Civil Society

Civility has become the new political buzz word, but its meaning has been distorted to suit the left-liberal consensus

Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary contains some lovely lines. One of them, as I learned recently from Jeffrey Meyers’s excellent biography, is Johnson’s entry for the word “stammel”: “Of this word I know not the meaning.” For some time I’ve felt that way about the word “diversity”, at least as it’s commonly used. All I know is what it doesn’t mean. It hasn’t got much to do with difference or variety. In American universities, most humanities departments have imposed upon themselves the rule that no person shall join the faculty whose opinions stray significantly from the rest of the department. This is done in order to achieve diversity.

I suspect something similar is about to happen to the word “civility”. It’s on the lips of all the smart people just now. Jim Leach, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has just kicked off a “50-state civility tour”. The president of the university where I live recently published a column headed “Toward a more civil discourse.” He has “created a group of university and community representatives,” he informs us, “to recommend how reasoned and civil debate can become the norm for resolving some of society’s most polarising issues.” 

All the talk about civility first arose last summer in the US, when a number of local “town hall meetings” on the subject of health-care reform were “disrupted” by people who had got the idea that they were going to be forced to pay other people’s hospital bills. Then, during a presidential speech to a joint session of Congress, Representative Joe Wilson shouted “You lie!” when President Obama stated that illegal immigrants would not be covered under the Bill then being considered. 

Before all this, nobody among the Left-leaning opinion-makers seemed to care much about civility. Governor Howard Dean, a former presidential candidate and now chairman of the Democratic Party, once suggested that President George W. Bush might have known about the September 11 attacks before they happened — and almost nobody among his ideological sympathisers could bring themselves unequivocally to deplore the remark. That is just one among many instances of what could accurately be called uncivil discourse during the Bush years. 

But what’s troubling about all this isn’t the inconsistency or the partisanship. Those vices are inevitable in politics. The frightening thing about this new interest in civility is the word’s nebulousness in the mouths of those who use it. Civility, in the political sense, is the recognition that those with whom we disagree belong to our polity just as much as we do, and that their views, however misguided, are expressed in good faith. It isn’t a difficult concept. Yet almost nobody who heaped scorn on Wilson for his outburst was capable of explaining why it’s unacceptable to shout “You lie!” on the floor of the House. It’s not unacceptable because it’s discourteous (though it is) or because the rules of the House forbid it (though they do). It’s unacceptable because attributions of bad faith have the inevitable effect of poisoning debate. 

I suspect the meaning of incivility will be evacuated soon enough. It’s easy to envisage a time when “incivility” means nothing more than the expression of an opinion incompatible with left-liberal consensus. An “uncivil” expression will be one that threatens the equipoise of our progressive sensibilities, and a person given to making such expressions will have no right to make them. When that happens, “civility” will become just another tool, like “diversity”, used to achieve its opposite. 

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