Is This the End of Civility As We Know It?
By Daniel Mendelsohn
The realization that civilization was ending hit me at a Greek diner one weekday a few years ago when I was having lunch with my then assistant. A brilliant MFA student at Columbia, he was embarrassingly overqualified for the dreary filing and printing I needed done, and I suppose it was out of some obscure sense of guilt that I took him to lunch every week, ostensibly to talk about the coming week's tasks.
Still, I was paying him, which to my mind meant that he owed me some kind of deference—an expectation that, like so many expectations of civil behavior in recent years, was bound to be disappointed. For as I sat there rattling off a list of things I wanted done the following week, I couldn't help noticing that his eyes were doing that iPhone thing: flickering away from my face every 15 seconds or so to a spot beneath the tabletop and then slyly rising again, his face assuming an expression of unnatural attentiveness, as if to compensate for the fact that he was not, in fact, paying attention, since he was obviously reading his messages or e-mails. This went on for a few minutes until finally, as immense salads were placed in front of us, I erupted.
"Greg!" I hissed. "Stop doing that! I'm talking to you and you are looking at your phone."
Greg is Irish-American; the color rose visibly to his cheeks. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he mumbled. "I promise I won't do it again." He looked at me searchingly. "It's just that someone may be trying to reach me."
I slammed my hand on the table, a bit more loudly than I'd intended; a few people looked around. "I am trying to reach you!" I was practically shouting. "And I'm actually here—I am sitting three feet away from you."
He looked up sheepishly, his cheeks as bright as the tomatoes he was picking at, and muttered an apology.
I was still irritated.
"I know you think it's fine, and I know that everyone does it. But it's just not—"
"I know you say that everyone's doing it now," I said again. "But the fact is that it's just not civil."
These days we all cherish and collect them—the casual, grinding, daily failures of civility, which by now are so widespread that we don't even register them anymore as rude. It's just what we all do. The guy behind you in the cineplex ticket line loudly breaking up with his girlfriend by cell phone; the human resources woman who, after a lengthy and audible recitation of her interlocutor's career failures via FaceTime, fires the poor man next to me on an Acela to DC (I need hardly add that it was in the Quiet Car); the depressing spectacle of the couple at the table next to you in a "nice" restaurant, supposedly dining together but in fact wholly oblivious to each other as each exchanges e-mails with someone who is not sitting three feet away.
As with Greg's behavior at lunch, thinking about his messages instead of listening to me, all these moments have one thing in common: a gross failure of attentiveness to the person you are actually with in a public space, to their sensitivities (they may, after all, not be interested in the details of your failed sex life or business decisions), or, worse, to their very presence—their existence.
At first glance this "crisis of attentiveness," which makes for what my mother would call uncivil behavior, looks like nothing more than a fuss about manners. When you hear the word civility, after all, the first thing that pops into your head is unlikely to be the fate of civilization. For most of us, what the word brings to mind is, to put it mildly, far less world-historical: good social graces, saying "please" and "may I," writing thank-you notes within a week of the dinner party. Things, in other words, that are pleasant rather than essential. In a wistful evocation of life as an unmarried woman, the memoirist Elizabeth Wurtzel described what she felt she was missing from the "brocade of civility": a fine mesh of life's accoutrements that included "Tiffany silver you never use."
But there's more at stake here. It's worth remembering that the root of the word civility is the Latin civis, citizen. To be "civil" is to act in a way appropriate to your fellow citizens, and "civility" is the behavior that marks mutual acknowledgement that we individuals share common public, and political, space. Trained as we are today to think of elaborate politesse as a holdover from an undemocratic era (whatever else it may accomplish, the ability to distinguish between the fish fork and the strawberry fork does separate guests who were to the manner born from those who weren't), we find it odd to think of correct behavior, of manners and civility, as a deeply political issue.
But it is, and the erosion of basic civility—a process that is fueled by the advent of the internet, with its no-holds-barred rhetoric, and personal devices that allow us to be in our own space pretty much all the time and is evident in everything from a South Carolina representative's shouting down the president of the United States during a speech to Samuel L. Jackson's Twitter dissing of New York Times critic A.O. Scott—is raising troubling questions about the direction our civilization (another civis-related word, by the way) is going.
In fact, the connection between good manners and good citizenship has been a concern to political philosophers at least as far back as the fourth century B.C., when Aristotle argued that a dignified and respectful affection, philia, should naturally prevail among fellow citizens of any virtuous state. Because it's based on the assumption of a certain degree of common interests and goals, such affection, the philosopher went on to suggest, was more important in democracies than in tyrannies. A few hundred years later, the Roman statesman Cicero wrote a treatise called De Re Publica, "On the Republic," in which he argued for the importance of humanitas, the communal fellow-feeling that should act as a natural brake on individual selfishness and the impulse to advance only our purely private interests.
