Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy by Stephen L. Carter (Basic Books, 338 pp., $25)


Civility, or rather its absence, is a subject of great concern today. Journalists, politicians, social critics, professors, and ordinary Americans are worried. In 1996, U.S. News & World Report ran a cover story entitled "The American Uncivil Wars," and reported the results of a poll which since have become the common lore of commentators on civility: 89 percent of those questioned think that incivility is a serious problem, and 78 percent believe that the problem has worsened over the past decade. The respondents were asked, rather bizarrely, to rank the professions according to civility; lawyers, journalism, and politicians were placed lower than professional athletes. Since no definition of civility and no means of measuring its decline were provided, it is hard to know what to make of these results.

Stephen L. Carter repeats these findings on the opening page of his book. He has no doubt about their meaning. Angry drivers about to explode on the highway, rude sales clerks, the street fashion of "drooping pants," vile rap lyrics, violence on television and in movies, explorative advertising that appeals to base instincts, the telephone sales pitch that invades the privacy of the home, violent metaphors in ordinary language, hate speech, mud-slinging political campaigns, the "demonization" of political opponents, obscenity and nastiness in cyberspace: for Carter, these are unmistakable signs of a "crisis of civility" that is threatening nothing less than democracy in America. And it is not only democracy that is at risk. Carter gravely warns that the crisis of civility is also "part of a larger crisis of morality." And, even more ponderously, "because morality is what ultimately distinguishes humans from other animals, the crisis is ultimately one of humanity."

I would like to report that a crisis of such magnitude has found a social critic equal to the task, but Carter falls regrettably short. Even if it is not quite the apocalypse that Carter imagines, the subject of in civility certainly deserves serious and nuanced consideration, and Carter is certainly sincere and well-meaning. His aim is to "construct a society based on civility," and he will do so by "re-entangl[ing] etiquette and ethics." It is a grandiose project, and Carter is nothing if not confident. In the opening pages, he announces the single cause of incivility: selfishness. And with just as much certainty, he offers a simple solution: people need to make sacrifices.

It is hardly news that selfishness is a threat to democracy. Social critics from Alexis de Tocqueville to Christopher Lasch have laid bare the insidious ways that egoism, individualism, and narcissism destroy the conditions that make shared life possible. What is novel about Carter's book is his insistence that the antidote to selfishness is sacrifice, and that only religious faith can provide the basis for sacrifice. We should call this ethos, he says, "sacrificial civility"; and by adhering to its rules of "etiquette," democracy in America will be redeemed.

A great deal of the book is devoted to fleshing out these peculiar notions. Carter defines civility as an "attitude of respect, even love for our fellow citizens." "The key to reconstructing civility … is for all of us to learn anew the virtue of acting with love toward our neighbors." Just in case we hadn't heard, Carter instructs us that "love of neighbor has long been a tenet of Judaism and Christianity." He also acknowledges that "loving the neighbor is hard work." Then, in what is a characteristic and jarring feature of his writing, he abruptly shifts tones from hard-headed realism to gushing sentiment: universal love comes from the recognition that every "human being, whatever his or her strengths, weaknesses, and simple complexities [sic], is also a part of God's creation." Thus in loving others we love God, and "we should be struck with awe at the fact that we are face to face with a part of God's work." Since the command to love admits no exception, "even a thug is entitled to the respect that we owe our neighbors." To which the tough, committed democrat in him immediately adds in parentheses: "Which is not to say that civility forbids us ever to fight back."

The burden of Carter's argument is to show that his religious doctrine is better equipped than any other to further democratic life. Unfortunately, Carter makes no serious effort to make his vision come alive for the non-believers in this democracy, nor does he demonstrate its necessity, for democracy generally. Is Carter calling for more civility in America or for more religion in America? They are not the same thing.

Carter apparently believes the connection between civility and democracy is so obvious that he may resort only to homilies, such as "democracy without civility is like dieting without discipline," or approvingly quote other people's vague formulations, such as "democracy itself 'can be seen not only as a type of government but as a system of manners, a form of social life.'" He does not see that his call for self-sacrifice seems equally suitable to theocracy, monarchy, or oligarchy, which have at their core hierarchy and deference.

Carter's most focused discussion appears in a chapter about "democratic dialogue." To his credit, he does not want to shy away from "passionate disagreement," nor does he equate civility with consensus. He believes that disagreement generates discussion, and he wants to expand discussion through "civil listening" and respect for opponents: "By encouraging us to see even those with whom we disagree as full equals before God, civility enables us to hold the respectful dialogues without which democratic decision-making is impossible."

