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Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration Paperback – October 29, 2019
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“Mere Civility is centered in the years after the Reformation, when the emergence of myriad Protestant sects splintered communities across Western Europe. That splintering was magnified, just as in our own time, by the explosion of a new means of communication―the printing press―which allowed people who had never before had a public voice to spread their ideas far and wide. Invectives and broadsides were the order of the day, as members of different religious denominations fought for each other’s souls, and incivility became a central concern of political thought. I doubt that for most readers of Mere Civility, this account of social disarray in the Reformation years is a huge surprise. But by keeping a tight focus on the concept of civility, Bejan manages to make that old story feel new―or at least to draw new lessons from it, lessons that are particularly interesting within the context of contemporary political theory… [Mere Civility] does not purport to solve the problems of incivility, but it unknots them, making the nature of the problems―both in general and in this time of numbing nostalgia―more evident. Would that more of us might learn to look into the past with such gravity and humility. We might end up with a more (or mere) civil society, yet.”―Susan McWilliams, Los Angeles Review of Books
“A deeply admirable book: original, persuasive, witty, and eloquent. It is also admirably, bracingly, skeptical, in the best sense: the kind of liberal skepticism that we associate in political theory with Judith Shklar, Bernard Williams, and George Kateb.”―Jacob T. Levy, Review of Politics
“Bejan’s important book is beautifully written, cogently argued, and provocative. It foregrounds the matter of ