For the life of me I do not recall how this Thomas Chatterton Williams tweet found its way into my feed, but it led me to Teresa M. Bejan, which led me to wonder whether or not I wanted to read her book, Mere Civility. It was tough locating a sense of what her stance on civility (or even its functional definition) was, exactly, but I think I’ve started to get an idea thanks to her “A Reply to My Readers”, which she published in The Review of Politics last year.
My worries when reading the Kindle preview pages and a few things here and there found through Google were that it sounded a bit like she was both-sidesing civility, which seemed wrong to me. Mostly those worries are confirmed by her “Reply”.
First, I should clear up an understandable misimpression. Mere civility, as theorized by me and practiced by Williams, does not amount to a defense of insult and ad hominem indifferent to the differential status or vulnerability of one’s interlocutors. Melissa Williams rightly worries that such “civility” would say little about the real harms hate speech poses to those whose position in our tolerant society is not even physically secure.
This seems good, so far as it goes, but Bejan inexplicably then goes on to talk not about the “differential status or vulnerability” part but only about “insult and ad hominem”, and carefully picks-and-chooses what sorts of context are worth examining.
Clearly, the behavioral demands of even mere civility are highly contextual, and the norms governing a cocktail party, the British Parliament, Twitter, or a philosophy seminar are very different. Scrupulously civil behavior in one can cause crippling offense or upset in another.
It’s not about the room we are in. It’s about who is in that room and an understanding of the “differential status or vulnerability” to be found among those occupants—be that room physical or virtual. While she states an acknowledgment that a “consequence here is that there may be differential expectations of members of the civitas depending on their degree of enfranchisement or alienation”, she offers in her “Reply” no means of addressing that consequence.
Rather, a bit earlier, she simply says that “mere civility requires another … virtue, too: courage”. As if it is the job of those with lesser status, higher vulnerability, or comparative disenfranchisement simply to buck up and take one on the chin for the good of the civitas.
As her “Reply” draws to a close, she somewhat witlessly offers her confession: “I am not offering a theory of justice or democracy, but merely of civility.”
That’s the nub of the problem. Civility cannot be divorced from power dynamics. It is not a Platonic virtue existing above and outside the real world in which those differential statuses and vulnerabilities exist. Right now, in the world in which we live, calling a fascist a fascist is considered (well, by fascists, anyway, and centrists) to be uncivil, branded as “insult and ad hominem”.
Approaches which superficially might be insulting in some allegedly objective sense (I’m speaking here not of specific, individual words but of general form, or of behavior) mostly becomes uncivil only when used to punch down and not when used to punch up.
So, given her “Reply”, will I endeavor to read her book? It’s possible, but I’d think I’d prefer to borrow it than buy it. Alas, it’s unavailable from my library’s OverDrive.