Why No Civility Is Possible Today

Civility means to act as one would in a settled city wherein law and manners, not force and passion, guide the interchanges of the public order as well as the normal affairs of men within their homes and voluntary associations. Civility presupposes reason, but includes courtesy, compassion, and good taste. It usually involves a written or unwritten constitution that broadly defines the orders of procedure for ordinary human exchanges of opinions. It details, through proportionate sanctions, the degree to which the public order is violated by disordered actions. A constitution itself recognizes, at least implicitly, the possibility of a law higher than itself. A constitution’s own authority to be followed does not depend on itself, but on the citizens for whom it is intended. They in turn cannot will just anything. They too are subject to the reasonableness of the things that are, including what they are.

Incivility, by contrast, means the refusal to adhere to commonly accepted standards and customs. It indicates a breakdown, either minor or major, in the public order wherein differing opinions are normally and peacefully worked out among reasonable people who do not always agree with one another. Almost all incivility justifies itself by appealing to something higher than existing laws and customs. This “something higher” may be God, or one’s own will, a constitution, or a theoretical system we have usually come to designate as an ideology. An ideology is an idea or system of interrelated ideas that are self-justifying as the explanation of how things ought to be. They indicate a pattern or order that is to be put into effect as the solution to a given polity’s own inherent problems.

“Uncivilized” differs from “incivility.” Usually, uncivilized means the pre-political condition of men living together in tribes or other types of community. The bonds that hold things together are primarily through ties of blood, place, and personal loyalty. Here, reason is replaced by identity and feeling. One is born into them, rather than joins them. Neither identity nor feeling can be debated or controverted. Still, ties of blood and kin rightly remain major factors in any civil society. They themselves are good things. No one can simply be a “citizen” without also having an origin in a family with its own history and ethos. A “man without a country” is destined to roam aimlessly in a world of rooted people.

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The bond of reason that is implied by civility is a delicate thing. It requires a habitual willingness to adhere to the civil law, to work out our differences by known rules, compromises, and concern for a common good that allows and encourages bringing forth many differing goods not possible except with others. We hear recently that our society is radically divided to such a degree that the willingness to follow the law and agree with its settlements and procedures is no longer present. Indeed, the law itself seems to embrace norms that are normally considered to be unreasonable.

The country appears to be radically divided. We even hear talk of a new kind of civil war. Our streets often seem to look more like Third World revolutionary chaos than civilized society. National and world media dwell on these chaotic scenes. The adamant “non serviam” spirit makes self-rule difficult if not impossible. Force seems increasingly to substitute for reason and compromise. No common agreement can be found when the very first principles of reason are said to be mere opinions, when they are based on what we will have, not on what is right to have.

Sanctuary cities, in their self-justification, resemble nothing so much as the nullification theories from the Old South before the Civil War. Both the national and the local governments claim freedom to enforce only the laws they choose to enforce. This attitude leaves many laws un-enforced. A law that is not enforced is, in effect, no law. Rumors, of dubious credibility, hint that California, with its huge GNP, wants to secede from the union. No one lifts a finger to retain it. One amusing parody even has Mr. Trump selling California to an eager, but innocent, Mexico which is oblivious to massive problems they will be saddled with.

Cities can be conquered by a foreign power. They can also choose to join some larger unit, something we saw for several decades in the case of Europe. Sometimes they can even secede. Britain did pull out of the European Union, though the South was not allowed to secede without a fight, which it lost. A city also dies a political death when large segments of its citizens are no longer willing to abide by the rules, when they no longer agree that common rules exist, much less the first principles of reason that make any agreements intelligible. The letter of the law may remain but one or other side has crossed a line of no return. Words no longer have the same meanings to opposing sides. Citizens are not confident that the rules governing them are fair and just. The willingness to deal even formally with citizens of another identity, persuasion, or philosophy is gone. The delicate thread of reason, never strong, is unraveled. No common agreement is presupposed. No basis for one is acknowledged.

Aristotle’s Politics is in fact largely a description of changes in regimes when the internal configurations of citizen interests and assumptions change. The American Founding Fathers were most concerned with what they called “factions.” They understood how such factions could break down a small society in particular. One of the reasons they advocated a federalism of relatively stable and different states was pragmatic. In the large variety of states the various factions could be balanced off against each other. It was not necessarily the best arrangement but it was practical and usually worked effectively.

But Aristotle did understand that cities do change their assumptions and arrangements of office to accommodate a new conception of themselves, of what virtue means. Aristotle’s sequence of changes of regime—monarchy-aristocracy-polity-democracy-oligarchy-tyranny—is still a very useful way of looking realistically at what a regime actually is as opposed to what it says it is. Practically every state today calls itself a “democracy.” This designation merely obscures the real differences among actual states. One can still better classify different regimes by Aristotle’s practical observations of what actually does go on in a given state, whether it is ruled by virtue, prudence, honor, money, envy, or self-exaltation. Today, we usually have to decide whether what is motivating a regime is ideology or religion or secular humanism.

A common good can be worked out among those citizens who may prudentially disagree on this or that point of policy. Rarely is there just one way to accomplish something worthy, or unworthy, for that matter. Civic unity depends on an agreed vision of what man is and what the world is. When this agreement is lacking, nothing can really hold that society together. The vast majority of the members of any society should live in the same world. Incivility increasingly becomes dangerous when many citizens just do not follow the letter or spirit of the polity. Discord becomes the instrument whereby a society disintegrates, separates itself into factions. People want to form their own state with their own laws.

When spelled out, what we have today in this country is an unbridgeable disagreement about what the family is. Misunderstand the family and all its coherent complexities, what follows is that nothing else will go right. We have no common judgment about the transcendent meaning of our lives. One division maintains, with no real proof, that man has no given nature. Logically and politically, step by step, consequences, that are not accidental, follow. We legalize contraception, then, when that does not work, abortion, euthanasia, fetal experimentation, homosexual marriages and adoptions. We can even decide if we are male or female. A “family” is configured as we wish it to be. These practices have all become “rights” under positive law. They are systematically enforced. No criticism of them is allowed, no matter how scientifically or reasonably based it may be.

The opposition to this development is not simply another opinion. It is a coherent articulation of what it is to be human. The killing of a human fetus as a “right” is not something that can be negotiated or compromised. It becomes either my way or your way. We cannot really “agree” to live in peace with it as if it were a minor matter that had nothing to do with what man is. Voluntarist presuppositions suggest that no nature is found in man or the cosmos. Law is whatever the prince or authority say it is. Whatever we want to do we have a right to do it. In such a world, power alone decides. One side, the “rights” side, does not negotiate. It cannot. “I will” is not “I think.” The reason side reaffirms with Socrates that “it is never right to do wrong.”

We have here among us today no single city. No civility is possible since no grounds exist for deciding things as if the truth mattered. The intransigence and refusal to deal with others, then, is no accident. It follows from known ideas and commitments. We can pretend not to see what is happening, but that does not change things. I have deliberately focused these reflections on civility because its lack is the most obvious sign that we are a radically divided political order, not a “from many” a one polity.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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