Civility is in vogue again, at least for a few moments. The nation has been traumatized by another mass murder. A psychopath in Arizona cut down half-a-dozen innocent people, including a federal judge. A congressional lawmaker and others were left injured.

Everyone agrees that the murders were evil and even monstrous. It goes without saying that these acts violated the canons of civility—murders always do, whether they are one or many, whether the victims are federal officials or innocents in the womb.

The surprising thing is that someone has now speculated that uncivil political speech played a significant role in provoking the murders. The public—by which I mean the masses who are always eager for a facile explanation, particularly if it shifts the blame to someone else—has decided to treat this suggestion as a genuine insight. The result is that pundits and politicians are tripping over themselves to eschew rudeness. Civility is nouveau chic.

Certainly incivility can provoke violence. Rudeness provokes reactions, and those reactions sometimes escalate into physical altercation. If you are rude enough often enough to the wrong people, one of them is likely to take a poke at your nose.

That is a different matter than suggesting that incivility incites violence. Is an unhinged person more likely to commit murder simply because a politician or pundit was not nice to a public figure? Little or no evidence supports this thesis.

In fact, American politics draws from a robust tradition of incivility. Thomas Paine accused George Washington of being either an apostate or an imposter, treacherous in private friendship and hypocritical in public life. Thomas Jefferson hired pamphleteer James T. Callendar to hound John Adams for presidential corruption. The Federalists later used Callendar to pillory Jefferson, propagating the charge that he was the father of Sally Hemings’s biracial children. Decades later, cartoonist Thomas Nast (inventor of the modern Santa Claus) depicted Abraham Lincoln as a hairy ape or baboon. Harper’s Weekly famously listed epithets that were hurled at Lincoln: “Filthy Story-Teller, Despot, Liar, Thief, Braggart, Buffoon, Usurper, Monster, Ignoramus Abe, Old Scoundrel, Perjurer, Robber, Swindler, Tyrant, Field-Butcher, Land-Pirate.”

American political rhetoric has always been bumptious, though exceptions have existed. One of the exceptions, and one of the most civil presidents in American history, was George W. Bush. He was also one of the most maligned. His political opponents tagged him as stupid, a draft-dodger, a liar, a murderer, and a monkey. They picketed his public appearances, tried to shout him down, and threw things at his home. None of this led any crazed Leftist to begin shooting Republican lawmakers.

In view of the mauling that President Bush had to take, the current calls for civility come across as hypocritical and self-serving. By choosing this moment to furrow their brows and to wring their hands, the ones doing the calling leave the impression that they are manipulating a tragedy for political gain. That may seem hypocritical, but it is actually the smaller part of the problem.

The hypocrisy runs far deeper. Incivility is not limited to the sphere of politics, but has become a dominant mode of public behavior. Athletes, talk show hosts, celebrities, and other public figures are expected to act like jerks.

Hollywood cannot seem to market a movie without turning the protagonist into a bad boy. If he is young, then he has to be a punk. If he is a police officer, then he has to be a rogue. If he is a soldier, then he has to be a rebel. If he is Peter Jackson’s Aragorn, then he has to violate the morality of truce-making in order to behead the toothy Mouth of Sauron. Whoever he is, he has to display a measure of contempt for whatever legitimate authorities exist in his life.

For more than a generation, American civilization has been prepossessed with the notion that one is entitled to have one’s own way simply because one demands it. The more public one’s demands are, the more obnoxiously made, and the more they are seen to inconvenience the object of those demands, the more likely they are to succeed. Dogged, shrill insistence has proven to be the best way to wear down one’s opposition. Consequently, civil disruption has become a normal political process.

Marx and Engels provided the rationale for incivility. People who hold power are in the grip of ideology, they said. Such people are blind to the injustices that they commit. Their consciousness needs to be raised, and that happens only when they are forcibly confronted. Entrenched authority cannot be reasoned with: it responds only to demands backed up by threats.

In Marx and Engels, the threat entailed physical violence. In the case of a deprived teenager, the threat might involve a mere, whining annoyance. In between lies a range of incivilities, many of which are being practiced in present-day culture. The idea is simple: if you can’t make your case well enough to persuade, then assert your demands more and more forcibly until your opposition concedes.

This tactic has been embraced today by both Left and Right. Therein lies the problem. Incivility can prove to be extremely effective among those whose primary motivations stem from the appetites. A conservative, however, values both careful thought and ordinate affection, and these are undermined by every appeal to appetite. Conservatives above all people ought to value civility.

By definition conservatives are supposed to be conserving something. Appetites such as rage, envy, panic, greed, and ambition, however, necessarily produce destruction. By invoking such demons, conservatives effectively cut the moral framework from under those things that they should most wish to conserve.

