October 22, 2018 | Reading Time: 5 minutes

Civility Isn’t Dead. It’s Just on Vacation.

A consensus on public behavior will return after the battle is won.

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You may have noticed that I’m not especially concerned about the obliteration of political norms, as others seem to be. That’s for two reasons. One, I’m not personally invested in them. Two, norms can be an impediment to the greater good.

I am invested in values. Norms and values can be the same thing, obviously, but not necessarily. I oppose norms when they are an impediment, for example, to justice.

I was thinking of this as I watched the reaction to two events over the weekend. Both included leaders of the major parties, a Republican and a Democrat. Both included members of the public heckling said party leaders and giving them pieces of their minds. Both events were captured on video and both got the kind of attention on social media that amounted to something like this: Oh my God, what’s happening to us!

Mitch McConnell was eating. A man approaches him. He’s clearly outraged by something. It’s hard to say what. He appears alone. McConnell does not appear to be in danger. Other diners tell the man to knock it off. The man rants more. McConnell is stoned-faced. More people tell the man to stop. He stops. The video ends.


Nancy Pelosi’s situation was quite different. A group of people identifying themselves as Proud Boys accosts her at a public event. The Proud Boys are notorious fascists with a reputation for street violence. Though Pelosi does not appear in danger, she and her entourage wisely go inside. The group chants loudly and bangs on the door. One of Pelosi’s aides emerges to demand they stop banging on the door. They ignore her, chant and bang some more. It’s a bit scary. It could get out of hand. The video ends.


The takeaway is that people shouldn’t do this. It violates norms of civility. Peaceful protest is one thing. Getting loud and obnoxious is another. People are right to worry that protests can turn violent. That is always a factor when protesting anything that’s worth protesting. But if violence is the boundary of our tolerance of public protest, anything short of that should be fair game, encouraged even. Yet it isn’t. Why? Too many people are invested in political norms that don’t apply anymore.

Civility is about manners, but it doesn’t end there. Some, like Bloomberg’s Noah Feldman, believe civility is about “the basic belief that the other side in the political debate is just as committed to good citizenship in the republic as you are.

Civility leads to polite behavior because it starts with the good faith assumption that the other side is well-intentioned, even if its beliefs are wrong.

Actually, civility starts with conflict.

Civility is about contestable modes of public behavior. Those modes are established after it’s all over but the shouting. We should be encouraging conflict (though not violence). Through conflict, the public will see the whole truth of our political age.

John Stuart Mill believed every opinion had a kernel of truth. Getting to the whole truth, he said in “On Liberty,” requires the competition of ideas, what he called “the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners.” Partisans aren’t going to be persuaded that the other side has a point. Partisans don’t need to assume good faith. Partisans, Mill said, are likely to double down.

It’s those who are watching the fight who benefit. The audience, Mill called it, gets to see error, strong points, and legitimate means, among other things underscoring what it already knows to be true. The “truth has no chance,” Mill argued, “but in proportion to every side of it, every opinion which embodies any fraction of the truth, not only finds advocates, but is so advocated for as to be listened to.”

Think about this the next time someone tells you that college campuses are hotbeds of “political correctness” in which the right to free speech is “violated” daily. In fact, it’s the opposite. Women and people of color are exercising free speech. They are exercising that right in ways that violate norms of civility demanded by their critics.

In fact, it does not matter what students are complaining about, or how (short of violence), because they are actualizing their human nature, like “a tree,” Mill argued, “which requires itself to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make a living thing.”

As to the people saying “Oh my God, what’s happening to us!” here’s what’s happening. We are living in a period of transition, in which the old political order is giving way to a new one. As a result, whatever consensus existed that once regulated civil conduct no longer exists. That’s something to be celebrated. Why?

Because that consensus impeded justice. It has always impeded justice. Keith J. Bybee, the author of How Civility Works (from which I’m quoting Mill), calls this “manners-based intimidation.” In our history, he said, “Accusations of blatant rudeness and outright barbarism were deployed to intimidate those contesting the status quo.”

While this is a time of enormous upheaval, it is also a time of enormous clarity, progressively so, as competing factions are fighting each other in ways that will reveal over time the whole truth of our political age. That whole truth is this: Some people want liberty and justice for all. Some people don’t. They want the status quo. Or they want history to go in reverse. They’ll resort to violence even if they don’t need to.

The picture is getting clearer.

In case you missed it

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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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