Civility and Its Critics

Some self-righteous writers believe that their goodness—and their opponents’ badness—justifies incivility.
January 2, 2020
Featured Image
Painting of The Peacemakers, showing Sherman, Grant, Lincoln, and Porter aboard the River Queen (by George PA Healy, from the White House Collection), March 27th-28th, 1865. (Photo by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images)

As long as there are political debates, there will be those who participate in nasty ways—lying, distorting, insulting. This is just the price we pay for possessing Homo sapiens DNA and living in a society that protects liberty. Human hardwiring means some folks will be unusually intemperate and predisposed to indignation when confronted by differences of opinion; freedom means they have the right, up to a point, to act on their intemperance and indignation.

Still, even if citizens can use their freedom to make life miserable for one another, this does not mean that our politics must devolve into widespread, unrestrained political combat. Over time, free societies tend to develop—seemingly paradoxically—into tradition-bound societies. Instead of descending into chaos or dispensing with liberty, they create a whole host of conventions that curb socially adverse behavior, enabling free individuals to live peaceably side by side.

So, for instance, free societies tend to evolve a variety of norms around public morality. Citizens are taught that although we are often tempted to do rash, unkind, unhealthy things, and although constitutional and legal protections give us license to do many of them, we ought not to. Hence the social value of inculcating such virtues as honesty, prudence, charity, humility, forgiveness, abstemiousness, accommodation, and self-discipline.

This is the glory and genius of liberal communities that have had the opportunity to learn and adapt: Through trial and error over generations, they develop remarkable social tools that allow human beings to live well together.

One of these indispensable tools is political civility.

We have the right to offend, badger, prevaricate, provoke, bloviate, and exaggerate. And often our gut tells us to do just that. But the wisdom of experience advises us that doing so is hazardous. It’s hard to have productive discussions when facts are in doubt, when someone monopolizes the floor, or when participants drown out others’ sound arguments by turning up their own volume.

But civility is even more important because it creates an environment in which people are able to have meaningful conversations on the most difficult matters. Incivility infuriates opponents, making them want to respond in kind. Incivility makes opponents feel under assault and vulnerable, causing them to lash out. Incivility turns a discussion about a policy matter into a personal fight between combatants.

We can disagree passionately with our opponents’ positions. We can even dislike them personally. But civility is the common currency of conversation—it organizes the public’s business and allows the market of ideas to function. Civility is a shrewd social creation that enables the combustible combination of base human impulses, liberty, and democracy to still produce positive results.

Tragically, some American commentators are attempting to normalize incivility, or even frame it as a virtue. Their argument usually goes like this: This moment is so significant, or these particular issues are of such gravity, that we cannot be shackled by rules of decorum.

The problem, of course, is that some number of people will always believe that the current moment is of the utmost importance. And some number of people will always believe that the issue they care about most (whether abortion, climate change, criminal justice, immigration . . .) is the critical issue of their time. If we preemptively approve advocates’ incivility so long as they believe the circumstances merit it, then we would toxify the public square—leaving it incapable of fostering discourse, deliberation, consensus-building, and compromise.

Things have already deteriorated badly. In a survey from late 2018, 91 percent of the weighted sample agreed with the statement that Americans are “very divided” (74 percent) or “somewhat divided” (17 percent) by politics, and 59 percent reported feeling “pessimistic” about the possibility that Americans with different political views “can still come together and solve the country’s problems.” In another recent survey, large majorities of the weighted sample answered that “the tone and nature of political debate” in the United States has “become less respectful” (85 percent) and “become less fact-based” (76 percent).

Nevertheless, there is an ascendant strain of self-righteousness attempting to justify incivility. It is premised on a simple, regrettable formulation: Because “we” are so good and “they” are so evil, we are entitled to be uncivil.