But must I really see Stephen Carter as nothing less than my equal before God when I disagree with him? I don't think so, though I intend to disagree with him respectfully. And also firmly, for his examples of the sacrifices required by his version of civility do not go very far in illuminating the connection between civility and democracy. Not losing one's temper during heated disagreements is, for Carter, "a rather basic sacrifice," as is "being respectful to those with whom I strongly disagree," since it is "easier" and "feels more natural" to be "rude and dismissive." Other examples include going to ETA meetings or leading a Boy Scout troop when one would "rather be watching television," and, in the same sentence, "going off to fight for our country when we would rather be safe at home." Carter also claims that "perhaps the greatest sacrifice that all of us must make … is to try to live our own lives in a way that models civility … for the benefit of our children."

These "sacrifices," if that is the right word, range from the prosaic to the glorious; and thus one might imagine that there are many reasons and motives for them. Carter is certainly confusing civility with altruism, benevolence, volunteerism, or patriotism. It is civic to fight for one's country, but in what sense is it civil? But Carter is more of a preacher than a thinker. He sticks to his tried and true formulation: "There is the thing that I should do to show my love for others, and there is the thing that I would rather do, out of a desire for my own pleasure and comfort." In Carter's one-dimensional view of the world, people just need to do the right thing: "The rich man would prefer to keep his money. The segregationist would prefer to go on segregating. We are asking them to yield their own preferences for a larger good."

Carter's discussion of sacrifice is simplistic and shallow, oblivious to the specter of tragedy that haunts all acts of genuine sacrifice, and unmindful of the obdurate nature of sin. But Carter's ideal is not devotion to a particular religion, it is religiosity. Thus he blends not only different denominations but different religions into one homogenous benevolent mass. "Where do we learn to put aside our own desires and even needs for the sake of the larger good? … We go to our churches, our synagogues, our mosques, and our temples. In short, we go to God." Are secular Americans, then, essentially uncivil? And is faith to be valued mainly for its moral and social usefulness?

This bland, generalized faith is certainly not an invention of our own time. As many historians and theologians have shown, evangelical Protestantism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries anticipated many of its therapeutic features, the tenor of which is best captured by H. Richard Niebuhr: "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." It is entirely fitting that Carter has sampled early evangelical sermons and liberally sprinkles his text with them.

Thus, in what he believes is a quotation that demonstrates the link between civility and democracy, Carter sets out an entry from the evangelist William Wilberforce's diary: "God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners." Instead of pondering how reforms of such enormously different moral and political weight could be so carelessly yoked together, Carter announces that "the connection makes perfect sense: enslaving other human beings is simply an extreme form of the lack of respect for their createdness that allows us to be rude. In both cases, we violate the requirement to love our neighbors." Slavery, a form of rudeness!

And this is not a momentary lapse. Thus, in what he no doubt believes is a courageous act of following his logic wherever it leads him, Carter declares that people who are serious about ridding the world of negative campaign ads must make a sacrifice: "Vote against A (who shares our politics) and in favor of B (who does not) in order to penalize A for the sleazy nastiness of his campaign." The sacrifice? "You must put aside an issue of great importance to you." What does this mean in practice? One sacrifices one's principles as a form of self-abnegation, even when that means voting for a person who has undemocratic or dangerous ideas and policies? And this in the name of nicer, cleaner political campaigns? And matters are made significantly worse by another bizarre example, with which Carter wishes to show that he knows the difference between politeness and civility: "A concentration camp guard possessing the most exquisite good manners is a concentration camp guard nonetheless. His willingness to say, 'Would you mind stepping into the gas chamber, sir?' is a mark only of horror." (Apparently Carter has never heard of This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, Tadeusz Borowski's chilling volume of stories about the death camps.)

Given Carter's single-minded attachment to sacrifice, it is not clear why he felt that he needed any larger concept such as civility or manners. But when he is not viewing the world as a "Christian," Carter likes to see the world as a sociologist. Thus he repeats the sociological truism that we live in a world of strangers and that manners ease our interactions with them: "Civility is a virtue that equips us for everyday life with strangers, our daily democratic train ride with people we do not like or do not even know." He then goes on to equate civility with manners, taking as his starting point Norbert Elias's pioneering work The Civilizing Process, which traced the way people gained mastery over their bodily functions and urges through "the civilizing process." By analyzing etiquette books from the Middle Ages to the early twentieth century, Elias found that, as courtly manners were adopted throughout society, increasing attention was paid to the way that "outward bodily propriety" or "decency" distinguished "civilized" people from "barbarians" or animals. This idea, which was only one aspect of Elias's complicated study, becomes, in Carter's hands, the defining feature of civility: "Distinguishing ourselves from other animals--or, if you prefer, displaying our humanity--is what civility is all about."

