Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

An Ambivalent Civility

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

An Ambivalent Civility

Article excerpt

Abstract: Social and political theorists have increasingly celebrated civility as a civic virtue that is sensitive to value pluralism and yet has the potential to ameliorate deep differences. Using the insights of Norbert Elias, this paper makes three points: first, civility is marked by a deep-seated ambivalence that emerges through historical processes of pacification and distinction; second, we find this ambivalence manifest in the contemporary tension between individual desires and social expectations; and third, current uses of civility exhibit this ambivalence insofar as civility is used both as a means of distinction that authorizes certain forms of dialogue at the expense of others and as a mechanism of pacification whereby constraints are placed on dialogue to give voice to the marginalised. This ambivalence is illustrated by the work of Edward Shils, Mark Kingwell and Benjamin Barber, each of whom advances a conception of civility that responds to the perceived stresses of social conformity in a social milieu that stresses individuality.

Resume: Les sociologues font de plus en plus l'eloge de la civilite comme une vertu du citoyen capable de valoriser le pluralisme culturel et de combler des differences societales profondes. Se referant aux idees de Norbert Elias, cet article souleve trois points: Premierement, la civilite est caracterisee par une ambivalence bien ancree qui emerge a travers des processus historiques de pacification et de distinction. Deuxiemement, des manifestations de cette dualite se retrouvent dans cette tension actuelle entre les desirs des individus et les attentes de la societe. Troisiemement, la civilite darts son usage courant contient un double-sens darts la mesure ou elle expose une mesure de distinction qui pennet d'une part un dialogue excluant certains et qui d'autre part offre un mechanisme de pacification ou l'echange privilegie l'expression des marginaux. Les oeuvres d'Edward Shils, de Mark Kingwell et de Benjamin Barber refletent cette ambivalence, chacun d'eux conceptualisant une representation de la civilite faisant echo aux tiraillements du conformisme social dans un milieu social qui promouvoit l'individualisme.

**********

Civility has been a frequent catchword of the media and popular press for the last several years. Offered as a salve for an indiscriminate list of social ills, civility has become a beacon for public moralists seeking to curb the unbridled rudeness and incivility that apparently threatens modern western societies. Although it might be tempting to dismiss this interest in civility as an expression of a relatively insignificant moral panic, such a view is potentially short-sighted given that the discussion of civility and its discontents has been increasingly taken up as a social problem by social and political theorists. In this context, civility is typically promoted as a civic virtue that has the potential to ameliorate some of the cleavages and tensions that abound in pluralistic societies. While it is possible to see these calls for civility as a puerile attempt to "get along" in the face of deep seated structural inequalities, the scope and depth of recent discussion suggests that something more may be at stake.

As much as civility is typically associated with qualities such as politeness and the display of good manners, for contemporary social and political theorists it has increasingly come to represent civic virtues such as tolerance, nondiscrimination and public reasonableness. Civility is therefore "more" than good manners--it is a set of practices that involves the exercise of self-constraint and a concern for others. It is expressed as a mode of conduct organized by reason and principle that allows one to negotiate differences in civil society fairly and reasonably. Hence, for Benjamin Barber, civility promotes "reciprocal empathy and mutual respect" because it relies on reason in order to help citizens deal with conflicts of public life (1984: 223, 190). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.