Of Civic Friendship, Civility and Self-Restraint

For those who look with relative bewilderment at a larger Protestant America that touts itself as conservative but behaves progressively in matters not only of faith but also life, Patrick Deneen has a nice little bit over at the Front Porch Republic. Quoth he:

Liberty became defined not as “self-government under laws self-imposed,” but as the greatest possible absence of restraint. Manners necessarily faded in importance – instead, liberal society favors “authenticity” and “self-expression” those watch-words of our individualism that excuse all manners of public and private offense.

A mannered society thus relies less on laws as the way we enforce social norms: a polite society needs fewer policies and police. A liberal society inevitably has more of the latter, less of the former. Ironically, a liberal society will come to rely on the enforcement mechanisms of the State as replacements of practices of civility. As Aristotle noted, the law-suit will replace civic friendship as a prevailing norm. Politics itself will come to be understood – in the famous words of Harold Laswell – “who gets what, when, and how.” For the ancients, the emphasis was on the the “who”; for moderns, the emphasis is on “gets.”

To hear contemporary liberals lament the decline of “civility” is thus more than a little galling. Modern liberals are the heirs of a longstanding effort to liberate people from the “little platoons” that tempered individual self-expression. Hearing their decrial of contemporary “incivility” is a bit like the man who, after insisting on his wife dress as revealingly as possible, gets upset that other men are leering at her. By that same token, “conservative” defenses of “incivility” are even more aggravating, perhaps even more than the well-publicized “conservative” re-introduction of polystyrene coffee cups in the House cafeterias.

Civility is indeed a lost art of our time, but not because of talk radio or growing partisanship. These are symptoms of a deeper disease. Until we frankly diagnose our condition, we remain a patient whose diseases continue to metastasize, all the while complaining that what really bothers us is a hang-nail.

All evangelliberals, and I daresay some Reformed, would do well to contemplate these ideas the next time they are inclined to throw their weight and voice behind any number of social and political agendas which appear to esteem self-expression over self-comportment in the public arena. The family-values crowd, as well as those predisposed to more or less take their cues, might also do well to re-think its ironic notion that the cornerstone of society is the halls of justice to nurture the right, true and good instead of the institution of the home.

 

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