Civility and its discontents

Is civility outdated? A letter on when we’re permitted to break the law.

Juan N. Pava

February 1, 2023

A response to The Harper Review’s winter 2023 proposition, “Civility is outdated.”

Dear editors,

Civility remains a litmus test for a society’s maturity, and in this way it must not be allowed to end. From the Latin civilis, meaning “relating to citizens,” in the mid-sixteenth century it acquired a sense of “courteousness,” along with the related idea of “non-barbaric.” However, civility goes well beyond the almost cosmetic politeness and specious concern for others that have since defined it. Let us look at the special yet crucial case of civil disobedience. Disobedience can encompass a variety of actions: some of them private, some of them public, some with and some without legitimacy and justification. But in the political domain, the justificatory line seems to be drawn by civility.

“Civil disobedience” is equivalent to “permissible lawbreaking,” and in this isomorphism we see that, if “disobedience” maps to lawbreaking, “civility” must therefore equal permissibility. And hence we may rightly ask: why is disobedience permissible when civil? What distinguishes civil lawbreaking from its non-civil counterpart? Relatedly, why might we defend civil, and hence seemingly legitimate, disobedience even under legitimate regimes? The answer cannot be free of controversy, since controversy is and must be a necessary feature of civil disobedience in both practice and theory. Nevertheless, an attempt at response may be useful enough.

Civil disobedience distinguishes itself from ordinary crime in that, even as it breaks the law, it has moral or political intent. Moreover, unlike the also politically and morally motivated revolution, civil disobedience fundamentally defends the authority it challenges. Whereas revolution overturns both policies and ideals, civil disobedience defies a society’s policies in protection of its ideals. And so, under a theoretically free and equal society, it calls for freedom in the face of subjugation, and for equality in the face of discrimination, because of that society’s esteem of freedom and equality. Therefore, civil disobedience, insofar as it points out our limitations, keeps us honest to ourselves.

Herein lies civility. It is the acknowledgement that our practices may be at odds with our values without necessarily soiling the validity or the importance of the latter. It is civility we see when protestors respect the spirit of the law by breaking its letter. It is civility we enact when, as onlookers, we recognize this. Civility requires tolerance, attentive listening, and empathy. We are not merely polite or courteous when we are civil, but understanding. We are not civil despite our willingness to be challenged by others, but because of it. Civility enables the success of pluralism and dissent: it represents the minimum level of respect that citizens require from one another and so it is key for lasting civilization.

Juan N. Pava

Juan N. Pava is a fourth-year undergraduate at New York University studying philosophy and economics.