Civility has been making the news over the last few weeks. This is
heartening, for civility is a crucial social virtue, and it is important
that we as a society reflect on it from time to time. We need regularly to
think about what we consider to be appropriate standards of public
behaviour, and we need to discuss what we should be doing if these
standards start to slip.
But what exactly do we mean by ‘civility’? Some contributors to the
recent discussions have been sceptical about the use of the word. They
suspect that civility is being used by the ‘conservative establishment’
as an excuse to maintain their place in the social order, and they deny
that civility has any place in politics. Politics, they say, should be
about robust and lively debate rather than being watered down by
conventional niceties like politeness and manners.
But criticisms like these are in danger of missing the crucial point,
which is that civility is about showing respect for other people. It is
basic to a civilised society. There are nearly 20 million of us
living in Australia. Many of us disagree over many things – not just
politics, but religion, sport, music, the list is endless. If millions of
us are to get along with each other, despite our manifold differences, we
have to show respect for each other.
Civility therefore means that you should not be unduly rude,
aggressive, dismissive or hateful towards other people simply because they
do not share your views or your lifestyle. This is not only a good moral
principle – something we should teach our children – but it also makes
a lot of practical sense, for if I show respect for you, you will
hopefully show respect for me, and we shall both be better off as a
If these norms of respect – what are usually called the ‘rules of
politeness’ – break down, then we are all in trouble. Order crumbles
into chaos as tolerance frays, so daring to be different suddenly becomes
dangerous. In the end, civility is what safeguards the weak and the
vulnerable. If we are not willing to control our own behaviour, then
governments and police officers will end up having to do it for us.
This is why the critics are wrong when they claim that civility is an
‘establishment’ concern, or that it is about maintaining the power of
the elite. Quite the opposite is actually the case. When social rules
start fraying and people start to elbow others out of the way to get what
they want, it is the weakest who suffer first. Civility is not about
deference to elites or knowing your place – it is about treating
everybody you encounter with respect. In this sense, it is a profoundly
Most ordinary Australians understand this. At The
Centre for Independent Studies, we have been conducting focus groups
with different groups in Sydney – affluent and hard-up, young and old
– to talk about civility. We have found that it is not just on the North
Shore that people express a distaste for foul language and a concern that
we should show respect for others. They say much the same thing in the
less affluent parts of Sydney. It is insulting of critics to suggest that
‘working class language’ is opposed to civility, or that only toffs
and Tories are civil to each other. Civility is a virtue that crosses all
It is also a virtue that crosses all sides of politics – and if it
doesn’t, then it should. Yale Professor Stephen Carter argues that
civility is ‘pre-political’. In other words, it is the precondition
for political debate. It sets the ground rules. If politicians are
unwilling to be civil to each other – to respect each other – then
they will never be able to engage in a dialogue about why they disagree
with each other, and democratic politics will be weakened.
Civility requires that politicians should be willing to listen to those
with opinions different to their own. It does not mean they have to water
down their opinions – only that they should recognise that those who
disagree with them are not necessarily in bad faith simply because they
hold a different view or subscribe to a different set of moral principles.
Politicians should remember that nobody holds a 100 per cent monopoly over
Being civil does not mean that you give up on emotion or commitment,
nor does it mean that you hold back from expressing your views and ideas
as forcefully as you can. Civility allows for robustness, disagreement,
even conflict. To say that a call for civility is a call for effete and
superficial politics (as has been suggested) is absurd.
It is precisely because people are expected to observe basic rules of
civility that they can make their opinions heard. Politics without
civility may make for good journalistic copy, but it does not give you a
lively democracy. Quite the reverse – in the end it produces anarchy and
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