Teresa Bejan’s Mere Civility is at once a brilliant intellectual history of three early modern English thinkers, and an insightful provocation about (in)civility for the present. Its excellent reconstructions of Roger Williams, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke will be of great interest to historians of political thought, democratic theorists, and those interested in (or troubled by) today’s civility talk. With discussions of Desiderius Erasmus, Martin Luther, William Penn, and others sharpening the historical backdrop to Williams (Bejan’s unlikely hero), Hobbes, and Locke, she guides the reader through their theories of civility. She persuasively argues that the three thinkers offer distinctive approaches to coexistence under conditions of fundamental disagreement: Hobbes’s “civil silence” sacrifices disagreement for the sake of difference, Locke’s “civil charity” sacrifices difference for the sake of disagreement, while Williams’s “mere civility,” a path she suggests has not been taken, tries to maintain disagreement and difference. Bejan’s careful analysis will leave its mark on debates surrounding these three major early modern thinkers, as well as the burgeoning literatures on civility, toleration, and disagreement. It is a powerful model for historically grounded political theory today.
Mere Civility’s final rendering of the link between civility and the future is suggestive; it excavates a democratic ethos from mere civility. Bejan points to an egalitarian openness about the future of others, asking citizens to engage with opponents while understanding that the person they are now may not be the person they will become. Williams, she explains, championed mere civility, and included groups that his contemporaries excluded; for Williams, anyone might become a Christian in the future, so anyone who belonged to the groups he held in contempt—“a Briar, a Jew, a Turke, a Pagan, or an Anti-christian”—should be permitted in the polity and engaged. The opponents of today might become tomorrow’s friends.
But if citizens are thus future strangers to each other, they are also strangers to their future selves. We might then add what Williams refused to say or recognize about himself—and which, importantly, did not happen: that he, too, could have come to agree with or belong to the groups he targeted with his “evangelical toleration” and held in disdain. It should be troubling that Williams’s rendering of civility anticipates the conversion of all others, but not his own; that his politics revolve around a theology in which those marked as different need to be rescued and saved; and that his approach to difference predicates the value and inclusion of others upon their transformability. Nevertheless, Bejan thinks with and beyond Williams, asking us to remember that we do not know whom others might become, to embrace both the uncertainty and the possibility of future selves. Bejan’s merely civil citizens are simultaneously missionaries confident in their conceptions of the world and agnostics (leaning toward atheism) about who others will become. She reminds us that democracy opens itself to the future: It comes with the premise and hope that the people know that they can change.
My comments follow from this rendering, and seek to push the implications of Bejan’s argument in three ways: First, about the significance of Williams’s incivility; second, about empire and structural asymmetries; and third, about re-centering who calls for civility.
At times, Mere Civility appears to defend civility against overly-demanding civilitarians: The bar shouldn’t be so high that some are silenced or immediately excluded, and civility’s prerequisites shouldn’t track untenable assumptions about conformity. Williams is an interesting choice because, as Bejan notes, his mere civility is rather uncivil. He refused to conflate the standards of civil and spiritual life; his “toleration” extended, it would seem, to everyone, because he thought everyone is convertible. He preached incessantly, obnoxiously, at anyone who would listen (and those who wouldn’t?). This is neither a Socratic gadfly nor an open-ended dialogue: In Williams’s evangelical incivility, the settler-colonial missionary who would save others from themselves permits others to exist so that he can engage with and convert them, while constantly telling them, “pagans” and “infidels,” that they are damned scum, filthy, on their way to hell. He does this, it seems, without regard for the forms of exclusion, domination, inequality, violence, or marginalization that might characterize their sociopolitical standing. Bejan, counterintuitively, finds something redemptive in him.
Today, demands for civility and accusations of incivility are problematic when they come asymmetrically from those in power, targeting those who are vulnerable, marginal, or less protected; the dynamic is all-too-familiar. If Williams’s incivility counts as mere civility, what’s attractive about Bejan’s account is that it actually carves out space for what those in power demonize or condemn as “uncivil.” Bejan’s use of Williams deflates civility talk. In this sense, the book is a defense of incivility in the name of civility. One of its implications would be that what those in positions of power and privilege today condemn as “uncivil speech” is actually quite civil. Is Mere Civility not actually Mostly Incivility (with apologies for the infelicity)?
