Civility: Behavior or speech appropriate to civil interactions. Adopted from Middle French civilité in the late 14th century, but with a different sense: “civil order” or “citizenship.” Something closer to the current sense came into currency in the 16th century, but later fell out of favor for several centuries. A 19th- or even mid-20th-century speaker of English probably would be puzzled by the way “civility” is used, for example, by Allegheny College, which last week closed nominations for its second annual Prize for Civility in Public Life. The prize
seeks to honor elected officials who showed authentic, courageous civility in an important moment and/or those who have demonstrated steadfast respect for opposing points of view throughout their career. Each year, two awards will be given – one to a proud Republican and one to a proud Democrat. The award will be used to shine a bright light on passionate partisans, on both sides of the aisle, who have shown that meaningful civility is not incompatible with strongly held beliefs.
Last year’s winners were the columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks.
The Allegeny College sense of “civility” is surprisingly recent, according to Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist and professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Information. In his new book, Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years, Nunberg writes that to Victorians “incivility suggested merely an impertinent coachman or a stall-keeper who addressed one as ‘boss’ rather than ‘sir’.” In the early 20th century “civility was merely a genteel term for a formally correct courtesy” — a sense we retain in the admonition to “keep a civil tongue in your head.” As late as the 1950s, says Nunberg, “critics writing about serious social concerns like juvenile delinquency spoke about a ‘breakdown of manners and morals’; incivility didn’t come into the picture.” The definition of civility as “respectful debate in a democratic society” had become, Nunberg writes, “effectively obsolete.”
So what brought civility back to life? Nunberg says the word was “disinterred” in the 1960s for a specific political purpose:
[To critics], the social upheavals personified by the hippies, anti-war protesters, and campus radicals offered provocations that transcended mere breaches of decorum or anything that could be conveyed by pallid old words like impolite, rude, and discourteous. With its musty connection to citizen and civic, a resuscitated incivility implied that the demonstrators’ dress and rude comportment was of a piece with their attacks on the political order.
In an editorial published just before the 1968 presidential elections, Nunberg writes, the Wall Street Journal “inveighed against what it called the New Incivility” of student protestors and “enraged Negro spokesmen.” In 1969 alone, civility and incivility appeared in more New York Times editorials than they had in the previous half-century, “nearly all of them dealing with campus turbulence. … By the Clinton years, the words were fifteen times as frequent in the press as they had been during Eisenhower’s presidency.”
Nunberg notes dryly that it’s no coincidence “that the new sense of incivility emerged at the same time that asshole came of age as a reproach for social misconduct.” He goes on:
For all that people invariably speak of civility as an abiding virtue, in its new guise it’s actually a sharp break with the past. To evoke civility is to presuppose that old-fashioned manners and politeness aren’t morally compelling by themselves… An age in which even moralists can speak of “mere manners” and “mere courtesy” is very different from the one that preceded it, despite the specious continuity of values that “civility” is supposed to provide.
See also Steve Baird’s post on trademark civility.
For more on asshole (and bad-ass in brand language), see my September 18 post.