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Civility Paperback – March 3, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

In this followup to Integrity, Yale law professor Stephen Carter continues to meditate upon the "prepolitical" qualities on which a healthy society is based.

Why do people show poorer manners today than in previous ages? How did we come to confuse rudeness with self-expression and acting on our "rights"? Carter looks at these and other important questions with a combination of his personal experiences and an extremely long shelf of reading material, all the while maintaining an informal writing style that continually--but politely--engages the reader, inviting him or her to think about these issues along with Carter.

There are important messages here about generosity and trust, about respecting diversity and dissent, and about resolving conflict through dialogue rather than mandate. Stephen Carter would never be so uncivil as to demand your attention, but Civility most definitely compels. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

Spirited argument for an uncontroversial position. Complaints about incivility are timeless, but Carter (Law/Yale; The Dissent of the Governed, p. 312, etc.) believes that this time the barbarians really are at the door. Culture warriors promoting their vision of society love this theme, of course, but Carter's agenda is both more specific and more open-minded. His focus on manners is not derived from horror at the thought of using the wrong fork to eat a salad. Rather, he defines civility as ``the sum of the many sacrifices we are called [upon] to make for the sake of living together'' and thereby places manners at the crux of relations between people in social settings. Community life requires that one regularly place the common good above ones own immediate self-interest, even when associating with strangers. Unfortunately, he notes, in today's world, respect for such rules of conduct has been lost in the assertion of individual rights and the growing dominance of the market (with its emphasis on self-interest) in our lives, resulting in an increasingly uncivil social environment. Carter suggests several tonics for this ailment. The most amusing is his prescription for the violent metaphors in our language: ``we must smash them, crush them, track them to their lairs and eradicate every trace.'' The most ambiguous is the family, defined as an act of loving and intimate sacrifice, which still begs the question of who and what constitutes a family. The most important is religion, appropriately identified as the single traditional source of American beliefs not necessarily linked to self-interest. Ultimately, the book comes across as an extended harangue rather than a plan for action, however, leaving Carter's purpose unclear. Some interesting background on manners, but do we really need an argument for not being uncouth? -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; 1st edition (March 3, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060977590
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060977597
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #251,772 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Jake Sapiens on December 22, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Stephen Carter brings a moral dimension to the concerns of civility. For himself he bases this on the Christian duty to love our neighbors, but his moral concerns transcend religious and secular boundaries and easily translates into many different world views. This love of neighbors includes all neighbors, not just ones we happen to like or agree with. The metaphor of fellow passengers on the train of life recurs throughout his work with great effectiveness. He describes civility as welcoming the stranger without trying to make an enemy or a brother out of everyone. He brings many poignant examples from the early civil rights movement as well as providing many useful everyday examples.
Professor Carter casts issues of civility both in the religious and political arenas. This doesn't come off as set of rules for etiquette, but rather as a revealing of the deeper reasoning upon which we build such rules. We emerge with a view of civility which neither reflects the unreasonable value abandoning fears of offending others manifest in political correctness, nor the insensitive idealism which the later civil rights movement unfortunately collapsed into. This view allows us to live in a creative harmony in which we can both stick to our ideals and deal civilly with those who do not share them.
As a person who has in the past self-identified as an "atheist," I found that Mr. Carter seems to have some blind spots in understanding that point of view. He clearly directs his message toward an interfaith audience, not strictly Christians though he uses his particular religious understandings to make his points.
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Currie-Knight VINE VOICE on July 22, 2003
Format: Paperback
I must confess that when I see books like this, I have a tendency to cringe. Most books on civility are 'how to' manuals written by self-styled morally superior curmugeons who want us all to live as they do.
Then again, I though to myself while in the bookstore debating on what to procure, isn't it about time that someone writes an honest, frank book about how to be civil, particularly in the civil arena? After all, democratic politics thrives when discussion, self-government, and liberty without license are at high levels and in case anyone has cared to notice, all are at levels approching an all time low.
So I bought it and my judgement was correct. Professor Carter is not on a high horse, he does not condescend and his comments and observations are astute and viable. (although as an atheist, I felt he gave me no option besides "be a moral christian" or "be uncivil").
The book - broken into three parts - can get repetitive, particularly on part II. The first part, on what civility is, defends Professor Carter's notion of civility against all comers: Sociologists who think uncivility spurs pluralistic politics, psychologists who think it is a good way to air frustration, and philosophers who think civility is just plain opression without the name.
The second part identifies different ways that we are uncivil to eachother. Carter argues that uncivility is generally a result of how easy it has become not to interact with eachother, hence, not spend time identifying eachother as "people, same as us". Instead of writing letters, we use the internet; instead of taking mass transportation like trains, we drive to work alone in our automobile; instead of joining clubs, we watch characters on TV join them. This is where Carter gets preachy.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 9, 1999
Format: Paperback
Mr. Carter has diagnosed the situation correctly. The values and courtesies that we should have learned from our parents, but many seemingly didn't, are reiterated in a well-thought book. There is not only a diagnosis of the malais, but actual recommendations for how we should proceed in the face of incivility. This is the only book I have consistently recommended to friends and family. It is easy to read, it does not preach, and should be part of every political science, sociology, and cultural studies program.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Lee Tampkins on November 23, 2012
Format: Paperback
Occasionally I come across a book which cuts straight to the core of a one of the key issues in our society -- this book is one of them! Here's a quick look at the structure: Preface, 3 Parts, 17 Chapters, and End Notes. It is very well written and intellectually stimulating as you would expect from Stephen Carter. This book touched a nerve for me. I couldn't stop myself from shouting back at the pages . . . YES! YES! Absolutely Yes!! Ah . . . The voice of reason -- so satisfying to hear (and we don't get to hear it very often)!

This is an important book. Mr. Carter does a really good job making the case for civility and how critical it is to our civilization. He uses the metaphor of the three-legged stool to symbolize the pillars upon which our civilization has always rested. The three legs of Mr. Carter's stool are Home, School, and Place of Worship. The idea of the stool being that all three legs were required to provide a sturdy foundation (i.e. if any of the three legs were missing the stool would topple over only having two legs remaining). He argues that this stool is collapsing and along with it so goes our civil society. This is a compelling argument.

The book is full of useful metaphors and word pictures which beautifully illustrate the decline of civility in our world today. One of my favorite passages from the book is "The illusion that we travel life alone is ruining us all." There is deep meaning in that statement and he expounds on this admonition beautifully with the train ride analogy where he suggests our civilization has become much like passengers on a train who fail to recognize their fellow passengers traveling along with them.
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