Thursday, January 20, 2011

Civility and Political Theory

The Political Theory Consortium met yesterday for the first time this semester, to discuss the article “The Value of Civility?” by the Georgetown Political Scientist Richard Boyd (author of the 2004 book Uncivil Society: The Perils of Pluralism and the Making of Modern Liberalism).

Boyd’s article is a good primer on the virtue of civility: he considers the range of connotations for civility, the formal vs. substantive dimensions of civility (is civility valuable for its functional role in enabling political society to form? is civility valuable as an intrinsic moral obligations we have to our fellow citizens?), he looks at critiques of civility as a mask of power/elitism/exclusion/conformity, and he raises the difficult question of what can be done to encourage the cultivation of more civility. In line with other recent posts to this blog, our aim in reading this article was to think about how it bears on our understanding of the recent violence in Arizona. More on this in a moment.

First, a side note: I have begun both my classes this semester by talking about the difference between political science and political theory. In Modern Political Thought, we discussed Ruth Grant’s article “Political Theory, Political Science, and Politics” (Political Theory vol. 30, no. 4 2002), which suggests that political science aims to explain mechanisms of cause and effect, and political theory aims to explain meaning and significance. As a historical, critical, and interpretive endeavor, political theory is fundamentally about judgment – how “judgments are made, how they influence events, and how they should be assessed.” In Contemporary Political Thought, we start with the first chapter of Leslie Paul Thiele’s Thinking Politics. Like Grant, Thiele suggests that, “political theories are not so much proven true or false as they are shown to be helpful or unhelpful in understanding collective existence, an existence that is rife with meaning but short on truth.”

Theorizing about our shared world is something we all do on a daily basis, whether we know it or not, in so far as we interpret events and attempt to construct a parsimonious, accurate and resonant narrative about those events. When we get the story right, it strikes others whom we share it with as meaningful and useful. Put more simply, if we witness political events, we want to know “What’s up with that?” Political theory equips us to make the judgments we need to make to answer that question.

So, back to civility. Our discussion relatively quickly determined that the story of a collapse of civility in the United States did little as a narrative to interpret and explain why Jared Loughner attempted to assassinate Gabrielle Giffords. There are clear empirical dimensions to this question, and perhaps the evidence isn’t fully in yet. But the prevailing opinion was that Loughner is severely mentally ill, and conventional ways of thinking about human interaction probably didn’t meaningfully capture his situation.

But is Boyd’s notion of civility as a form of “mutual deference” that allows the natural inclination to sympathy for others to express itself helpful for us as we reflect on the fractious political climate in the United States today? (And again, as Eric points out below, this is an empirical question to a point: is political discourse more rancorous today than at other points in history? Perhaps not, but a September 2010 poll out of the Center for Political Participation found that 58% of Americans perceive the tone of political discourse to be worse in our time). Does the so-called collapse of civility in politics signal that rivals don’t consider each other moral equals? Have we lost a commitment to the “liberal virtues” (tolerance, moderation, equality, good faith engagement with others, etc.) that are necessary for a flourishing democratic society? Is a more formal, “thin” civility perhaps the thickest moral relationship suited for the conditions of a large, pluralist society?

These are classic questions for the political theorist: subject to interpretation, essentially contestable, premised on our beliefs about human nature and history, reflective of our values. Our discussion last night was lively in attempting to make some sense of it all. Ultimately, I wanted more from Boyd on how we can encourage the cultivation of greater civility. This is the crux of the matter, and the American people don’t seem to have a lot of confidence in the ability of politicians to exercise self-restraint when an opportunity to grandstand or go for the jugular presents itself (the overtures in Washington this week toward a “new era of civility” notwithstanding).

Boyd leaves us with the issue that Grant and Thiele broach: judgment. The closest he gives to an answer to this complex question of ethical self-cultivation is to say, “Part (although by no means the whole) of learning to be civil is a training in suspending judgment about others who are different from ourselves.” So, this may not be something we can write our Congressperson about, but it is a practice we can each engage in every day. As the political theorist Hanna Pitkin tells us, there is a fundamental difference between making necessary political judgments and being needlessly judgmental. Developing the wisdom to grasp that difference is not easy. But it’s something we can all do, or work towards, that might ultimately be political transformative from the bottom up.

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