Civility in Argument

Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Statues - Arguing MenDemocratic politics is all about argument. Hence, with the US election season upon us, expect commentators from across the spectrum to begin offering familiar lamentations regarding the sorry state of our popular political discourse. Often these critiques express a yearning for a mostly fictitious past in which opposing candidates addressed their differences of opinion by means of calm and reasoned discussion rather than with attack-ads, smear campaigns, and dirty tricks. One popular way of posing the complaint is to say that in contemporary US politics, we have lost our collective sense of civility.

We all agree that civility in political argument is an increasingly scarce good. Yet it’s not clear precisely what civility is. On some accounts, civility is equivalent to conflict aversion; one is civil insofar as one is conciliatory and irenic in dealing with one’s political opponents. Civility in this sense seeks to deal with disagreement by disposing of it. Civility of this kind is little more than a call for compromise at the expense of one’s own commitments. Hence this kind of civility might be inconsistent with actually believing anything. To be sure, compromise among clashing viewpoints is frequently a fitting avenue to pursue once argument has reached an impasse. But when taken as a fundamental virtue of argument itself, compromise is vicious.

Another prevalent account of civility is focused on the tone one takes in arguing with one’s opponents. The thought is that when arguing, one must avoid overly hostile or antagonistic language. On this view, a paradigmatic case of incivility is name-calling and other forms of expression overtly aimed at belittling or insulting on one’s opponents. Now, there is no doubt that maintaining a civil tone when arguing is generally good policy. But a civil tone is not always required, and there are occasions where aggressive language is called for. Argument is a form of confrontation, one with words instead of weapons, and any norm that prevents argument from displaying the critical edges of disagreements undercuts what inspires the argument to begin with. Furthermore, it is possible to fail at proper argumentation and yet maintain a calm and respectful tone of voice. In fact, under certain circumstances, one patronizes one’s interlocutor precisely by sustaining one’s composure. If civility of tone has a purpose, it is to maintain conditions under which proper argument can commence; thus it is not itself a component of proper argument.

Read more »