Civil society depends on virtues. Society is not civil without them. Today, they seem everywhere to be in short supply and at the risk of seeming platitudinous, or worse, sanctimonious, I will proffer several virtues that might put a variety of events, including Brexit and the forthcoming US election, in a more socially responsible context. Every other day, I will post a new one. Today is the most foundational, civility.     

On Thursday, June 23, on WGBH Tom Ashcroft hosted a program on Mob Internet Shaming. Throughout the forty-six minute program, there was a refrain from callers who roughly argued that there are no rules for tweeting or other postings on social media. The host and those interviewed were clearly not disposed to the refrain, but for the duration of the program, no one on either side of the debate mentioned the necessity of civility in their replies.       

Years ago I thought that civility was a minimalist virtue, in that it expects so little. Then I was editing with the Mennonite theologian, Joseph Kotva, an ecumenical collection of essays on virtues that could be used for the churches. We called it, Practice what You Preach. Among the contributors, Vigen Guroian submitted an essay to us on civility, that made me first think, couldn’t you give us something more?  Instead, he presented a Christological “debate” in the Armenian church that desperately needed civility. The overall tone of the debate lacked a great deal of proportionality. There was no warrant for the outbursts, the personal assaults, etc.   


I learned from Guroian that though civility asks so little, so much is at stake. As Dr. Johnson said, civility keeps us from barbarity.  As I listened to Ashcroft, I kept thinking how barbarous mob shaming was; without civility, barbarity can raise its ugly head, as it does with considerable frequency of late, becoming a political tool once again.       

Civility is not fundamentally about politeness but about proportionality; it is not a virtue with fixity in its rules but rather about measured-ness in engagement. That proportionality is not a private estimation. Protest in a variety of forms has had a legitimate expression in civil societies, even protest that was illegal, especially in societies where laws were known more for the censure of societies rather than for the promotion of the common good.  

Nonetheless this enduring sense of good or appropriate and measured responses has always been constitutive of civility. For civility brings rational method and style to contemporary discourse. I have learned a great deal on this from Michael Jaycox, a professor at Seattle University, who wrote his dissertation here at Boston College, which he describes as “a virtue-based ethic of social anger, considering this emotion as a form of moral agency that motivates groups to pursue prophetic political resistance and institutional reform in response to systemic injustice.” He recently published “The Civic Virtue of Social Anger: A Critically Reconstructed Normative Ethic for Public Life,” in the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics. During the civil unrest in Ferguson, Jaycox went to witness how the people and leaders of Ferguson wrestled with what could constitute civil expressions of social anger.  

Civility is therefore at the service of the promotion of a discourse that furthers the common good. As a virtue it asks for an expression of good will among all citizens, a good will that expresses itself not only in stances of respect and tolerance but also in the due diligence to express truthfully one’s own counterpart’s actual positions. But that good will, according to the context, must prudentially and therefore proportionately propose its argument in a style that advances the common good.

Civility is the virtue underlining the claims of major scholars who proffered fundamental texts for the right functioning of their societies. Cicero’s De Officiis (On Duties), written at the end of his life (44 BC), was foundational not only for Rome, but for Christendom.  St. Ambrose followed in his stead and wrote his own De Officiis (391 CE). George Washington realized that he needed to establish a code itself of civility for these United States if we were not otherwise to fall into barbarous anarchy. He gave us Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.     

More recently, my friend and colleague, Cathleen Kaveny, joined the company of Cicero, Ambrose and Washington, with her magnificent work Prophecy Without Contempt: Religious Discourse in the Public Square. By examining the contours and history of prophetic discourse, Kaveny proposes her own humble and compassionately civil guidelines that were recently engaged at Commonweal. These are all texts of great relevance.

Yesterday, while discussing Brexit with colleagues, someone remarked, wait until after the convention, Trump will attack Hillary with a savageness we have not seen before. Someone else replied, she might be his match.       

In that exchange, like the one on mob shaming, civility was never invoked.

James F. Keenan, SJ, is Canisius Professor at Boston College. His most recent book is University Ethics: How Colleges Can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics (Rowman and Littlefield).

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