From President Trump’s name-calling and obscene language, to incidents where members of his administration have been shouted at or denied service at restaurants, recent coverage of U.S. politics has been unusually focused on the topic of civility. In 2013, philosopher Christopher F. Zurn explored the question of how seriously we should take civility in politics.
Zurn was writing three years before Trump’s election, with a different set of uncivil behaviors in mind. In 2009, a member of Congress had shouted “you lie” at President Obama during a speech. Even more dramatically, in 2011, U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot, not long after her name had appeared on a “target list” of politicians, with their districts marked by crosshairs.
Drawing on the work of Cheshire Calhoun, a philosopher who has analyzed civility in the personal sphere, Zurn writes that civility is always tied to social convention—rules that are based in a particular time and place—but following those rules conveys “the equal respect owed universally to all persons as moral agents.”
Another view on civility comes from John Rawls, who argued that—given the variety of moral doctrines we bring to politics—civil political discourse means grounding our political arguments in the areas where our beliefs overlap. Otherwise, Zurn writes, our arguments can only be convincing to people who share our particular religious or philosophical background.
Others suggest that arguments about civility are a distraction from the real political issues. If politics is essentially a battleground for armies with opposing, non-negotiable fundamental principles, those calling for civility are either asking for “a mild consensus and a bland unanimity” or cynically using the idea of civil discourse as a bludgeon against their opponents. In some cases, according to Zurn, social pressure to behave civilly in politics may stifle dissent or “be strategically employed to distract from deep racial injustice of chattel slavery or racial segregation.”
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Zurn also points out that standards for appropriate political speech are often based on elite norms, making it easy to dismiss members of marginalized groups who use different styles of communication. In the 1980s, rhetoric of “civilized discussion” helped exclude conversations about sexual orientation and the rights of LGBTQ people from the political stage.
Ultimately, Zurn concludes, civility must be balanced with other political virtues. “I would be much more worried, for instance, about the systemic denial of voting rights to some citizens than I would be at the prospect of vituperative and denigrating campaigns, if somehow I were forced to choose,” he writes. He also notes that simply speaking more civilly can’t fix the structural problems in our political system that have led to gridlock in Washington, or address fundamental differences in values.