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My father was a pastor for most of my life. For more than 20 years he served two different churches as the lone elder. Being a pastor’s kid, positioned so closely to the day-in, day-out workings of a church, can give you a unique perspective on the inner life of an institution. The local church, with its relationships tied tightly into a community’s rituals and practices, lay bare the tender and flammable nature of membership in a way most other public activities can’t. A coworker’s drug-addicted teenage son doesn’t factor into your professional relationship nearly as much as it does if that person is a fellow church member. Your physician’s decision to get a divorce means nothing for the yearly physical, but if she’s the pastor’s secretary, it means late-night phone calls, angry words, and years of taking the blame for why she decided to leave the church.

Belonging to a church for more than 10 years affords an opportunity that is scarce in contemporary American life: an opportunity to form and watch truly “thick” social ties. In fact, the local church is arguably one of the few public institutions where thick social ties can be seen. As countless cultural critics have observed, ours is an age of atomization, splintering, and hyper-individualism. We’re “lonely together” while we “bowl alone” in a “fractured republic.” 

Most observers agree that these trends are troubling. What is less clear is how to reverse them. Some insist we roll back technology, both personally and legally. Others say we need to use politics to create more “social capital” for all. Interestingly, many of these writers lament hyper-individualism and extol the virtues of communitarianism in such a way that it is utterly baffling why anyone would choose the former. Seemingly everyone agrees that thick communal ties are better than a Facebook feed. So a good question might be: How did we get to this point? If the case for interpersonal relationships and institutional belonging is so obvious, why did we ever abandon it? 

One possibility, I would submit, is that we’ve given up on something fundamental to genuine membership: civility. What if digital technologies and upward mobility have displaced and isolated us because we find their moral demands on our relationships much easier than the demands of true civility? What if the path to a more humane, more real, and spiritually healthier culture is the path toward self-denying, other-preferring practices of Christian civility? 

Is Civility a Trick?

It’s been troubling to me to witness the spectacle of journalists on social media announcing that “civility” is a deceptive moral equivocation that no one should bother trying. Denigrating civility is the new intellectual fashion, evidenced both by its growing chorus of critics and also by an increasingly uncivil political culture. Civility, some suggest, is just a way for powerful people to preserve the status quo. Those babbling about “civility” are really tone-policing, while using terms like “respect” and “free inquiry” to hold onto power or a comfortable status quo. Thus (the argument goes) we don’t need civility; we need people brave enough to do the moral thing, and brave enough to damn anyone who questions how they do it. 

What if digital technologies and upward mobility have displaced and isolated us because we find their moral demands on our relationships much easier than the demands of true civility?

The sharpest critics of civility say far more than they intend. The idea—that how you treat others is immaterial, in your moral quest for righteousness—drips with privilege. The only kind of people who can afford to go through life without civil norms of discourse are those who can structure their lives so as to not require meaningful interaction with anyone—in other words, the already wealthy or powerful. Meaningful civic life requires self-sacrificial respect and deference, because by definition it exposes members in vulnerable ways; and the deeper the social ties, the more vulnerable the relationships. When writers and intellectuals yearn for a more meaningful American community while denigrating the things that fuel and empower it, it’s time to wonder whether we know what “community” actually means.

Why Civility Matters

A “thick” community means a public space in which, at least on some level, people know each other. In his recent book Three Pieces of Glass: Why We Feel Lonely in a World Mediated By Screens, Eric Jacobsen argues that many Americans’ feelings of loneliness and isolation are driven by their lack of civic belonging. Even folks with lots of Facebook friends report feeling alone and anonymous because their daily life doesn’t feature regular encounters with others who know them: an experience that fosters a sense of really belonging somewhere. You don’t need to be intimate friends with your barista or the bus driver, but the rhythm of learning the names of people in your daily routines, and growing in general familiarity with them, creates the sense of membership that thickens local community.

You can quickly understand how absurd anti-civility arguments are if you imagine what these kinds of relationships would look like without civility. You give the barista your coffee order; he responds by yelling in frustration that they are out and can someone give him a break. Or, reverse the roles: your barista tells you they’re out of your favorite order; you respond by insulting and berating him. Most of us can remember watching moments like this and the intense awkwardness we felt. Why? Because a lack of civility in daily life unsettles us, makes us feel unwelcome, and damages valuable relationships.

You can quickly understand how absurd anti-civility arguments are if you imagine what these kinds of relationships would look like without civility.

Certainly different public spaces call for different levels of intensity and seriousness. A coffee shop isn’t a political debate, and a bus driver isn’t an opposing city-council member. Civility doesn’t mean a milquetoast, customer-service countenance in every situation. But political or social activism doesn’t cancel the fundamental requirements of considerate, respectful behavior, simply for the fact that a democracy mediates its political process through social bodies—which civility preserves and a lack of civility rips apart.

So why do civility-skeptics dismiss it? First, we should grant that some skeptics do have a point. Some do indeed invoke rules of neighborly discourse as a way of saying, “I don’t want to have this conversation.” Performative niceties can and regularly do mislead, conceal, and manipulate—as anyone who’s been in an unhealthy or domineering church culture will know.

But other criticisms of civility are less compelling. The criticism of civility from media personalities, for example, rings hollow. The dehumanizing and anti-intellectual ethos of an overwhelming majority of media has been well documented for decades. Neil Postman’s argument that thoughtful seriousness is intrinsically impossible in a traditional TV presentation hasn’t only aged well, it has produced impressive offspring. Had Postman lived to see Twitter and Facebook, he would’ve felt a tremendous vindication.

