Alan Kirker

Civility

June 30th, 2022 by

In a paper titled “Civicness and Civility: Their Meanings for Social Sciences” (September 2009), author Adalbert Evers defines civicness as the quality of institutions, organizations, and procedures that enable the cultivation of civility, where society is made up not only of debating citizens, but “third sector organizations” with social and economic purposes. He observes tensions arise between the respecting of individualism, diversity and non-engagement, with “active compliance with rules and norms which are confirmed by public authorities” (p. 242, 243).

In his comprehensive analysis, “Civility: A Cultural History” (2008), author Benet Davetian probes civility’s complex roots, and states we need to “guard against sociology’s tendency to avoid topics that it considers the proper domain of psychology or anthropology” and that civility is instead best understood through a deliberate study of human social psychology (2008, p. 344). An exclusively social-constructivist view, that denies the potential effects of stored bodily emotions which can make people prone to one narrative or moral position over another, produces “a further split between organic and social explanations of society”. Humiliation, anger, and a childhood ‘failure to grieve’ should therefore be viewed as intimately linked in both personal and political acts.

Sociologist Norbert Elias suggests society’s pleasure component is being suppressed in favour of the arousal of anxiety, that itself causes the suppression of emotions but which can then spring forth as displeasure, revulsion, and distaste, as customary feelings. Individuals locate within dynamic networks of “mutual relationism” that are continually shifting and being renegotiated, subject to patterns they are part of but do not control:

People stand before the outcome of their own actions like an apprentice magician before the spirits he has conjured up and which, once at large, are no longer is his power. They look with astonishment at the convolutions and formations of the historical flow which they themselves contribute but do not control” (2008, p. 347).

Davetian states that inter-civilizational conflict can arise when communal and individualistic societies meet. Seeking to find causes for their differences, people from different cultures may resort to demonizing the other’s customs and social values, and when détente is not achieved through conventional values-oriented avenues, common ground can often be found in their technical cultures, however such narratives rarely lead to authentic intercultural understanding. Displays of courtesy and discourtesy are often affected not only by the emotions of guilt, embarrassment, shame, and pride, “but also by the extent to which a culture allows forthright demonstrations of emotions” (2008, p. 369). In a system built from aristocracy or a national heritage, a certain role is played by a “cultural narcissism that tempers the need for private and isolated presentations of the self”, but rather confirms one’s membership in an accomplished culture. (2008, p. 376, 421).

Traditions of incivility may be bound up with peculiar forms of egalitarianism, according to lawyer James Whitman in his paper titled “Enforcing Civility and Respect: Three Societies” (2000). He observes that free speech on continental Europe is tuned to notions of honour and respect that have deep aristocratic roots, whereas incivility is “woven into the cloth of the America egalitarian tradition”, in which speech is not merely about the expression of opinion, but also about “the free and aggressive display of disrespect”. Studying different cultures in this context can provide a richer sense of what is at stake, including the prevalence of, or the potential for violence (2000, p. 1396, 1397).


Davetian, B. (2008) Civility: A Cultural History. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

Evers, A. (September 2009), Civicness and Civility: Their Meanings for Social Services, in Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, Issue 20, (pp. 239 – 259). Baltimore, United States: International Society for Third Sector Research and The John’s Hopkins University.

Whitman, J. Q. (2000), Enforcing Civility and Respect: Three Societies, in The Yale Law Journal, Volume 109, (pp. 1279 – 1398). [PDF document] retrieved June 2022 from https://openyls.law.yale.edu/handle/20.500.13051/5035. New Haven, United States: The Yale Law Journal Company, Inc.

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