A response to The Harper Review’s winter 2023 proposition, “Civility is outdated.”
I have heard many times from members of older generations that those in younger generations have no grasp of etiquette or respect for their elders. Those in younger generations rebut this by saying that their elders are out of touch and need to get with the times. Both parties act as if their hostile sentiments are novel, and both see their own way of conduct as the only correct one. Civility, courtesy, manners, and politeness are synonyms for behavior and speech deemed appropriate or “correct.” But who, exactly, sets these rules? Who demands that these rules be followed?
Civility can never be outdated because the conditions that shape it are themselves mutable. What is now considered civilized behavior was not civilized centuries or even decades ago. The “laws” of civility include the customs, traditions, and habits of a given environment. As time passes, environments naturally change and so too do the people inhabiting them. To accommodate their new environmental conditions, people reimagine etiquette and redefine civilized behavior. This process is gradual, taking place over several generations. Different generations will therefore understand civility differently, producing a plurality of definitions for ideal civil behavior.
My argument finds an ally in post-structuralist theory, which claims that populations must embody, or enact, cultural practices in order to deem these habits as correct or “true.” Without a large population to legitimize a certain conception of civility, these embodied customs would not last or hold any social weight. Only when a population embodies these practices can they become “real,” if only temporarily. Over time, the term “civility” has therefore signified scores of behaviors. A truer understanding of civility looks beyond the specific customs of one time and place and understands that civility is instead a type of practice whose content is determined by the various populations that embody it.
In short, civility cannot be outdated. There is no one moment in time or set of customs that defines what it means to be civilized. Rather, civility naturally evolves and is constantly re-analyzed. The multitude of people, cultures, and populations, all inhabiting different environments and subject to varying conditions, leads to ranging conceptions of civilized behavior. Sometimes, conflicting definitions of civility, developed as an environment’s conditions change over time, sit side by side in a single culture. Instead of acknowledging civility as a catch-all term for a changing set of cultural norms, older and younger generations squabble over their preferred norms. Caught in the crossfire of time, individuals can chalk up their discomfort by saying, “Civility is outdated.”