Neil Postman’s argument that thoughtful seriousness is intrinsically impossible in a traditional TV presentation hasn’t only aged well, it has produced impressive offspring. Had Postman lived to see Twitter and Facebook, he would’ve felt a tremendous vindication.

It’s not at all surprising to see people steeped in media culture decry civility. Why shouldn’t they? Civility isn’t useful to them. In fact, speaking monetarily, civility is the death-knell of media culture. Negative emotions motivate constant attention and compulsive behavior—the architects of our most preeminent technologies know this and have designed our apps and digital environments accordingly. Tranquility of mind and speech can’t be leveraged in pay-per-click revenue models nearly as much as fierce urgency and moral indignation. Denigrating civility because a media personality told you to is like asking for shopping advice from a telemarketer.

Another source of civility-skepticism tends to be activists. I realize there’s often overlap between media environments and activist rhetoric. But I distinguish the two sources because I think their reasons for civility-skepticism are different. Civility threatens the dominant revenue model of media culture. Activists, on the other hand, often genuinely believe that moral progress precludes social proprieties. Civility is compromise. Justice has no time for it.

Any parent can quickly sympathize with this mindset. It’s the reason we raise our voices, send to bedrooms, and pull the car over. Escalating chaos often demands escalated response, because wrong behavior left unchecked can and will destroy. This is the moral logic of things like protests, boycotts, and civil disobedience. In those cases normal civic cooperation is suspended because the injustice is more bad than the normal civic cooperation is good. That the founders of the United States enshrined the right to peaceful protest in the Constitution itself is no small thing.

Denigrating civility because a media personality told you to is like asking for shopping advice from a telemarketer.

As I mentioned before, civility can be a kind of moral compromise. Or, to put it more precisely, principles of civility can supply disingenuous people the smokescreens they need to avoid being held accountable, or holding someone else accountable, or taking difficult action. This is a terrible fraud, and it deserves to be called out whenever and however it happens.

But situations like this aren’t evidence that civility is misguided or problematic, because what is described above is itself a violation of civil discourse. It’s dishonesty. Telling the truth is an act of neighbor-love that sustains social trust and vitality. Telling someone to come back and ask more nicely for something you have absolutely no intention of giving them is deceptive and uncivil (not to mention sinful, Prov. 3:28). “Let your yes be yes and your no be no,” Jesus says (Matt. 5:37). The problem with fraudulent exchanges that present a veneer of tone-policing is not too much civility, but not enough.

What True Civility Requires

While my father was pastoring his second church, he experienced a slow but profound transformation in his personal philosophy of ministry. This transformation made him attempt to lead the church in particular areas of change and growth. Some of these changes were welcomed, but many were resisted. These were hard seasons for Dad. There were times when I felt he was lying down, not insisting on what he knew was right and biblical, and allowing certain people too much freedom to criticize and oppose him.

My dad understood something that I didn’t: the thicker and deeper the community, the more important and more difficult meaningful change becomes. The dominant spirit of much public activism is like me, at 17 years old, wondering why my dad didn’t just name and shame those in the church who were consistently standing in the way of what I thought was obviously correct. Human nature in its immaturity assumes that all good change must happen quickly, and that those who stand in its way can be bulldozed for the sake of the cause. What such revolutionaries desire is a more perfect reality; what they get in destroying norms of civil discourse—such as listening, making good-faith arguments, and finding wisdom in others—is a broken, dysfunctional public square.

A positive vision of civility isn’t simply keeping one’s voice down. It’s a generous disposition of spirit, one that can be expressed passionately and with moral force. At their best, norms of civil discourse don’t dampen zeal for just causes. There’s nothing necessarily uncivil about protesting or boycotting, and not everything that gets canceled is a victim of “cancel culture,” because humans are naturally depraved creatures who can and do create depraved things. Civility isn’t an off-ramp from moral responsibility.

What civility properly protects against is the combustible nature of outrage. Anger, even righteous anger, tends to burn outside of its appointed borders. Norms of civility shape us by hemming in our anger and requiring us to see the humanity of those people and institutions we oppose. Civility doesn’t demand we agree or even always cooperate, but it does demand we acknowledge human dignity. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, one way to start really loving your neighbor is to act as if you do. Civility can’t change the heart, but it can provide the practices that will.

Civility isn’t an off-ramp from moral responsibility. What civility protects against is the combustible nature of outrage.

Civility Means Death

American culture is in crisis. Contrary to the bestselling narratives, the crisis isn’t primarily about 50 percent of the country that aren’t sufficiently “pro-science.” Nor is it primarily about 10 percent of the country that are elitist and authoritarian. The crisis is that our public square is manufacturing cultural resentments far more efficiently than it’s building character. What we lack in ideas we compensate for in enemies. As one wise friend of mine summarized the spirit of the age: “I don’t know who I am, but I know who I am not.”

Civility is necessary because flourishing human communities require its practices and attitude. The only way to survive without civility is to survive in a way that marginalizes deep human connection. Perhaps that’s why we lost thick social ties to begin with. At some point, between the hum of individual mobility and the soft blue glow of digital depersonalization, we forgot how to know each other. We can remember again. But we may have to die to ourselves first.

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