As to what civil life looks like, Carter is happy to provide a personal anecdote. In a chapter entitled "Welcoming the Stranger," he includes a trite description of the movement away from the "thick network of relationships" that characterized pre-modern "community" to the free, though alienating, life of modern urban "society." And this comes immediately after "A Dark, Skinny Stranger in Cleveland Park," a homespun tale of his family's move to a white neighborhood in Washington, D.C. in 1966. He recalls that his loneliness and his fears of rejection were eased by the generosity of a Jewish neighbor who brought over a welcome tray of cream cheese and jelly sandwiches. Musing on the rarity of "those who are truly moved by [civility] to love their fellow human beings," Carter is moved to rhapsody:

I learned that truth in 1966, and, to this day, I can dose my eyes and feel on my tongue the smooth, slick sweetness of the cream cheese and jelly sandwiches that I gobbled on that summer afternoon when I discovered how a single act of genuine and unassuming civility can change a life forever.

It is an emotionally charged reminiscence for the writer; but for the reader it seems small and banal, especially in the light of Carter's lofty claims for civility. He returns to it in the final lines of the book, where he describes a summer stroll in a cemetery with his family. They come upon a tombstone, and its inscription about the "generosity of spirit which assumes the best, not the worst, of the stranger" so deeply moves him that Carter struggles to express his own equivalent sentiment: "To which I can only add: don't forget the cream cheese and jelly sandwiches." To which he immediately adds the last word of the book, "Amen."

Glib sociology coupled with impressionistic jottings also mar his chapter entitled "The Embarrassment of Free Will." How is our understanding of the tensions between individual and society, freedom and responsibility, deepened by yet another casual centrist criticism of "the laissez-faire economic vision of some on the right" and "the laissez-faire social vision of some on the left"? Or by yet another reiteration of the sociological platitude that "communities are in large measure defined by their norms--the expectations that they place on their members--even when the norms do not have the force of law"? In practice, "the freedom problem," as he quaintly calls it, boils down to wearing a tie to the office if that is the "accepted norm," or choosing the proper fork at dinner. The "freedom problem" has rarely been so thoroughly trivialized.

Carter's understanding of history is no more strenuous than his understanding of concepts:

So where did all the civility go? And when? I have read all the theories. … Although many of these theories seem to me to hold bits and pieces of the truth, they nevertheless are nibbling around the edges. As I grope for a thicker, more filling plate of reasons, I keep coming back to my longstanding hunch that it all began to go bad around 1965, when, as somebody said, everything seemed to happen at once. That was the year that America, quire suddenly, became postmodern. Many venerable American traditions--some wonderful, some horrible--all withered at the same time. And what has that to do with civility? Let us look and see.

Granted he is not a historian, but isn't it Carter's responsibility as "a student of civility" to provide a more rigorous historical account than his "long-standing hunch that it all began to go bad around 1965"? After all, a large literature on the subject does exist.

The literature on the evolution of civility treats it as a feature of a new sensibility that both accompanied and fostered liberalism in the eighteenth century. More than anyone else, this literature is associated with J.G.A. Pocock's work on the history of political thought. Our modern notion of civility turns out to be the fruit of sustained debate about the nature, the development, and the functioning of commercial society, and it is as much a child of Scottish moral philosophy, rhetoric, and aesthetics as of political economy and liberal political thought.

It was within the context of the emergence of commercial society that politeness became not only a social ideal but an alternative to the pursuit of civic virtue. This helps to explain why we associate civility not only with manners and morals, but also with civil liberty, civil fights, and civil law. Adam Smith, David Hume, and other Enlightenment thinkers believed that the division and the diversification of labor would raise the standard of living and increase the wealth of nations, which, in turn, would lead to widespread refinement and cosmopolitanism.

Since they were among the last disputants in the longstanding quarrel between the ancients and the moderns, their ideas were formed in opposition to the ancients. Thus they rejected the classical definition of civic liberty--the active virtue of a citizen exercising equal deference--in favor of civil liberty or what we today call liberalism--freedom from political participation. Civil liberty meant freedom to trade and to make contracts, to pursue the private goods of wealth and leisure in public; and the modern individual was content to pay others to perform what had previously been understood as his own civic duties. Instead of the public-spiritedness of civic virtue, there emerged the liberal conception of government as the administration of law, with civil servants manning state bureaucracies; likewise, instead of the unspecialized citizen-warrior, there were civilians in various and specialized roles with a professional, standing army to protect them.

The champions of commercial society effectively re-envisioned the good life: "urbanity, politeness, and civility" would more than compensate for the loss of civic virtue. Eighteenth-century moderns took pride in their "refined passions" and their "polished manners"; these were the qualifies that marked their superiority over the ancients. Hume spoke for his age when he chastised the ancients for their want of "delicacy," "polite deference and respect," and "civility"; and when he celebrated the modern individual who was "commercial" and "cultivated," "polite" and "refined," "sociable," "sentimental," and "sympathetic," and in possession of taste.

