14 October, 2013Issue 23.1PhilosophyPolitics & Society

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Warming the Blood Like Lager

Luke Brunning

Being CivilJohn A. Hall
The Importance of Being Civil: The Struggle for Political Decency
Princeton University Press, 2013
272 pages
ISBN 978-0691153261


Writing about civility is difficult. As John Hall suggests early in his desultory book on the concept: “civility does not warm the blood like wine. Bluntly, civility stands opposed to romanticism.” While many significant ideas often outwit lively modes of presentation, The Importance of Being Civil warms the blood like cheap lager. The best you can hope to achieve is an adolescent inebriation after chapters of Pyrrhic consumption.

A second difficulty with approaching civility is it can be hard to make the concept appear controversial. How many people deny that civility is important, in some form or other, in many different spheres of public life? How many readers actually think that civility is always a stable and inevitable consequence of social development over time, and not a fragile state that can be undermined by social, economic, or political change? The book is under-motivated. A casual reader, without any theoretical presuppositions, would benefit from more reasons to doubt that civility is a significant political concept.

These two difficulties raise the bar for those that approach the place of civility in modern life and, frustratingly, that bar remains unthreatened by this book. To be clear, Hall writes precisely, refers widely, is erudite, and makes a great deal of sense; but frequent impersonal references to “the argument” are no substitute for a clear guiding thread that navigates the wide expanse of references and disciplines. Indeed, whole chapters could be cut from the text without loss (and “civility” seemed altogether absent from some). Some readers will be excited to see Marx feature beside Gellner and de Tocqueville in a single text, and Hall is adept at juxtaposing a discussion of civility alongside informative parleys with interesting thinkers. But when Montesquieu, Rousseau, Aron, Smith, and countless others join in the conversation—often carrying the argument—it becomes very hard to keep track of what is going on. Ironically, the nature of the book mirrors a concern raised by critics of civility itself; that the proliferation of voices is stifling and ineffective, and in tension with the development of a singular, yet authentic, presence.

Summarily, Hall outlines a conception of civility based on premises about human nature and then relates this conception to several broader focal points. The book has two parts. The first offers “a composite definition of civility, stressing both ideas and the structures that support them”, whereas the second “seeks illumination by turning to those who dislike civility, and who propose alternatives to it.” One might struggle to find the “analytic clarity” Hall thinks this scheme generates. He begins with an introduction that contextualises the case for civility. We are told that this notion “is not sugary froth but an ideal of visceral importance.” Hall then explicitly describes an assumption closely related to discussions of civility; that we have to adopt a “mild relativism” which holds that “few rules of morality are really grounded.” This premise is taken to give civility “an ironic flavor.” Sadly, this interesting idea is not developed as far as it could be—perhaps, for example, by turning to the writing of the great ironist Richard Rorty. An additional tension needs resolving here, for ironism, even of a liberal (non-postmodern) kind, is often taken to be in conflict with realist conceptions of truth. Thus Hall’s plausible statement, that “civility does not stand in the way of truth and moral development but is rather a precondition for them,” needs further support.

Hall uses the introduction to orient the reader in sociological space. He states, uncontroversially, that civility is “not cast in stone” and “comes and goes in waves and needs care and attention if it is to be maintained.” Various macroforces, whether economic, political, or cultural have a large influence on the “life chances” of civility in a particular society and Hall makes a good case for this throughout the book. Finally, Hall locates his argument within various traditions in the history of ideas. He rejects communitarianism and the Nietzschean emphasis on domination, to approach the conception of civility from within a broadly naturalistic, liberal, capitalist, and scientifically rationalist framework. Again, this is unsurprising: to what extent, a reader might ask, could the concept of civility ever be fruitfully approached within these other traditions?

Hall unfurls his argument by examining civility in the context of civil society: “a form of societal self-organization that allows for cooperation with the state while permitting individuation.” This is a notion with comprehensive appeal, even to those on the left. The notion of civility is inextricably linked to the recognition of difference, and the rejection of the thought that there is one “road to truth in all matters.” Religiously hegemonic societies, or societies dominated by caste, are held as examples of contexts in which civility will not arise because they are not sufficiently tolerant. The origins of civility and civil society are traced through the history of Europe. Various pressures, from the ever-knotted European political situation, the constant need to raise monies for warmongering, and the turbulent evolutions of Christianity, generate a pragmatic pressure towards a degree of minimal social unity bolstered by toleration. Hall is right to emphasise that this rosy picture is part caricature, as shifts in social attitudes were often non-linear, arose by chance, and were persistently unstable.