For example, Adam Serwer, in a recent Atlantic article titled “Civility is Overrated,” wrote that “while nonviolence is essential to democracy, civility is optional.” Incivility is justifiable because today’s discord is the fault of those who don’t want to give up power to the historically marginalized. Civility can be a means of preserving oppression; the demand for orderly, accommodating discourse and politics is how the comfortable tamp down the righteous dissent of the dominated. In a recent Washington Monthly article, Nancy LeTourneau wrote in defense of polarization and followed up by declaring that “it has become increasingly clear to me that this is not a moment for capitulation” and to “prioritize reconciliation over justice at this moment might once again be appealing to white men who have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

In Slate a few days ago, Dahlia Lithwick described how she once supported efforts to promote civility. But now she bristles when her political opponents—like Trump officials, who “crafted an entire government of cruelty”—invoke civility. They don’t deserve civil treatment, Lithwick believes; by their actions, they forfeited their right to it. In recent years, she writes, “civility had come to mean being nice to terrible people in public because it hurts their feelings when we do not.” Like Serwer and LeTourneau, Lithwick sees civility as tantamount to surrender to the enemy—“code for capitulation to those who want to destroy us.” When someone makes an appeal to civility, the reader should be on guard. “When it’s sought now, you can be certain it’s coming from the powerful asking you to be civil as they take away your rights and destroy lives.” Take note of the logic (similar to Serwer’s and LeTourneau’s): Civility need not be afforded to “terrible people” who want to “take away your rights” and “destroy lives.”

We see similar sentiments on the other end of the political spectrum. Michael Anton, in his infamous 2016 Claremont Review of Books essay “The Flight 93 Election,” argued that, because of the threats posed by progressivism, the Trump-Clinton election was existential: “charge the cockpit or you die.” The election would be “a test—in my view, the final test”—of American “virtù.” Perhaps only someone like Trump—Anton concedes Trump’s “vulgarity”—could “rise above the din of The Megaphone” wielded by the partisan and biased intelligentsia.* In a later essay, he took to labeling as “Vichycons”—an appalling portmanteau of “Vichy” and “conservatives”—those on the political right who were insufficiently aligned with his preferred agenda and temperament. He took direct aim at calls for “civility,” which can amount to “unilateral disarmament”: “In the face of the Left’s intensifying power-hungry wrath,” Vichycons unwilling to fight harder “are like pearl-clutching old ladies.”

Everywhere it seems, people feel emboldened to be uncivil because their opponents’ awfulness warrants it. On some college campuses, progressive students shout down speakers whom they believe deserve it. Some conservatives revel in “owning the libs,” taunting their opponents who deserve it. Some “Antifa” participants feel justified using violence against those they believe deserve it. The president viciously belittles those who criticize him because they deserve it. Some people, livid at the biases of the news media, condone, or at least joke about, violence against the media because they deserve it. This self-righteous contempt is trading in civility for catharsis and schadenfreude: My virtues and your vices entitle me to vent and enjoy the discomfort you suffer.

To be clear, I don’t intend this defense of civility as an argument against dissent or in favor of grinning and bearing it. In fact, political disagreements aren’t just inevitable; they can be invaluable. And typically, grievous injustices demand forceful responses. Creative tension often requires agitation. But it is worth remembering that some of history’s most inspiring examples of righting political wrongs were the result of firmness wrapped in grace—think of Lincoln’s second inaugural and King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail. And it is worth recognizing that this era’s preference for “canceling,” owning the libs, and shouting down opponents isn’t winning converts; it’s only fostering greater resentment.

Put simply, our liberal democratic republic can’t be sustained if we all believe ourselves to be obviously on the side of the angels and always in an existential struggle against the forces of evil. In 2020, we should resolve to be less self-righteous and less scornful. We need more public figures to recognize their own limitations and the merits of their opponents. And we need voters, reporters, producers, and editors—those with the power to decide who gets the public stage—to prioritize civility.


*Correction, January 15, 2020: This paragraph has been modified to correct a mischaracterization of a sentence from Michael Anton’s “Flight 93” article.

Andy Smarick

Andy Smarick is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and previously served as president of Maryland’s state board of education.