The Old Civility Versus the New

August 12, 2019 Updated: August 13, 2019

More and more people are claiming that something has gone wrong with the civil tone in Western societies.

Elites in the United States blame President Donald Trump’s supporters, whom they consider to be crude, ill-mannered bulls in the U.S. china shop. To one degree or another, the same animus exists in Canada and other Western countries such as the UK.

The tony disdain for so-called “populists” is shared by a wide range of established politicians, media pundits, high-ranking civil servants, academics, entertainers, and business leaders. All contend that “civility” must be restored in order to right the ship of state and bring people back together.

‘Calls for Civility Are Rarely Innocent’

Others see things differently. Writing in the March 2019 edition of U.S.-based magazine First Things, R.R. Reno had some insightful observations about the growing calls for more civility. “Civility is an admirable quality,” he writes. Elites, he suggests, have always regarded civility as a stabilizing force that can serve to encourage trust and cooperation among diverse elements in society.

While it can be very useful to leaders who seek to maintain peace and comity in their realm, Reno also points out that civility is for the most part “an establishment virtue” and says “calls for civility are rarely innocent.”

In fact, Reno argues that civility also has an adversarial, outward-facing function. “Correct manners set apart the well-bred few from the demonic many,” he writes. “They are tools for ruling out challengers as ill-bred, crude, and vulgar, which is to say illegitimate.” As a result, ordinary citizens in Western democracies can’t help noticing that hardly a week goes by without some member of the elite denouncing some popular outsider’s speech and demeanor as being beyond the pale.

Definition of Civility Has Changed

British historian John Gillingham, professor emeritus at the London School of Economics and Political Science, has pointed out that the meaning of civility has evolved from its origins in medieval and early modern English society. It has become less of a moral framework and more of a political code that judges the acceptability of people’s behavior according to their ideological preferences.

Up to the late 1950s and early 1960s, civil behavior was still grounded in rules of conduct influenced by traditional religious virtues. Most ordinary men and women believed that work was superior to idleness, forgiveness was better than sustained anger, admiration was healthier than envy, and humility was preferable to pride. Trust and reciprocity formed the basis of social capital. People of all castes, faiths, and convictions aspired, however imperfectly, to live by virtues that were fundamental to the maintenance of a civil, productive, and well-ordered society.

Some of us, myself included, are old enough to remember a childhood in which being civil generally meant being courteous, polite, and demonstrating respect for others, especially those in positions of authority. This was considered particularly useful when you ran into people you didn’t know well or, for one reason or another, may have some disagreement with. You could still have a civil conversation.

A New Normal

But roughly half a century ago, during the dawning of the age of Aquarius, things began to change. Post-war elites appear to have concluded that the religious virtue, formal civility, and orderly habits of their parents were just too burdensome to carry on.

Armed with the clever rhetoric of a long-established intellectual left, young people took to the streets of Western democracies to create a new normal in almost every form of human conduct. Angry protests against the perceived evils of capitalism, consumerism, Western imperialism, normative values, religious hypocrisy, and traditional order consumed their attention in the West’s finest universities. Clarion—but ultimately, insincere—calls for equality, diversity, social justice, and inclusiveness rang through the parlors, bistros, theatres, and concert halls of the beau monde. As one might expect, it didn’t take long for ambitious members of the lower ranks, who were often the first in their families to attend university, to begin imitating their betters.

So from the late 1960s on, the road has been open for succeeding generations of liberal elites to establish an enormously politicized and self-serving standard of civility. Today, being “civil” literally means supporting the politically correct agenda of our progressive establishment.

Many American Republicans and Canadian Conservatives share these views and tactics with their high-class amigos on the left. Today, being civil means being “woke.” Keeping a civil tongue in your head means staying silent if you have any disagreement with the current conventional wisdom.

Shutting Down Dissenting Voices

Our elites also don’t hesitate to punch down, should a misguided member of the fly-over classes take issue with their agenda. If they can’t actually lock you up, they will ignore you or embarrass you, and make your life and career as miserable as possible.

Raise questions about your country’s capacity to absorb increasing levels of immigration and you will be summarily labeled as a racist, bigot, and xenophobe—or in the wake of a human tragedy such the one that just occurred in El Paso, Texas—an accessory to murder. Question the accuracy of climate research models or doomsday warming predictions and you will be branded a “denier.” Express any doubt about the merits of almost any sexual harassment charge and you will be characterized as an enabling member of a predatory patriarchy. The left’s list of nondebatable “civil” positions is almost endless.

As the North Atlantic Triangle of nations heads into another election cycle—Canada this October, the United States in 2020, and the UK sometime between now and 2022—fierce measures to delegitimize and tune out political outsiders will present an enormous challenge for party leaders such as Trump.

Condescension from the cultural high ground serves a strategic purpose—it’s designed to discourage bottom-up resistance and brand opponents as deplorable and illegitimate, and has worked very effectively for some 50 years.

Only time will tell whether we are ready for a truly Copernican “civil” revolution.

William Brooks is a writer and educator based in Montreal. He currently serves as editor of “The Civil Conversation” for Canada’s Civitas Society and is an Epoch Times contributor.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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