It’s more important now than ever to examine the meaning of civility, said lecturer Teresa Bejan, associate professor of political theory at Oxford University, at the annual Great Books lecture in Kinsella Auditorium on Sept. 10.
Her lecture, titled “Two Cheers for Mere Civility,” focused on the importance of civil discussion in the case of disagreement and intolerance.
Three features of civility
Bejan began her lecture by describing the meaning of civility and how it’s practiced in democratic societies. She described three features of civility. The first being how people disagree with one another.
Bejan explained civility is not just how people speak to one another, but also how they disagree. She suggested religion and politics are topics considered to be fundamental to our identity, but the most likely to be divisive. It’s during these conversations we most often call for civility, as remaining civil allows us to live in a society of different beliefs and ideals.
“Civility holds out the hope that these disagreements are not only possible, but indeed that they can be productive,” said Bejan.
Bejan said the second feature of civility is the way it is viewed by society.
“Civility is distinguished by minimal character, and occasionally negative overtones, as a low bar, grudgingly met,” she said.
Bejan suggested calls for civility usually come after respect for one’s counterpart is lost.
“When we call for more civility from our opponents we tend to have something less than deference or respect in mind,” said Bejan.
“Unlike many virtues, it operates not as a ceiling, but as a floor.”
The third feature is the “agents or subjects” of civility. She explained the word civility and other words like civic, civilian, civilization and citizen are derived from the Latin word civitas. Civitas means “the body of citizens” or “state”.
“This suggests that civility doesn’t govern disagreement with just anyone, but its proper practitioners are those people who stand in a particular relation to one another, as those who live together as members of the same civil society,” said Bejan.
Combining all three features, Bejan defined civility as “the conversational virtue expected from all members of a civil society as such, one that’s meant to regulate fundamental disagreements between them.”
Bejan said this definition is the reason why being called uncivil may be more upsetting than being called impolite.
“Because being called ‘uncivil,’ is a signal to the recipient that [they’re] somehow beyond the pale of our society,” said Bejan.
Relating to past events
Bejan explained the call for civility began during the Protestant Reformation and the call for religious toleration in Europe.
She also referenced Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island.
Bejan explained he left Europe in search of a less sinful land. He arrived in Boston, but felt the Christians there were “un-Christian like.” He expressed his concern with the people of Boston, but he was banished. From there he went to Salem, Mass.
Williams was the first to suggest “mere civility.” He did not expect people to treat those they disagreed with politely. He believed in being honest to the people he disagreed with, but doing so civilly.
“The uncivil thing for [Williams] was the unwillingness to engage,” said Bejan.
Modern day occurrences
Bejan discussed the current hesitation of civility the United States is facing under President Donald Trump. She said members of the Democratic Party refused to civilly disagree with those of the Republican Party, and American citizens followed.
“While democratic activists, pundits and even members of Congress declared that the time for civil disagreement was over, that of righteous outrage, public shaming, even harassment of our political opponents begun. Many Americans, it seemed, took this advice to heart,” said Bejan.
She suggests the topic of civility only comes up in times of disagreement. The connection between civility and toleration explains why members of liberal, democratic societies turn to the old-fashioned concept of civility from the Protestant Reformation and the religious tolerance at the time.
Bejan believes speaking about civility in a time of deep political divide further proves her point.
“I do find it’s a vindication of the kind of work I do and perhaps a kind of controversial point is that human beings remain partial, proud and difficult creatures and that’s as true today as it was then.”