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Incivility, President Obama told his audience at the 2010 National Prayer Breakfast, is a disease of public life that “sows division and distrust among our citizens; it poisons the well of public opinion; it leaves each side little room to negotiate with the other; it makes politics an all-or-nothing sport, where one side is either always right or always wrong.”

He concluded: “Empowered by faith, consistently, prayerfully, we need to find our way back to civility.”

It’s a fair bet that President Trump doesn’t fulfill Obama’s hopes. Trump rode a wave of insults into the Oval Office, and his opponents have since responded in kind, with jokey references to Trump’s being beheaded or assassinated, and his fellating Vladimir Putin.

We misconstrue our political moment, though, if we focus exclusively on the dangers of incivility. Trump’s bluntness and bravado electrified millions who felt censored by politically correct rules of civility. Calls for civility can be bludgeons to beat clamorous dissenters into silence. That’s one reason why confidence in liberal order is eroding: You say “Be civil,” but you actually mean “Shut up.”

The problem is, we don’t know what we’re asking for when we ask for “civility.” As Teresa Bejan shows in her recent Mere Civility, “civility” has been enlisted to advance very different political projects. The eirenicists of post-Reformation Europe called for verbal restraint to heal the wounded concordia of Christendom. To preserve the fragile peace secured by Leviathan, Hobbes said, people needed to keep their opinions to themselves. Locke envisioned an updated form of concordia that demanded charitable respect for, not mere toleration of, others’ beliefs.

Bejan prefers the rambunctious “meer” civility of Roger Williams. Williams didn’t respect his opponents’ views. He held them in contempt, and said so. He argued that as long as disputants followed minimal rules of engagement (listen, don’t interrupt, keep the conversation going), they should have the liberty to be as strident as they pleased.

The fact that we can’t agree on whether we suffer from a deficiency or an excess of civility is a symptom of a more serious social pathology. Walter Lippmann spotted it in 1955. He ended his Essays in the Public Philosophy with a chapter in defense of civility. Divisions were growing “wider and more irreconcilable,” and Lippmann argued that in such circumstances “toleration is unable to cope.” Toleration depends on consensus. Without common adherence to some (Lippmann would say “the”) public philosophy, we can’t decide the limits of the tolerable.

Beyond this lack of consensus is a still more fundamental problem. Lippmann discerned it in the voluntarist existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre declared, “if I have done away with God the Father, someone is obliged to invent values…life has no meaning a priori…it is up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.” Things are valuable if I choose to value them; they are meaningful if I say so.

Sartre, in short, rejected the notion of “a public world to which we belong.” To Lippmann, this rejection could only lead to chaos: “If what is good, what is right, what is true, is only what the individual ‘chooses’ to ‘invent,’ then we are outside the traditions of civility. We are back in the war of all men against all men. There is left no ground for accommodation among the varieties of men; nor is there in this proclamation of anarchy a will to find an accommodation.”

Sartre may be ignored these days, but his “constructivism” has won the day. And here, finally, we get to the ground floor of our “crisis of civility.” Obama spoke for many when he lamented that “we’re unable to listen to one another,” but why should we listen if each of us inhabits a world of his own making? Why should I assume that your world has anything to say to mine? Not even the thin consensus of liberalism can survive Sartre.

Hand-wringing over the harshness of public discourse is understandable, but it’s a classic rearranging-Titanic-furniture phenomenon. We can’t establish or re-establish civility without common adherence to a common good, and we can’t adhere to a common good without a common belief in the very possibility of commonness.

The “way back to civility” is longer and more arduous than we imagine.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.

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