Recent calls for civility without an understanding of the term are not only futile but dangerous. In the political sense, civility does not simply imply etiquette nor does it dictate consensus or agreement.
Civility allows us to agree to disagree without being disagreeable by respecting the respectable viewpoint. Not all viewpoints are, in fact, respectable.
One of the greatest lessons in the power of incivility came in 1856, a volatile time when we faced two choices: allowing abominable laws of slavery to continue or abolishing that inhumane practice. The nation’s economy depended on King Cotton and continuing the practice was certainly beneficial to the North and South, but it was morally reprehensible and the only reason for existing was monetary.
Senator Charles Sumner, an antislavery Republican was caned in response to calling Steven Douglas “a noise-some, squat, and nameless animal…not a proper model for an American senator” and charging South Carolina’s Andrew Butler, who had portrayed himself as a man of chivalry, with taking a “mistress…who though ugly to others, is always lovely to him…the harlot, Slavery.”
Fortunately, abolition was chosen and our better angels prevailed but not without years of incivility that finally led to a very destructive war that has never been completely resolved. The recent suggestion that God has commanded us to obey the laws of the land and a call for civility in light of the recent failure of our leaders to act humanely, separating children from parents, may justify incivility as it did with Sumner’s outrage.
– Warren May, Clayton