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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Civic Virtue Versus Servile Civility

Senator Jeff Flake (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Senator Jeff Flake (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Ann Mongoven

Ann Mongoven is the associate director of health care ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.

Rage often has been a powerful motivator and constructive force for social change. Yet in American political life, passionate, angry protest by marginalized groups—recall the recent #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, or Act-Up during the early HIV/AIDS epidemic—has often been met with criticism for incivility. 

More underlies this all-too-common dismissal of justice claims than crass sexism, racism, or other “isms.” Part of the pushback has its roots in long-held notions about proper forms of participation in the public sphere. Historian Carole Pateman critically traced the evolution of a conception of public and private spheres early in the American Republic. [1] This view of complementary but separate spheres was highly gendered, posing private life as a sphere governed by (womanly) affections and the public sphere as one governed by (masculine) reason. 

This problematic but historically influential metaphor continues to distort understandings of civic virtue. It defines not only emotional life but also all that we learn through our most intimate personal relationships as outside the political sphere which is to be governed from some omniscient rational standpoint. Indebtedness to this metaphor may explain why a spokesperson for the Trump administration praised Kavanaugh’s “righteous anger” against the “shrieking hysteria” of women protesters.  Even if an unusually emotional display, Kavanaugh’s anger was enlisted to shield the political sphere from what was interpreted as a dangerous incursion from the private one.

In reality there is no omniscient rational standpoint for political life. And community does not develop within sealed spheres. Robust politics requires that all citizens develop habits through which personal experience and broader political life can challenge each other morally. 

We must reject oppressive calls for servile civility in the name of civic virtue. Real civic virtue protects the public space for passionate, angry protest informed by personal experience. But it cannot stop there. Real civic virtue must negotiate tension between two common appeals in our political life. On the one hand, many rightly claim anew the political legitimacy of anger. On the other hand, many rightly lament a polarized atmosphere in which people with different initial views never talk to each other. 

Can we have both more anger and more conversation? 

Yes. But to do so, we must consider what civic virtue requires of citizens confronted by angry fellow-citizens whose passionate arguments puzzle or shock them. Perhaps the most crucial virtue is disciplined vulnerability. Disciplined vulnerability is a practiced refusal to turn away from initially shocking arguments in public life. The practice of disciplined vulnerability can start as straightforwardly as taking three deep breaths before responding or walking away. It can include recalling instances in personal life where one came, over time, to understand what underlay the initially surprising anger of a parent, spouse, child, or friend. It can extend to reminding ourselves explicitly of historical instances when affronted parties turned out to be blind to their own complicity in oppression.

Amidst much ugliness on all sides of the Kavanaugh debacle, there was one public example of disciplined vulnerability that we all should applaud. Standing, head bowed in the elevator, confronted with a furious sexual assault survivor, not shutting the doors, listening for minute after minute, Senator Jeff Flake embodied disciplined vulnerability.  He explicitly acknowledged that the experience transformed his view of due process. Beyond the issue and the vote at hand, he demonstrated that being vulnerable may be as important to thoughtful politics as being powerful—and that the two may be linked. 

In polarized political times, we should consider how simultaneously to live with more anger and to engage in more conversation. We should deliberately cultivate the virtues required including the willingness to listen to many styles of public argument. The practice of disciplined vulnerability may lead to the legitimate rejection of arguments we judge to be unjustly manipulative or deliberately cruel. Or it may lead us to change or minds.

We should also reflectively excavate our presumed metaphors for political life. The historical baggage associated with the metaphor of private and public spheres now outweighs its insights. We need new language to explore the ethical relationship between private and public life.


  1. Pateman, C. (1989).  “Feminist critiques of the public private dichotomy,” in The disorder of women: Democracy, feminism, and political theory. Stanford, Ca:  Stanford University Press.
  2. (1999). Nicomachean ethics. (M. Ostwald, Trans.). Indianapolis, In: Bobbs Merrill Company.
  3. Lakoff and M. Johnson. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press.

 

Oct 17, 2018

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