William Keith and Robert Danisch’s book, “Beyond Civility,” describes the dire condition of contemporary civic life in the United States as a problem of communication ethics. At first blush, the controversy they tackle might sound straightforward. Afterall, their answer to whether we should strive to be more civil when we talk politics with each other is a hearty, “Yes!” But, ideas about what it means to be civil in the United States bear the marks of the unequal history in which they were forged. So, it’s no small task to get to that “Yes!” without undermining efforts to create the kind of equitable and democratic society that deserves to be called “civil.”
Despite its scope, “Beyond Civility” manages to be succinct yet filled with thoughtful discussions and lively examples. Keith and Danisch lead readers through ideas from Aristotle, Charles Taylor, John Dewey, Karl Marx, Kenneth Burke, and beyond. They also examine the line between civility and incivility with examples such as the time Sarah Huckabee Sanders was refused service at a restaurant in Virginia; the time President Obama released a statement chastening aspects of the Black Lives Matter movement; and the time a group of Pittsburgh priests deposited rotten fish in safety deposit boxes at Mellon Banks as part of an anti-deindustrialization campaign.
“Beyond Civility” consists of an introduction and five chapters that each elaborate on the problems with civility and then argue for its importance despite them. The authors also offer a series of distinctions to help readers think more deeply about civic life. Three stand out:
First, they distinguish among three kinds of civility: “weak,” “strong,” and “pseudo.” Weak civility is being polite for politeness’ sake. Strong civility aims to confront disagreements while maintaining a unified community. And, pseudo-civility is when someone invokes the rules of weak civility against someone who is practicing strong civility.
Second, Keith and Danisch draw a distinction between two ways of thinking about civic discussion. Whereas a “deliberative imaginary” envisions civic discussion as collaborative, a “critical imaginary” sees it as riddled with conflict. Importantly, Keith and Danisch see weak, strong, and pseudo civility operating in both collaborative and conflict-ridden civic discussions.
Third, Keith and Danisch favor strong civility and they offer three tests that can help us pursue it. Their “corrosion test” challenges us to interact with others as though we will need to interact with them again someday. Their “degradation test” challenges us not to say things that would degrade ourselves. Finally, their “comfort test” encourages us to think about the positions from which we speak, and the positions held by those we speak to.
All in all, “Beyond Civility” warns us that democracy is a wicked problem that is unlikely to be solved. For this reason, Keith and Danisch stress that civility ought not be understood as a fixed set of rules for what to say and not to say. Instead, they insist that it should be viewed as a means for nurturing an imperfect democracy where persuasion and cooperation remain real possibilities.
Reviewer Mark Hlavacik earned his PhD in the Department of Communication Arts & Sciences at Penn State. He’s now an associate professor of communication studies at the University of North Texas.
"Beyond Civility” will be the focus of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State's next virtual book club on Monday, October 5th at 4pm. The event is a partnership between the McCourtney Institute, Penn State University Libraries, and Penn State University Press. Register for the book club here.