Civility

Stephen Post tells Science & Religion Today that civility isn’t the solution to the problems of modern politics:

civility rests ultimately on deeper notions of respect for and love of humanity. Love is an affirming love of the other’s being, respect is a modulation of love, and civility is an expression of the respect, as is etiquette.

The problem in our politics, and across our culture, is deeper than the loss of civility. It is a problem of the loss of those things deeper than civility upon which civility rests. The sad thing about American politics today is that our politicians have given into a vicious ingroup-outgroup demonization that is entirely dysfunctional. We will need new role models to overcome this, and those individuals will need to be grounded in a sense of the dignity of all persons.

I think that’s right. Civility is not an end unto itself. There are people who, through concerted and consistent effort, have proven themselves unworthy of respect. There are ideas which have failed to earn respect, or which having earned respect, then failed to justify it. And civility towards those people and ideas is unnecessary.

But people are inherently worthy of respect, and disrespecting the ideas of those we respect (even if those ideas are iffy) can easily blend into disrespect for the people. All of which produces not only incivility, but unjustified incivility. But Post is right that it isn’t worth trying to increase civility for its own sake. Incivility is a symptom, not an end unto itself.

Comments

  1. #1 Anton Mates
    December 16, 2010

    civility rests ultimately on deeper notions of respect for and love of humanity. Love is an affirming love of the other’s being, respect is a modulation of love, and civility is an expression of the respect, as is etiquette.

    Er…sometimes. Civility may also be an expression of fear; disenfranchised groups are generally civil towards their oppressors.

    Yet again, civility may be an expression of respect for a third party who has expectations about your behavior: your king, your god, or “polite society.” It need not have much to do with the person you’re actually being civil to.

    The problem in our politics, and across our culture, is deeper than the loss of civility. It is a problem of the loss of those things deeper than civility upon which civility rests. The sad thing about American politics today is that our politicians have given into a vicious ingroup-outgroup demonization that is entirely dysfunctional.

    It’s rather odd that Post talks about the “loss” of civility and the trouble with “politics today,” given the many past instances of incivility which he himself cites. Was there a Golden Age of American Civility when politicians didn’t demonize the outgroup? Some point at which blacks, Mexicans, Communists, Jews, gays, suffragettes, hippies, abolitionists, British loyalists, etc. were all treated with loving respect?

    Heck, 150 years ago our politicians were pretty much all middle-aged, wealthy, landed, formally Christian white men of Anglo descent, and they still mustered enough mutual disrespect to fight duels to the death and physically assault each other on the Senate floor. Frankly, I think the current batch (Democrats especially) probably have the highest capacity for universal civility our country’s ever seen.

  2. #2 Deepak Shetty
    December 16, 2010

    But people are inherently worthy of respect,

    How so? whether a person is respected or not is judged on his actions and beliefs is it not? Why is respect *inherent*?

  3. #3 Marshall
    December 18, 2010

    Right, civility is not an end to itself. Civility is an expression of respect; respect is an affirmation of love. Incivility is an expression of disrespect, which would be an affirmation of love also? Good luck with that one.

    If what you’re doing is an affirmation of love, more power to you.