The great Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor examines how "civility" rose to prominence, during the last few centuries, as a lauded virtue in his book A Secular Age. (It is interesting to note, as Taylor does, the etymologies of "civilized" and "savage": basically, the first refers to people who live in a city, and the second to people who live out in the woods. And the terms were, of course, created by those who live in cities. Contemplate that distinction while thinking about our recent U.S. presidential election.)

The virtues stressed while "living in the woods" are those like courage and loyalty. But in a densely packed city, there are fewer situations that require physical courage, and intense loyalty to one's own in-group can be a barrier to getting along with the many outsiders with whom one must live in close proximity. Instead, in a city, "civility" emerges as the foremost virtue: the ability to "get along," to be polite and "civil," with multitudes of people with whom one disagrees.

There is nothing wrong with civility as a virtue per se. All other things being equal, we should definitely prefer a more "civil" to a more "savage" populace.

But all other things are not always equal. In particular, as the star of civility rose ever higher in our firmament of virtue while those of the more antique virtues descended towards the horizon, speaking nicely and saying good things about others has been elevated to the status of a golden calf. Rather than a complement to the older virtues, it has become a replacement for them. And once that happens, it means that any policy, however immoral, can pass muster so long as it can be described in very nice, civil, terms.

  • It is perfectly OK to advocate a foreign policy that kills millions of Muslims, so long as you never say anything mean about Muslims.
  • It is perfectly OK to do business with Saudi Arabia, where they execute homosexuals, so long as you completely ostracize any person who lets slip the "F-word" in a moment of anger.
  • It is perfectly OK to endorse a policy that kills half of all African-Americans conceived in New York City before they are born, so long as the "N-word" never passes your lips.
Civility is a nice addition to more fundamental, Ten-Commandment-type morality. But when civility becomes a substitute for the latter, it has become a false idol.

At that point, the false idol must be smashed, and exposed as the hypocritical substitute for actually moral behavior that it is.

And at that point, a crass, crude iconoclast who ignores all the reigning standards of "civility" may be just the person we need to do the job.


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