“A Necessary Virtue to Help Us Negotiate a World of Pain”

Derek Edyvane, “The Passion for Civility,” Political Studies Review (published online March 29, 2016), emphasis added and references omitted:


Perhaps the most prominent argument in favour of civility in liberal democratic politics is that it plays an essential role in the containment of conflict. By moderating our interactions, civility serves as a kind of social ‘lubricant’, functioning to prevent moral and political disagreements from boiling over into violence … In this sense, the familiar association of civility with the seemingly trivial concerns of politeness and manners is apt to mislead. The civilitarian contention is that the stakes are much higher than the hurt feelings or queasiness liable to attend ill-mannered displays. For John A. Hall, ‘civility is a necessary virtue to help us negotiate a world of pain’…


This might sound melodramatic. It is hard to understand how dispensing with the niceties of civility could provoke descent into violence and war. There are two different responses to this concern. Boyd, for example, offers a variation on the broken windows thesis, noting the way in which a host of relatively mild infractions or incivilities can easily amount to a more serious degradation of a person or group: ‘Minority groups who are treated day-to-day in demeaning ways, subject to insults, derogatory racial epithets or differential treatment are thereby dehumanised and degraded, even if only in very subtle psychological ways. Likewise, to spit at someone, to call her a cockroach or a dog, lays the groundwork for even greater dehumanisation and cruelty’ … But there is also a second and stronger response. Some authors indicate that, although the kinds of traditional customs and rituals that compose the practice of civility may sometimes seem artificial, or eccentric, and may even seem to be at odds with our moral and political aspirations, they nevertheless serve a vital humanising function … Such practices ‘are artifices that give human lives some distinctive, peculiar, even arbitrary human shape and pattern’ … To abandon or degrade them would be inhuman, even monstrous.


The claim here, which is certainly controversial, is not simply that a host of minor transgressions might amount to something more serious, but that the customary practices of everyday decency and civility in our dealings with others have a moral significance that transcends their particular content and their often trivial character. In this connection, we should not be surprised by the tendency of authors to invoke the experience of Nazism as reflecting the ‘antithesis’ of civility … The civility ritual forms a bedrock of human decency, a bedrock that the Nazis sought systematically to obliterate.

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