Among the overworked buzzwords of the past several years have been “civility” and “civil society”. Civility in my context here is taken to mean the highly desirable tone and demeanor with which political discourse and debate are pursued and has even had implications for the newly created virtue of “bipartisanship”. Civil society has been defined by my leading authority on the subject, Don Eberly of The Civil Society Project, as “a third sector of society made up of associations that operate neither on the principle of coercion nor the principle of rational self-interest.” A common thread here would seem to be represented by the question (to paraphrase Rodney King), “can’t we all just get along?”
I have several thoughts about these terms and their recently popularized meaning. First, I agree with Justice Clarence Thomas that, although incivility in our discourse and manner can never be excused, civility cannot be the governing principle of citizenship or leadership and that to insist on this principle has the “perverse effect of cannibalizing our civic principles.” Likewise, Gertrude Himmelfarb observes “to reduce citizenship to the modern idea of civility, the good neighbor idea, is to belittle not only the political role of the citizen but also the virtues expected of the citizen—the civic virtues.” The civic virtues to which she refers are those of the civic republic on which this country was founded (by fiercely partisan men, I might add).
As for civil society, Robert Bellah has written extensively on the attributes of the “good society”, a closely related term originally coined by Walter Lippmann, the cultivation of which he says requires a widening of democratic participation and the accountability of our institutions to counteract predatory relations among individuals and groups. To Bellah and other communitarians, we seem to suffer from too much individualism and self-interest and need to find renewed “respect for what transcends us.” Don Eberly offers the Golden Rule as a principle that might serve as the basis for the moral framework of a civil society. As he points out, there is remarkable unanimity across a broad spectrum of cultures regarding what philosophy calls “the good”, defined primarily by a natural law grounded in almost all the world’s religions.
I sympathize with these communitarian sentiments, and a Golden Rule movement as envisioned by Eberly would certainly be a commendable effort worthy of our support. But I wonder if the seeds for such a movement are present. In a highly litigious and procedural society closely monitored by the state that struggles with an idea as basic as the posting of the Ten Commandments in classrooms and courtrooms, I think we have some work to do with our opinion leadership and our cultural institutions. And as William Bennett has noted, “there is the belief among many of the people who have the most power and influence to shape attitudes that the most important obligation in life is to yourself, not God, country, work, or family, but to self.” This attitude primarily comes from our intellectuals, our cultural institutions, and from contemporary liberalism. And, to return to Thomas and Himmelfarb, these will not be converted by an overriding commitment to civility as a governing principle.