Conservatives believe in a transcendent moral order. That order includes places for the various stations, roles, ranks, and classes that human beings occupy. Among other things, the transcendent moral order requires a sharp distinction between licit authority and the illegitimate applications of power. Conservatives in general, and conservative Christians in particular, must conduct themselves so that they do no damage to lawful structures and licit authorities. Consequently, words like respect, restraint, and deference ought to characterize a conservative demeanor.

Christians bear a yet greater obligation. They must remember the doctrine of Providence, the notion that God is working in and through all worldly events. Christians believe that history is a story told by God in which they themselves occupy a place. For them to respond to providential events with rage or panic is effectively to disavow a part of their faith. Calling for civility changes nothing. Like all fads, the current interest in civility will soon fade. What just might change something, however, is a determination on the part of conservatives—especially Christians—to demonstrate genuine civility over the long haul.

Christ’s Love

Love me brought,
And love me wrought,
Man, to be thy fere1;
Love me fed,
And love me led,
And love me lettet2 here.

Love me slew,
And love me drew,
And love me laid on bier;
Love is my peace,
For love I chese3
Man to buyen dear.

Ne dread thee nought,
I have thee sought,
Bothen day and night,
To haven thee;
Well is me,
I have thee won in fight.


1 fere: companion, friend

2 lettet: leaves, retains

3 chese: chose

[node:bio/kevin-t-bauder body]

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There are 11 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture


... we have so many who characterize any passionate claim that something is "wrong" or "evil" as a lack of civility (or, worse, "vitriol" or even "ad hominem attack.")

Kevin, I do have a question though. I'm intrigued by your use of the term "appetites" here. You're clearly not using it in the currently popular sense. Perhaps you can elaborate on what you mean by it?

KB wrote:
This tactic has been embraced today by both Left and Right. Therein lies the problem. Incivility can prove to be extremely effective among those whose primary motivations stem from the appetites...

.... Appetites such as rage, envy, panic, greed, and ambition, however, necessarily produce destruction.

It's very interesting to me to see a phenomenon as precise as "panic," for example, characterized as one of "the appetites." And how would you distinguish between

  • panic and ordinary fear
  • ambition and the drive to accomplishment
  • greed and ordinary desire
  • rage and anger

I'm inclined to think they come from the same place in us but lack proper restraint or are directed toward improper ends. But I get the impression you see them differently.

(If civility and incivility are distinguished partly by a set of motivations called "the appetites" we should understand what they are and what makes them inferior.)

Kevin T. Bauder's picture


You have asked the sixty-four-thousand dollar question. The labels that we use for the interior life (the "emotions," as they are called today) put things together that appear similar, but differ in important ways. Distinguishing those things is fundamental (I use the word deliberately), not only to our secular civility, but to our very Christianity.

On the civil side, pagans from Plato to Cicero knew the answer to your question. On the Christian side, theologians from Paul to Augustine to Anselm to Aquinas to Calvin to Pascal to Edwards could answer this question standing on their heads. For a millennium and a half, these distinctions were part of the mental furniture of Christianity. You have to ask the question now because the categories have been co-opted.

How to distinguish the splangchna from the koilia? The chest from the belly (or, as we Americans prefer to say, the "gut")?

The question cannot be answered in twenty-five words or less, at least not meaningfully. Perhaps it cannot be answered at all for people who have been taught that the satisfaction of appetite is the summum bonum--particularly if they have been trained to express their appetites in religious ways.

You might begin to answer this question with a careful reading of Edwards's RELIGIOUS AFFECTIONS. Or perhaps a brief perusal of Lewis's chapter on "Men Without Chests" in THE ABOLITION OF MAN.

The question you have raised may be the single most important question that confronts contemporary evangelicalism and fundamentalism, both of which have largely conceded the categories.

In fact, I think that it is so important that I'll go out on a limb here. If a religious organization or movement cannot draw this distinction and implement it in life, then it ultimately is NOT worth saving.


Aaron Blumer's picture


OK, I'l bite. Edwards it is. He's been sitting patiently on a shelf waiting for me and nagging at me for quite a while anyway.

I'm inclined to wonder (as I often have in the past), why should we believe the Greeks? And are we sure we've not read them into every theologian from Paul to Augustine to Anselm to Aquinas to Calvin to Pascal to Edwards? But I think your answer wouldn't mean much if I don't at least read Edwards first.

I can't resist throwing this one out there though, just out of impatience... do we believe the theologians learned it from the Greeks (Plato, et. al.), that both the Greeks and the theologians learned it separately from more or less the same source, or (overlapping with the second possibility) would it be more fair to say that we know Plato was right only because Paul confirms and that Plato, presumably, arrived at it by observation and reason and common grace took him to the right conclusion? I'm sure I'm not the first to wonder how anything good could come out of pre-Christian Greece.

(Edit: do I get my $64,000 now?)

