The Virtue of Civility

If civility is a virtue, it is a controversial one. Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy argued in a 1998 magazine article that civility can be dangerous when it distracts from real issues: “They have fits over ‘coarse language,’ but homeless families and involuntary unemployment only get a shrug.” More recently, Tobias Kelly & Sharika Thiranagama in a piece for Public Books point out that in response to populist movements around the world, civility is being heralded as the proper response. However, they do not think cool civility is the correct response to divisive, vitriolic campaigns. In their words, “Civility is never neutral, but can instead be central to violent and entrenched forms of domination.”

While these objections are thoughtful and have some persuasive force, they have not convinced me to abandon civility as a virtue. Outside of the Christian tradition, civility is usually rooted in mutual respect. Within the Christian tradition, it can be understood in this way, but respect could be replaced with even higher regard, unconditional love. Because human beings are made in the image of God and are loved by God, each person is of immense value. In my view, civility is the virtue of treating people in accordance with this immense value they have. Jesus’ teaching to “love your neighbor” and his expanding the definition of neighbor to include even bitter traditional enemies have persuaded me of this view.

How does this view of civility handle the objections mentioned previously? Both objections seem to get at the idea that civility can be weaponized to protect the status quo and paper over injustice. I agree that this happens. Under the view of civility I described, making light of injustice using civility is pharisaical and intolerable. To avoid this folly, I think a good strategy is to attempt to empathize with the pain of those who are not acting civilly and to take to heart the true parts of their message even as the uncivil behavior is condemned. This is difficult, but it is important not to use civility as a cudgel to invalidate the message of broken and oppressed people.

I think this “Christian civility,” or civility with a deep infusion of empathy and love, avoids some ethical pitfalls and would help make the world a better place. So, how can civility help on OBU’s campus? Civility guides me to be respectful when I have a discussion with a classmate over a controversial theological issue. Civility guides me to find common ground when I debate politics with someone wearing a Make America Great Again hat or a Bernie Sanders T-shirt. Civility guides me not to tune out opinions that oppose my own. Civility guides me to be patient with my hot-headed friend so he may learn to control his temper better by seeing my example. Civility guides me to love my enemy. Ultimately, civility guides me to be like God, who is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.”

by Michael Calhoun, First Place Winner of OBU “Civility” essay contest

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