Why do people show poorer manners today than in previous ages? How did we come to confuse rudeness with self-expression and acting on our "rights"? Carter looks at these and other important questions with a combination of his personal experiences and an extremely long shelf of reading material, all the while maintaining an informal writing style that continually--but politely--engages the reader, inviting him or her to think about these issues along with Carter.
There are important messages here about generosity and trust, about respecting diversity and dissent, and about resolving conflict through dialogue rather than mandate. Stephen Carter would never be so uncivil as to demand your attention, but Civility most definitely compels. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Then again, I though to myself while in the bookstore debating on what to procure, isn't it about time that someone writes an honest, frank book about how to be civil, particularly in the civil arena? After all, democratic politics thrives when discussion, self-government, and liberty without license are at high levels and in case anyone has cared to notice, all are at levels approching an all time low.
So I bought it and my judgement was correct. Professor Carter is not on a high horse, he does not condescend and his comments and observations are astute and viable. (although as an atheist, I felt he gave me no option besides "be a moral christian" or "be uncivil").
The book - broken into three parts - can get repetitive, particularly on part II. The first part, on what civility is, defends Professor Carter's notion of civility against all comers: Sociologists who think uncivility spurs pluralistic politics, psychologists who think it is a good way to air frustration, and philosophers who think civility is just plain opression without the name.
The second part identifies different ways that we are uncivil to eachother. Carter argues that uncivility is generally a result of how easy it has become not to interact with eachother, hence, not spend time identifying eachother as "people, same as us". Instead of writing letters, we use the internet; instead of taking mass transportation like trains, we drive to work alone in our automobile; instead of joining clubs, we watch characters on TV join them. This is where Carter gets preachy. One hears him subtley thinking, "Ahhh. The glory days; let's go back, shall we?"
The third part is the easiest to skip. It is about how to regain civility. We all know how, of course, but generally try to forget that we do. Teach kids 'right' and 'wrong'; set good examples; think about others, sometimes, in lieu of ourselves. These are not hard rules, just common sense ones we've convinced ourselves to be oppresive ones. While this section merely points out the obvious, it is the obvious that we've been overlooking and need to be reminded of.
There are particularly great chapters here. A few chapters are on the art of listening to others views sympathetically, instead of listening so as to construct an immediate retort. Two consecutive chapters are on the rule: "liberty is not licesncse". Just because we have free speech, does not mean we need to, or should, be offensive just because. Another stellar chapter is on the civility of making moral judgements. Too many people are telling us that judging is wrong (which of course, is itself a moral judgement). In reality, moral judgement is necessary to maintain civility, to remind yourself what and what not to do by example, and to let others know that you either approve or disapprove of their actions, which is as powerful as any legislation.
All in all, this was a good, well-thought, succinct and enjoyable book. Occasioinal preachiness and repetitiveness aside, it is one that (as one reviewer noted) should be read in high school, college, and as a pre-requisite to public office. Of course, don't tell the PC police!
Civility involves the discipline of our passions for the sake of living a common life with others...
The notion, in this age of the self, that we should each yield something of our own feelings and desires in order to accommodate others is nearly heretical. Add to that the idea that, at a time when the siren call for "diversity" has swept the intellectual classes, it is either possible or desirable to speak of a "common life", and you can see why civility is on the outs.
Mr. Carter, of Yale Law School, who frequently writes about religion, rightly perceives that the danger in our jettisoning civility as a social value is not merely that the culture becomes coarser and less pleasant, but that we lose the lubricant that helps the engine of democracy run more smoothly. He lists five reasons that a democracy should value civility (...)
Professor Carter proceeds to look at how almost all of our institutions have helped contribute to the current atmosphere of incivility and considers how they might help to restore a climate of civility. (...)
In the process though, he misses one rather enormous point, one which explains much that he's troubled by : the creation and continued existence of a massive Federal bureaucracy. We live today in a society where the government exercises control over virtually every aspect of our lives. In a very real sense, we have replaced morality and civility with legality. Carter is absolutely correct that a healthy liberal democracy requires that people share the same moral standards and that they acknowledge common rules of etiquette and manners. This kind of democracy, which values freedom above all other ends, must have a citizenry which regulates itself, otherwise people can not trust one another. And, of course, as the Constitution with its intricate scheme of checks and balances so amply demonstrates, even then you don't want to trust anyone too much when it comes to political power.