Cicero's attempts to preserve the Roman republic and its civil society in the face of a rising tide of demagogic autocracy ended up getting him assassinated by his political rival Marc Antony, who gleefully displayed the orator's severed head and hands in the Forum. To some thinkers Cicero's ghoulish end is nothing more than an extreme form of incivility—a total failure to be able to tolerate other people's opinions. (Donald Trump's pledge in February to "open up libel laws" as a means of retaliation against negative coverage suggests that politicians are as eager as ever to punish recalcitrant writers.) In an influential article from the 1970s, the prominent political theorist Michael Walzer classified rioting and vigilante justice, too—the kind of behavior that has become shockingly de rigueur at candidate rallies and state political conventions recently—as forms of "incivility."
What's key in both the Greek and Roman models is the idea that the public, communal aspect of life in a democracy or a republic is the raison d'être of civility: An overriding philia for our fellow citizens, based on a sense of our common humanitas, is the grease that smooths the inevitable frictions among individuals. The notion that civility is inextricable from human society itself would be developed in the 18th century, during the Enlightenment, which was itself made possible by civility—that is, the vivid exchange of ideas in an atmosphere in which productive disagreement doesn't curdle into disrespect. (A brief glance at the comments section of almost any publication is likely to make you wistful for those days.)
Although it may bring to mind the novels of Edith Wharton, the term polite society originally referred to the intellectual circles in which the Scottish Enlightenment flourished in the 1700s, salons in which thinkers and speakers could express themselves with freedom and yet with respect to others—an ideal equilibrium between the needs of the individual and the requirements of the community.
A growing awareness of the social, intellectual, and political uses of politeness(from the Latin politus, polished) in turn led to the revolutionary notion that "manners" were, in some sense, inherently human, whatever one's social status. In his 1762 treatise Emile, or Education, a book burned by censors as soon as it appeared, Jean-Jacques Rousseau imagined a "natural" child, unspoiled by the elaborate manners of courts and cities: "He may not have the forms of politesse, but he does have human caring."
Consideration, caring, affection, humanity: It's striking how emotional the vocabulary that has been associated with civility by our greatest thinkers is. If so, it's because to treat people civilly is to recognize first and foremost that they are just as much people as you are, with egos and sensitivities as strong, or as fine, as your own. Civility is, in this reading, very close to empathy.
The question that faces us today is what kind of empathy can we have when we are able more and more to surround ourselves—as we increasingly do—completely with "our" stuff? Think about your personal devices, those technologies of solipsism that have flourished in the past two decades. If you're walking down Fifth Avenue staring at your iPhone, checking your stock quotes and chatting with your BFF and listening to your music and hailing yourself a car, to what extent are you actually walking down Fifth Avenue? Are you noticing the cityscape around you?
Even more important, are you noticing the people around you, your fellow citizens? Think about the platforms through which you interact with people all day, the media that we call "social" but that, if anything, have enhanced our ability to be asocial—to screen out every element of society (and culture and politics) that doesn't suit us, thereby removing the necessity for civility in the first place. The polarization of politics over the past two decades stems directly from this increasingly hermetic view of the world. If you're rarely exposed to other kinds of people and alternative views, after all, they will become first unimaginable and then intolerable. And from the rhetoric of intolerance it's only a short step to the politics of intolerance.
In 2001, when I got my first Motorola clamshell ("It'll be great to have if I'm driving some night with the baby in the car seat and I go off the road into a ditch!" I remember telling my parenting partner—not being able to imagine any other contingency in which I'd want to use the thing), I would have laughed out loud if you'd told me that a typical cityscape in the year 2016 would be a vision of dozens of highly educated, well-groomed, well-dressed adults stomping down the street staring (or shouting) into little machines the size of communicators in Star Trek.
To describe it in this vaguely comical way is, of course, to be a little unfair; after all, no one doubts that the conversations, the stock quotes, the e-mails are important. The problem is that they're important only to each of those individuals, not to the people around them. What sense of a "community" based on mutual philia can there really be on that stretch of Fifth Avenue? Whose needs, sensitivities, and concerns can you empathize with when you're able to float through public spaces all day long in a bubble of what are only your private concerns—to say nothing of when you vote?
This brings me to another point of classical etymology. The Athenians of the great democratic era of Pericles's time were intensely, perhaps even excessively, community-minded: every citizen was expected to participate in direct democracy, some offices were assigned by lot, and everything from athletic contests to the performances of tragedies was a public, state-sponsored event at which the unforgiving Mediterranean sunlight showed you just who was there and how they were doing. As a result, the Greeks had a special horror of people who imported their private concerns into the public arena—the agora, where civic life unfolded.
In fact, they had a word for that kind of person. Idiotês is derived from the adjective idios, which means private. Originally its meaning was innocuous: a private person. But precisely because life in a city like Athens or New York takes place in shared spaces as well as in private ones, the word came to mean someone who was irritatingly, stubbornly, contrarily "private" even when he shouldn't be.
Over many centuries the last syllable of the word was eroded away by a million lips in 10,000 cities, from Athens to Constantinople to Antioch to Rome, leaving us with what is, when you think about it, as good a term as any to describe a figure who clomps obliviously down a city street while seemingly talking to himself, or sucker-punches someone for having different views, or practices any number of other behaviors that we would once have laughed at but now have become appallingly common: idiot.