Charlie's picture

Well, the Greeks provided a vocabulary and a context that Christians co-opted for their own use. I just posted a review of Robert Wilken's The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. He has a chapter detailing on how Christian reflection on the virtues and affections appropriated and then transcended the Greek discussion.

I would say that most Christian theologians until recently took the position that the Greeks learned their philosophy from the Old Testament. That idea put out there by Philo, taken up by the early apologists, and still visible in the works of Reformed and Lutheran Orthodoxy. Whether or not we find that historically plausible, the point they were making was that all philosophical truth is found in the Scripture. So, it was all subject to scriptural critique. Nevertheless, I don't see how it's possible to avoid the conclusion that they did in fact learn many things from the Greeks.

My Blog:

Cor meum tibi offero Domine prompte et sincere. ~ John Calvin

Forrest's picture

"In fact, American politics draws from a robust tradition of incivility." Smile

I enjoyed your reference not to the normal but to the extended edition of The Lord of the Rings. Smile

The more public one’s demands are, the more obnoxiously made, and the more they are seen to inconvenience the object of those demands, the more likely they are to succeed.

Unfortunately when I came across this paragraph the first example I thought of was the Christian evangelists here at Rutgers University berating the students as they fill the buses. (They're not of the Phelp's stripe, but they're not the Gideons handing out Bibles either.) Sad

"By definition conservatives are supposed to be conserving something." Perhaps they are conserving that "robust tradition of incivility"? Wink

Forrest Berry

Forrest's picture

I'm inclined to wonder (as I often have in the past), why should we believe the Greeks? And are we sure we've not read them into every theologian from Paul to Augustine to Anselm to Aquinas to Calvin to Pascal to Edwards? But I think your answer wouldn't mean much if I don't at least read Edwards first.

From at least Augustine onward we can be sure that we have not read the Greeks into the theologians because the theologians have expressly included them. Augustine is heavily influenced by Plato. If you read the Dialogues and then read Augustine (especially his early stuff), it is amazing how similar they sound. Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, and others are supremely interested in Aristotle.

Also, the Greeks lay the framework and even the vocabulary to a great extent which later theologians follow, and which we even follow today albeit to a lesser extent.

Forrest Berry

B-Lowry's picture

It appears that Paul uses these categories in several places in the NT. For example, Philippians 3:19 says that some enemies of Christ have as their god their "belly." Their koilia (belly, guts, passions) rule them as a god. He also uses splagchnon in Colossians 3:12 and 2 Corinthians 7:15 the same way the ancients did, as the place of more noble affections. The point is that this distinction was, indeed, seen by almost everyone at that time and up to the 18th century, at least.

Some of the overly emotional nonsense sung in our churches today are the children and grandchildren of the loss of these distinctions. I remember sometime during my days at BJU hearing an opera singer sing "Fairest Lord Jesus" with (should I say it?) only a piano accompaniment during chapel. It was the finest rendition of that hymn I have ever heard. Simple, yet elegant. Both the music and the words produced the correct reaction in our souls. Our affections were informed, uplifted and we were shown how bow before our matchless Lord. This is part of what we have lost in our day of ruined emotions and debased affections.

Aaron Blumer's picture


I have begun reading Religious Afffections. Edwards is more engaging than I expected. It's not at all like hacking through a thicket (yet).
But I'll confess to some skepticism. Since we know the "nobler" affections do not actually come from a different part of our anatomy, how are we to tell them from less noble ones? This is supposed to be the $64k question, but my skepticism is toward the idea that it is actually possible to answer it in any way that would result in any two people consistently judging one phenomenon to be ofkoilia and another to be ofsplangknon.
Of course some of the distinctions are obvious, but the ones most hotly contested--well, there's a reason they are hotly contested. Their true nature is not so easy to divine in ourselves much less in other individuals or "the masses."

... I also may not be quite conservative enough to believe that we have made no progress at all in western thought in understanding the "emotions" since Augustine's or even Edward's day. Part of me would love to believe that. Another part is a bit incredulous (is incredulity of the koilia?)

Bob T.'s picture

The real uncivil aspect of all this is the ignoring of the real cause of the Tuscon violence and avoiding discussion on the many aspects of the problem.

The cause was an untreated Paranoid Schizophrenic. All that has been said about the shooter points to classic Paranoid Schizophrenia. It was untreated because many are ignorant of the disease and what can be done to intervene. The college failed to act in a conclusive way. The parents failed to understand the symptoms and seriousness. Society as a whole will not take the necessary steps to handle mental illness. Only one TV guest analyst spoke clearly on the subject. He was a guest on Megan Kelley's America live. He was a Psychiatrist from a center against violence.

All the talk about political dialogue and incivility misses the subject and provides cover for societies real guilt of not dealing adequately with mental illness.

Aaron Blumer's picture


Some people are just wicked.
But I agree that some are mentally ill. And strongly agree that political speech has nothing to do with Tucson case.

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