Not Just Being Nice

Andrew Sullivan —  Aug 26 2012 @ 6:28pm

In a democratic culture brimming with argument, Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse believe we have misunderstood the meaning of civility:

We all agree that civility in political argument is an increasingly scarce good.  Yet it’s not clear precisely what civility is.  On some accounts, civility is equivalent to conflict aversion; one is civil insofar as one is conciliatory and irenic in dealing with one’s political opponents.  Civility in this sense seeks to deal with disagreement by disposing of it.  Civility of this kind is little more than a call for compromise at the expense of one’s own commitments.  Hence this kind of civility might be inconsistent with actually believing anything.  To be sure, compromise among clashing viewpoints is frequently a fitting avenue to pursue once argument has reached an impasse.  But when taken as a fundamental virtue of argument itself, compromise is vicious. 

Another prevalent account of civility is focused on the tone one takes in arguing with one’s opponents.  The thought is that when arguing, one must avoid overly hostile or antagonistic language.  On this view, a paradigmatic case of incivility is name-calling and other forms of expression overtly aimed at belittling or insulting on one’s opponents.  Now, there is no doubt that maintaining a civil tone when arguing is generally good policy.  But a civil tone is not always required, and there are occasions where aggressive language is called for.  Argument is a form of confrontation, one with words instead of weapons, and any norm that prevents argument from displaying the critical edges of disagreements undercuts what inspires the argument to begin with…If civility of tone has a purpose, it is to maintain conditions under which proper argument can commence; thus it is not itself a component of proper argument.