MANCEPT workshop: Civility and Its Discontents

September 4, 2024 - September 6, 2024
MANCEPT, University of Manchester

United Kingdom

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Queen's University, Belfast

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Organisers: Suzanne Whitten (Queen's University Belfast) and Andrew Schaap (University of Exeter)

The ideal of ‘civility’, according to Cheshire Calhoun, is thought by many to be a “basic virtue of social life” (2000: 251). For many who share in this opinion, society itself would not survive were it not for the existence of a set of shared behavioural practices guiding both our everyday interactions with one another and our political deliberations (Laegaard 2010). These practices are thought to be all the more important in the large, plural societies of today (Reiheld 2013). Here, civility allows individuals living in diverse societies to live alongside one another in relative harmony by assuring them that those they come into contact with respect their equal standing (Buss 1999). Norms of civility, then, provide a shared language of mutual respect, without which the necessary interactions central to common citizenship would not be successful (Boyd 2006; Carter 1998).

This idea of civility as a citizen virtue, however, has been challenged by those who draw attention to the concept’s repressive and hierarchical tendencies (Bejan 2017). According to one key criticism, demands for civility are motivated not by a concern for widespread citizen respect but as a way of disciplining and silencing the behaviour of the oppressed, particularly when they make claims against those in power (Zerilli 2014; Sugrue 2018). The experience of conforming to ‘top-down’ civility norms, especially from those within oppressed social groups, imposes affective and emotional burdens that other members of society do not have to carry, thus calling into question civility’s status as a signal of mutual respect (Young 2000; Sarat 2012).  

In response, many activists and theorists alike have considered whether we might instead have ethical duties to engage in uncivil practices as a way of contesting oppressive social arrangements (Delmas 2018). On these accounts, the correct way to express equal respect for all citizens is to mock, disparage, and break down long-standing civility norms, particularly when they play a role in the continuation of oppression itself (Edyvane amd Kulenovic 2017). Such challenges to dominant modes of civility also allow us to appreciate the ways in which the oppressed have built alternative practices of respect-expression, both as a form of resistance against dominant norms and as an essential tool for fostering solidarity. Others, in turn, make the case for an agonistic “third path” (Braunstein 2018), which understands civility as both a challenge to existing injustice and a constraint on how such injustices might be dealt with politically (Mouffe 2005).

The purpose of this panel is to critically assess the complex position civility holds within democracies today. We invite papers which explore the following themes:

·       Civility as a virtue of deliberative democracy: To what extent do norms of civility required for political deliberation need to satisfy liberal ideals of rationality? What role, if any, should affective or emotional responses play within our ideals of civility?

·       The demands of civility: Are all citizens subject to the same civility norms, or are some groups more burdened than others? What should be done about those civility norms that reflect and perpetuate unjust social hierarchies?

·       The regulation of (in)civility: In which ways (if any) should norms of civility be policed, either by social or institutional forces? To what extent does social media open up new ways for incivility to flourish, and what should be done about it (if anything)?

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