Accessibility links

Washington Journal: Civility Preconditions A Democratic Dialogue

  • Charles Fenyvesi



Washington, 23 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A new book by the celebrated American author Stephen Carter has a resonant sentence that could serve as a slogan: "Civility is a precondition of democratic dialogue."

Published last year in hardback, the paperback edition reached the bookstores this summer. A blend of political science and ethics, Christian theology and popular journalism, low-key preaching and poignant anecdotes, the work received high praise from reviewers.

It prompted The New York Times Book Review to acclaim Carter as "one of America's leading public intellectuals," with the word "public" suggesting an intellectual fully engaged in the life of his community, as opposed to a professor shut up in an ivory tower.

The book offers a serious discussion of issues valuable not only to American society troubled by what some writers and politicians consider an alarming increase in antisocial and antigovernmental violence but also to countries struggling to develop their first democratic institutions.

A law professor at America's Yale University, Carter entitled his first book "Integrity." He defined integrity as "a virtue without which the others have no meaning." He wrote: "If I have no integrity, there is no point in asking me what I stand for."

But once an individual acquires integrity and through integrity builds up what Carter calls "a moral self," civility is the natural next step, by which he means the acquisition of a set of techniques for interacting with others.

He does not think that civility is synonymous with manners, though he insists that manners do matter, and a lot. He means by civility what he calls "an attitude of respect, even love, for our fellow citizens." He considers civility more than a matter of habit or convention but a fully moral issue. He writes: "it is morally better to be civil than to be uncivil."

Carter's ruling metaphor is the railroad, an enormous success in the 19th century America which forced the young nation, then a notoriously unruly and impolite bunch, to observe certain rules of behavior and even to acquire manners. He contends that the railroad became enormously popular partly because "travelers understood their obligation to treat each other well" and the resulting well-being attracted more travelers.

Carter contrasts the polite performance of railroad users, strangers to one another yet traveling together harmoniously in well-appointed trains, with the appearance in our days of increasingly aggressive drivers of private cars who, "surrounded by metal and glass," believe themselves "traveling alone." He laments that some drivers care less and less about their fellow citizens, seeing them as competitors for road space and obstacles to getting faster to their destinations, rather than fellow passengers.

He agrees with Harvard professor and social critic James Q. Wilson who wrote in his book "The Moral Sense" that rules of etiquette are valuable "as a way of signaling the existence of self-control." Another quote comes from British historian Andrew St. George: democracy "can be seen not only as a type of government but a system of manners, a form of social life."

In Carter's phrasing, democratic commitments, "whether to liberty, equality, due process, or perhaps simple respect for the election returns, may all be seen as rules of etiquette, behaviors that are necessary to allow us to travel in democratic peace with our fellow passengers."

Carter sums up: "On the railroad trains, all the passengers together were a community, called by a shared moral understanding to sacrifice for each other. But if, as we now seem to think, there are no other passengers, there is no community. And if there is no community, we can do what we like, not just on the roads but everywhere."

His conclusion has a ring that could come from the church pulpit as much as from a professor's lectern: "The illusion that we travel life alone is ruining us all. The proper name of the illusion is incivility."

He suggests that we take our lesson from America's Civil Rights Movement whose leaders knew that their "protests would be met with violence because they were challenging a violently oppressive system. But they also knew that success would be found not through incivility, but through the display of moral courage. They were willing to behave better than their oppressors."

Carter admires what American black civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. used to call "purification," which in practice meant repeated reminders to activists that the biblical injunction to love our neighbors is not a command "to love only the nice ones." Carter argues that purification helped the protesters to see God even in those individuals who oppressed them. Purification also "offered the confidence to be firm in the pursuit of justice without losing the conviction that means as well as end are proper subjects of moral judgment."

According to Carter, King saw the civil rights struggle not only as one for full black participation in American democracy but as one with redemptive powers, as it was not only for the marchers but for all Americans.

Carter has a message for traditionalists and anti-traditionalists. He writes: "To celebrate good manners, we need not, always, celebrate them in their traditional forms, but we do need to honor traditions sufficiently to search them for any deeper truths they may teach."

XS
SM
MD
LG