The America which now enters the 21st Century is simply not that kind of democracy anymore. If freedom has not been entirely displaced as the ultimate value in society, it has at least been surpassed by equality. Moreover, the ideal of equality that has been elevated is the radically egalitarian equality of results, as opposed to the equality which the Founders celebrated, the equality of men before their Creator. Achieving this new kind of equality requires that freedom be restricted--it is obvious that equality is never produced in a world of Social Darwinism--in order to allow government to grant special advantages to the less able or to actually transfer wealth to them, so that, regardless of our differing levels of talents, intelligence, gumption, etc., we will all end up with roughly equal living standards.
It goes without saying that once you start granting government these types of powers, it won't stop at this rather limited, although still repressive, goal. So the government has taken on ever greater powers to regulate our commercial and private lives, until today it tells the businessman how many parts per billion of pollutant he may emit and how many minorities he must employ, while telling all of us how many gallons of water our toilet bowls can use.
Given this essentially authoritarian system, where even the minutiae of everyday life is regulated by a powerful central authority, it is little wonder that the belief systems which we had previously internalized to regulate our own behavior have fallen into disuse. In a world where most things are technically legal, we have to ask ourselves whether they are right or wrong, otherwise we can not live in harmony with one another. In a world, as today, in which so many things are illegal, it is only natural to assume that those which have not been expressly forbidden must be allowed. Perhaps it is just too much to ask a people whose entire lives are governed by laws, regulations, and the constant threat of lawsuits, to also adopt standards of civility, simply because it's the right thing to do. After all, if manners really mattered, wouldn't there be Federal laws requiring them, a cabinet department in charge of them, and special interest groups to lobby for them ?
This odd phenomenon also explains why the Left tends to be so hostile to the idea of civility, and why it is the Right which generally engages in hand wringing over civility's demise. Civility and morality have been replaced by the legalisms of the Social Welfare state. Those of us who wish for a return to old-fashioned civility and morality should be forthright and acknowledge that we also want to roll back the Leviathan that the Federal government has become. We should express our faith in our fellow men, our much greater faith than that of our opponents, faith that people are capable of regulating their own behavior without government doing it for them.
There is much confusion, on the Left and on the Right, about what the conservative belief in freedom really entails. Libertarians assume that freedom necessarily includes the right to engage in almost any consensual behavior. Liberals assume that free market ideology is a cover for allowing businesses to commit any predation, to exploit anyone, and that unfettered capitalism is little more than an appeal to our most selfish instincts. Religious conservatives (or cultural conservatives) share both these fears. But the fact is that freedom of the type that the Founders sought to secure, and which the fairly minimalist republic they founded presupposes, requires a populace which is ideologically homogenous and bound by a common morality and manners. It is understood that people will not need every aspect of life dictated to them, because their shared cultural heritage of Judeo-Christianity will inform their moral lives. It's little wonder then that the Left, which is necessarily hostile to the kind of unobtrusive republican democracy that was created here is also hostile to the morality and civility which made it possible.
Unfortunately, this is further than Stephen L. Carter is willing to look. His effort in this book, and it's certainly worthwhile, though inadequate, is too make the current American polity more civil. For obvious reasons, in a book about how we all need to respect and listen to each other, he's reluctant to declare that you need to destroy the village to save it, but such may indeed be the case. The revival of morality, religiosity, and civility is unlikely to come about until we tear down the superstructure of legality which is currently strangling our society. Counterintuitive as it may sound, the best way to restore the sense of decency, the willingness to sacrifice for others, and the respect for fellow citizens--the love of our neighbors of which Carter speaks--is to get government laws and regulations out of our way. These external restraints, however well intended, have tended to absolve us of moral responsibility for one another and for our own actions. Far better to dispose of the artificial intermediaries between us and return once again to a culture where people are expected to develop internal restraints and a sense of responsibility. Otherwise, limited prescriptions like the ones that Professor Carter offers here can do little more than try to treat a few symptoms, rather than the ultimate cause, of a potentially deadly disease.
GRADE : B-