Hall’s suggestion that European civility in political life pre-dated the emergence of capitalism is correct to an extent, as the ascent of capitalistic forms of social organisation had a crucial role in catalysing the emergence and ongoing attractiveness of civility as an ideal. The 18th century is seen as the “initial apogee” of civility, and coffeehouse culture is cited in support of this. However, this focus ignores the real gender differences in the history of the concept. Cultural liberty and new opportunities of social individuation were, and remain, disproportionately allocated. Later in the book Hall is clear that inequality of resources threatens civility, but the book remains largely silent on the treatment and marginalisation of women and other groups in society. This reviewer found himself asking whether the social ideal of civility ever had a role in the suppression of women, or whether civility is actually of a piece with the various currents of feminism? The chapter ends with an intriguing but undeveloped claim, that “in the final analysis, I suspect that civil society can only be defended in Kantian terms, that is, on account of its respect for the individual.” These bold Kantian terms fail, however, to sit alongside Hall’s ironical mild relativism.

The majority of the book unfolds unevenly. Individual thinkers like Adam Smith and Raymond Aron are gifted chapter-long treatment (the latter, a paean). Yet these tangential explorations away from the general argument sit uneasily with the broader thesis, with their relevance often hard to discern. The main thread of discussion is repeatedly addressed to someone over the shoulder of the reader, a misguided sociologist, or an uncharitable colleague. The constant attempt to refract arguments through large bodies of work by individual theorists is frustrating; there are too many lenses, all with different prescriptions. Other threads present the case for civility as a stabilising force in political life. Hall canvasses historical cases where de-radicalisation and civility accompany each other, and hails the “pacifying effects” of civility in contemporary India, which largely avoided the fate of Europe in the midst of the last century. The comparison with Europe raises its own problems, and Hall is right to ask whether civility is “so loaded with cultural flavor and baggage” that it is not “neutral” or “desirable?” Is the concept just “too English”? Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Hall rejects this, but without overlooking the danger that civil culture, often resting on tradition, may marginalise people who “do not know the rules.” We are left only with the predictable claim that, like the book itself, “civility has no secure structural base.”

Perhaps the most interesting section of the book, chapter six asks whether civility is in tension with the advocacy of authenticity by writers like Jean-Paul Sartre. Here, the lens is an investigation of Erving Goffman’s work on the self. Hall argues, somewhat unnecessarily, that Goffman has been misunderstood (correcting the misunderstandings of other sociologists becomes a repeated task throughout the book). The basic claim, however, is clear: the ideal of personal authenticity is in tension with civility because the latter presupposes a degree of social order that conflicts with individuality. Hall concludes that advocates of authenticity cling to an overly authoritarian politics, a conclusion that flows predictably from Hall’s prior commitment to a Smithian naturalism. However, his discussion of Goffman is interesting in its own right: Goffman’s social explorations presented self and society in thoroughly “disenchanted” ways, thus not necessarily guaranteeing the sincerity of our ongoing self-presentation. Goffman is linked, heroically, to Marcel Proust, and in agreeing that both thinkers show us that the self is not a clear and stable social presence, Hall argues that social rules and forms of civil interaction have important consequences for the kinds of subjects we can be; that “what is important is the relationship between the sincerity or civility of the social self and the identity that the personal self may be able to achieve.”

The next couple of chapters show that intellectuals (who advance normative views) and communists (who advocate forms of social uniformity) are often hostile to civility as a social ideal—no groundbreaking insights there, unfortunately. Then, in chapter nine, Hall examines the relationship between civility and trust and concludes that the former depends on the latter. Here, the main focus is on de Tocqueville’s writings about political society and his thesis on the role played by political elites in the erosion of trust: “Tocqueville had changed his mind about the loss of trust. Liberty is undermined less by passions released in the age of social conditions and much more by those created through the strategy of state.” These reflections lead Hall to the conclusion that “it is best to see democracy as a necessary condition for civility in modern times, even though sufficiency to that end requires the creation and maintenance of a civil political culture.” But Hall is also clear that democracy is not sufficient for civility because inequality “is utterly opposed to the very nature of civility, which rests firmly on the presence of sufficient means for self-expression, as well as the ability to resist arbitrary subordination.” This is a strong claim, which again sits uncomfortably alongside the aetiological narratives about civility that presented the concept as thriving in social contexts where such equality was largely absent or confined to small elites.

Civility demands that others are allowed a voice. But too many voices jostle and perambulate in this book at the expense of the main argument. The concept of civility, although dreary to many, is evidently important. Yet because the ideal itself is not particularly contentious, Hall could have risked a much stronger, more authentic and individualistic line of argument. The book demands patience and tolerance: like the people you avoid at a party, The Importance of Being Civil will put your civility to the test.

Luke Brunning is reading for a DPhil in Philosophy at St John’s College, Oxford.