect abortion clinics. And the Giuliani crusade, which began by targeting squeegee men, now assails such threats to the republic as jaywalkers, reckless bicyclers and taxi drivers, and car alarms.

Indignation over political manners has always been a preoccupation of the establishment, and typically appears during times of uncertain authority. When traditional deference for leaders began to fade during the 1780s and 1790s, John Adams and others prescribed “Decency, and Respect, and Veneration … for Persons in authority.” As a vigorous democratic culture took root in the 19th Century—partially through verbal assaults on the personal character of politicians—aristocrats such as Harvard professor Charles Eliot Norton demanded legal protection from the gaze of “ignorant and barbaric multitudes.”

Today’s elites, most of whom blame the 1960s for the current crisis of manners, confront a polity that is both irreverent and fluid. Civility thus performs for them a dual function: It insists on the legitimacy of the ruling classes, and imposes form on a formless landscape. Like President Bill Clinton’s “bridge to the 21st Century” metaphor, which evokes a stable architecture for political life without advancing any particular policy agenda, attention to the style and form of public speech addresses the widespread feeling that elites have failed to articulate a cohesive vision of the American future. Ultimately, then, civility attempts to make the professional classes both respected and relevant.

While politicians and intellectuals outline a parallel universe of decorum, respect and restraint, few promise any relief for the real concerns of most average Americans. Indeed, exponents of civility have almost nothing to say about the greatest, actual problem of the decade: The steadily diminishing capacity of ordinary people to earn a decent living. While Giuliani harasses marauding bicyclists and unsightly street vendors, unemployment in New York remains at 9 percent—twice the national average—homelessness rises and funds for affordable housing dwindle.

As Stephen Carter and William Bennett elucidate proper telephone etiquette, corporations fire tens of thousands of workers at a clip, and manufacturing jobs take flight overseas.

To be sure, some partisans of civility ruminate about the corrosive effects of the market ethos, and aver that firing works en masse may not be the most decorous behavior. But Carter, for one, quickly reassures that neither does civility always discourage the accumulation of enormous amounts of wealth. “So when Jesus calls on the rich man to surrender his possessions, the reason is not to engage in some redistribution of wealth, for his concern at that moment seems to be not the poor but the puzzled and desperate man who stands before him,” he writes, in a typically insipid passage. Nor does Michael Lerner—another policer of the public soul who has lamented the rudeness of political discourse—want to give the wrong message. “I have not called for redistributing wealth, or socializing the ownership of corporations,” he promises in his 1996 book, “The Politics of Meaning.” “On this question, I remain agnostic.”

Much the same mood of impotent hand-wringing suffuses sociologist Nicolaus Mills’ recent book, The Triumph of Meanness. Mills, a left-liberal who is certainly concerned with economic injustice, nonetheless can only explain declining leisure time, vanishing jobs and stagnant wages by appealing to the feeble notions of “meanness” and “spitefulness.” What does Mills propose we do about these problems? Labor organizing? Minimum wage hikes? Legislation prohibiting corporations from ravaging communities? Mills, in fact, suggests nothing at all.

Civility advocates never tire of reminding us that freedom demands limits, that democracy requires certain conditions for the exchange of ideas. This is, of course, true enough. But whose limits, which conditions—and for what ends?