Context matters when it comes to evaluating civility. Civility is a highly valued norm in academic life precisely because the university is a place where the search for truth leads to the airing of diverse and often contentious points of view. Vigorous and reasoned argument is expected, but so too is the willingness to consider alternative ideas in a spirit of openness and respect. Without this common agreement on certain rules of engagement, the underlying purposes of an academic community cannot be realized.
Alas, life beyond the classroom is more complicated. Even in a mature democracy such as the United States, political discourse is often marked by incivility. We are daily bombarded by rude and angry voices via talk radio, cable news shows, political advertisements and social media. Although the normal clash of interests and values that makes up political life stirs up passions, the debasement of public discourse is often a matter of calculation. Personal attacks, appeals to emotion and distortions of fact often work to the advantage of those who employ them. Among the consequences are increased political polarization, stalemate on key issues and general public disaffection from political life. Greater awareness of the cynical uses of incivility can help to inoculate us against such influences. Only when uncivil tactics and discourse cease to work will greater civility return to our politics.
Yet not all forms of incivility are cynical and some can be constructive. Civility is a conservative force. It plays a constructive role when embedded in a community based upon some minimal degree of fairness and justice. In a context where the basic rules of political and social life are too heavily tilted in favor of a narrow group of elites, however, the insistence upon civility can serve as a tool for discouraging dissent. When people rise up to contest injustice, decorum often naturally gives way to a degree of constructive unruliness – witness the Arab Spring or the Occupy Movement. Speaking truth to power may require a kind of candidness not welcome at dinner parties.
The roles of civility and incivility in public life, then, depend upon both context and purpose. Understanding these subtleties in the form and nature of public discourse is part of developing political maturity.