But rules of etiquette (to which Stephen Carter is to attached) were simply not a part of this discourse. One simply knew how to speak and how to act, that is, one became a certain kind of person, primarily through the social art of conversation, what Hume called "the most useful and agreeable of any [art]." And conversation flourished in a sphere that belonged neither to the court, the state, nor the private, domain of the household--but in taverns, coffeehouses, salons, dances, and gentlemen's clubs.

The trouble with the new ideal was that politeness could degenerate, in Hume's words, into "affectation and foppery, disguise and insincerity." People could ape elegant manners without actually acquiring the requisite moral character, and civility then became a hollow form. In recent years a number of historians--notably Karen Halttunen in Confidence Men and Painted Women, Kenneth Cmiel in Democratic Eloquence, John Kasson in Rudeness and Civility, and Richard Bushman in The Refinement of America--have explored the development of gentility in America, studying not only its widespread practice but also the ever-mounting fears about artificiality, hypocrisy, and corruption that it entailed, In the history of civility in America, habits of mind associated with Puritanism and Republicanism fueled suspicions of luxury and refinement, of snobbery and aristocratic pretension. And the social and economic fluidity of city life led many Americans to wonder what might lie behind the genteel appearance of strangers, even as they turned ever more obsessively to etiquette books to decipher society and learn how to behave.

Kasson's Rudeness and Civility figures large in Carter's citations (one imagines that the title appeared in a computer search under the keyword "civility"), though Carter inexplicably ignores the many tensions between refinement and democracy that Kasson sets out. Yet it is precisely these tensions that helped to give civility a bad name, and to discredit associated terms such as refinement, politeness, elegance, decorum, propriety, decency, reserve, and reticence. This should give pause to anyone who wants to revive civility today. In fact, during the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century, gentility was twisted into Santayana's memorable mocking phrase "the genteel tradition," and a younger generation of cultural critics blamed it for the sterility and the paucity of American arts and letters, as well as for the suffocating over-refinement of daily life.

At the same time, politeness, decorum, and reticence were increasingly associated with "civilized sexual morality." Sex reformers held its stringent moral code responsible not only for various neuroses and perversions (which Freud candidly dissected), but also for a fetid atmosphere of hypocrisy, which had given rise to the notorious "double standard" fur men and a "conspiracy of silence" about contraception. New agencies of exposure proliferated, including frank discussions of birth control, realist novels about the underside of American life, and mass-circulation journalism specializing in invasive and sensational stories. The advocates of exposure insisted that truth more than compensated for any violation of propriety or manners. And they insisted that only prudes, prigs, puritans, or censors--people who had something to hide--would object. In this opening volley in the battle between moderns and Victorians, those on the side of exposure situated themselves on the side of personal freedom, democracy, and progress. Civility became just another word for bourgeois morality, or, more baldly, hypocrisy.

As this brief history shows, there is simply no historical basis in American life for Carter's strange notion of "sacrificial civility." And his notions about renewing civility are equally eccentric. After stating bromide after bromide about civility throughout the book, he consolidates fifteen of them in a concluding chapter called "The Etiquette of Democracy." Carter somehow believes that it is possible to graft these rules onto present-day society, and that the family and religious institutions will teach them, as if civility were just a question of rules.

If civility is to be revived today, it is not rules of etiquette that are needed, but practices in which it can be cultivated. But even if it were possible to strengthen the practices that foster civility, it is not clear how this would further democracy. After all, politics and religion are subjects different in kind from mariners, morals, aesthetics, and general knowledge about the world, which were once at the heart of polite conversation. Conversation was meant to please and to delight one's companions; it did not involve debate or deliberation about the public good, which could all too easily degenerate into contentious dispute.

As for Carter's "sacrificial civility," its chances for success seem equally remote. This is not only because urging people to love strangers as a means of loving God will be compelling only to the faithful, but also because his description of incivility as selfishness only partially captures what is wrong with contemporary social and political life. Rudeness does plague our daily life in all the ways that Carter mentions, but rudeness can sometimes be a form of honesty; and our daily life is plagued by something more insidious than rudeness--vulgarity, a threat that is no longer recognized today since the judgment of vulgarity is regarded as condescension or elitism. Before the twentieth century, however, vulgarity was understood as the opposite of politeness, and was closely associated with mediocrity, conformism, crassness, and triviality.

It is worth remembering that nineteenth-century critics like Tocqueville, Mill, and Arnold attributed these qualifies to mass democracy, and later in the century John Ruskin and William Morris blamed industrial capitalism and the degradation of labor for their prevalence. All of them feared leveling, by which they meant making the lowest common denominator the standard of all things. Standardization, blandness, conformism, mediocrity, crassness, banality--more than ever before, these are the defining features of our common world. Until Stephen Garter can explain how "sacrificial civility" will elevate the tone of our social and public life as well as enlarge its aspirations, we must look elsewhere for answers.


Rochelle Gurstein is the author of The Repeal of Reticence: America's Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art (Hill and Wang).