Related to this issue of what counts as civility is Mere Civility’s treatment of power; the two might be in tension. Bejan notes that Williams, Hobbes, and Locke wrote in a world of insult and incivility much like ours; and one might add, a world of empire, also like ours. Do the operations and inflections of civility change if we are not describing equal groups (e.g. ideologically divided domestic parties in the United States), but global, regional, and local conditions of political, economic, and structural inequality? On my reading, Bejan agrees, especially when she writes that Williams’s relationship to the Narragansett confirms what critics of civility, toleration, and affiliated grammars have long said: namely, that civility discourses “fall disproportionately on the disenfranchised,” that they carry repressive logics, can further exclude marginalized groups, and that we must remain attentive to civility’s dark side. Although Mere Civility puts civility’s proponents and its critics on equal footing, as two equivalent sides of a debate in which both have been “guilty of incivility,” the book, I think, actually agrees with poststructuralist and postcolonial critics more than such momentary equivalences imply. If this is right, it raises a broader question about the discursive operations of civility, or the ways in which current structures of civility talk can impose a logic of equivalence, whether between Williams and the Narragansett, or between civility’s proponents and critics of its operations.
Bejan takes issue with the proponents and critics for “shutting down debate,” and singles out critics for accusing others of “civilizational imperialism” and “perspectival ‘privilege.’” Mere Civility thus suggests that the touchstone of civility is whether it keeps disagreement, debate, or conversation going, and thereby keeps the hope of social bonds alive. But if we accept that imperialism and privilege are important and problematic features of the contemporary political universe, such critical observations are necessary, especially if they seem so shocking to some. What makes them inappropriately uncivil rather than merely (un)civil, it seems, is that they shut down debate. But do these critical vocabularies and insights need to, and is the onus on the critics?
What’s interesting in this structure is how it might inadvertently give all interlocutors power over each other; whatever shuts down debate is, Mere Civility implies, wrong. In this way, Bejan hopes to bind citizens not through respect, agreement, or solidarity, but continued disagreement. This mutual empowerment is also potentially problematic if we shift away from disagreements between equal domestic parties, to contexts of pervasive inequality or structural marginalization. To be clear: this is neither the context of Mere Civility nor what Bejan argues, but I want to push its implications to their limits. This structure can give a dominant group’s sensibilities, sensitivities, disavowals, and inability to respond to (actually pressing) accusations of injustice a kind of civility-veto, about what the marginalized can say. It would be perverse (but historically common) to instruct the colonized, downtrodden, native, or marginalized to refrain from talking in ways that would cause the colonizer, the oppressor, the powerful, or those who adopt their perspectives, to disengage out of discomfort. It would be perverse to say that civility requires that they debate their oppressors about their respective values.
My hesitation is that where “disagreements” track forms of inequality, domination, and marginalization, the vocabularies of debate, negotiation, and conversation can be—and in many contexts around the globe, are—a continuation rather than forestallment of war and empire. Some conflicts and oppressions are recast as debates, and the ruse of conversation provides cover for some inequalities. Not all calls for debate or conversation do this, but enough do that we ought to remain critical. Ensuring that what we say keeps our opponents willing to converse might, I fear, obscure the ability to speak truth to power, when we need to, without even mere civility. How we disagree is central, but we should not lose sight of whom we disagree with and what we disagree about. The hope of keeping conversation or disagreement going should not occlude how some perspectives and grammars are indeed privileged, some voices amplified, some drowned out. Access to resources, institutions, policing acceptable speech, and (re)shaping norms are built into these structures. Even as it might be appropriate in some contexts to anticipate a future with one’s opponents, we should remain critical of how civility is deployed, who calls for it, from whom, who has the resources to host conversations and to missionize, who benefits, and the actual violence that does take place as the facts on the ground change alongside invocations of dialogue and debate. Calls for civility, even mere, should take account of these issues of power.