Civility in America, or How Abe Lincoln almost cocked pistols in a duel
Civil discourse is a fundamental part of our everyday lives and interactions.
Everything we say, omit, post or delete is a decision about what we want our communication with each other to look like. But our thoughts and stories about civil discourse often remain unconscious and unarticulated. To remedy that, we asked our social media followers what they think of the term civil discourse. Let’s take a look at just how important civil discourse is to all of us and discuss our respondents’ anonymous responses in the context of our political and social environment.
Conversations have the potential for creating discomfort, conflict and sometimes even violence. Discourse is often not civil. But what exactly is civil discourse? What rules do we want ourselves and others to follow in our communication with each other? This question, whether we’re aware of it or not, is one every individual and society is confronted with every day. All the time, in fact. We answer it in our customs, laws and daily interactions with both strangers and people we know.
America: A Culture of Civility and Incivility
Civil discourse has played a central role in the American imagination since its beginning. To avoid the kind of religious wars and persecution that had plagued Europe for centuries, the founders separated church and state, enshrined freedom of speech and promoted “civility” in speech — a set of principles and obligations ensuring mutual toleration and peaceful coexistence. History had shown that anyone who believed they knew the absolute truth would probably try to impose their beliefs on others whose thoughts and opinions were different and, therefore, “wrong.” To prevent this kind of despotism, civil discourse would encourage toleration of differing perspectives on things that, the founders said, no single person or group could legitimately claim to know completely or for certain. As one of our respondents wrote, civil discourse should entail “listening to the other side of things.”
Still, speech between early American citizens could easily become impolite, manipulative, insulting and lead to violence. Often it did. For the first hundred years after the American Revolution, dueling was still considered a legitimate way of answering perceived incivility, libel or slander. Congressmen, newspaper editors and Andrew Jackson can be counted among those who cocked pistols to resolve questions of honor. Federalist and first Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, though a proponent of civil discourse and publicly opposed to duels, was shot and killed in one by personal and political rival Aaron Burr. According to Smithsonian magazine, even Abraham Lincoln, early in his political career, got as far as the duelling ground before third parties intervened to interrupt the combat.
Duels have long been outlawed. But one doesn’t need to have taken up arms in defense of honor to know how easily conversations can get out of hand. Some of our social media followers said they saw civil discourse as a way of preventing insulting and manipulative speech, a means of understanding others rather than “being right,” winning arguments or belittling opponents. If the American founders were right and no one possesses a monopoly on truth, civility in speech can help expose one to differing perspectives, all of which contain something of the truth.
But this kind of civil discourse is reportedly in short supply of late. We are a culture that prioritizes tolerance and understanding. But we are also a culture of competitive self-interest, in which winning is highly valued, often at the expense of civility.
Weber Shandwick’s annual survey on civility in America in 2019 reported that 68% of Americans perceive incivility to be a “major problem” with serious consequences, including cyberbullying, harassment, violence and hate crimes, intimidation, intolerance and reduced feelings of safety in public places. Major news networks covering the 2020 presidential debates spent a significant amount of time focusing on the candidates’ incivility — being impolite, interrupting, talking over and insulting each other. BBC coverage of the 65 days leading up to protesters’ January 6, 2021 incursion on Capitol Hill chronicles persistent allegations of electoral fraud and encouragement to “stop the steal.” In early 2021, The Washington Post reported an increase in anti-Asian discrimination and violence following anti-Asian COVID-19 statements from the White House.
But these events stand out only because of a general cultural context in which we expect and do find ways to — as one of our respondents put it — “have open conversation to test out various viewpoints or perspectives.” The very existence of mediated town halls with rules of debate, not to mention the October 2020 decision to mute opponents’ microphones to allow uninterrupted statements during the first two minutes of every segment of the presidential debate, demonstrates that mainstream media executives recognize that their legitimacy relies at least in part on pursuing civility in discourse.
Some of our respondents said they thought civil discourse “should be implemented everywhere.” But outside of courtrooms and debate halls, we have only ourselves to moderate and referee our conversations. And while we may do our best to pursue civility in discourse, we are not in control of how others communicate. We have mute, unfollow, unsubscribe and even block options on many social media platforms. But some of our conversations are with people we rely on to meet social, economic, political and cultural needs. These conversations can be more difficult to mute. What do we do if people we depend on are uncivil with us? Staying civil when others are not is not easy. Things can get very emotional.
One response to others’ incivility is extreme toleration. Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil disobedience movement, for example, trained for nonviolence and civility, putting aside angry reactions, even in response to brutal incivility from authorities. Malcolm X, among others, thought MLK’s nonviolent civility rendered Black Americans “defenseless.” X thought rage at injustice was a powerful and legitimate democratic urge that should be used to build Black solidarity and independence. In the end, both leaders’ approaches proved too confrontational for many “moderate” Americans, who — according to MLK’s Letter from Birmingham Jail — advised “patience,” a wait that “almost always meant never.”
Our readers noted that civil discourse as a term had in their experience been used in just such a way — “to prioritize the comfort of the status quo” and to “preclude displays of emotion, even useful ones.” “Tone policing” rejects otherwise legitimate perspectives and information because their presentation is perceived by some to be impolite or out of control. One respondent reported that every time someone used the term civil discourse in conversation with them, it was condescending.
Though tone policing can be directed at anyone, emotionality is sometimes reported to be over-attributed to groups of people who have at least historically occupied subordinate positions in society. The World Health Organization reported in 2020, for instance, that doctors are more likely to diagnose depression in women than men with equivalent scores on depression indicators. Likewise, psychological research by Halberstadt et al. on racialized emotion recognition accuracy has found that Black children are more likely to be misperceived as angry than white children.
On the one hand, these findings probably imply that women and Black people are more likely to be tone policed. On the other, perhaps our primary concern should be not who is being tone policed but that tone policing occurs at all. Civility in discourse is not just about manners. Civil discourse, one of our respondents wrote, occurs “without rancor” — without deep-seated ill will. Anger at injustice is different from ill will and may in some cases be a “useful” emotion, reflecting a more civil discourse than one that permits only the dispassionate observation of decorum.
The tension between manners and morality in civil discourse plays a role not just in gender and race relations and politics but all of the interactions and institutions that make up our lives, including school, employment, friendship, family and intimacy. We negotiate this tension every time one of us speaks, types, tweets, omits or repeats, not just about our leaders but ourselves, friends and strangers. What and how we think of civil discourse is as inextricable from ourselves as our personalities. It is who we are and want to be.
In this sense, we can only understand ourselves and each other by exposing our thoughts and narratives — filtered and unfiltered — about civil discourse. Want to learn more? Subscribe to our blog for more discussions around civil discourse.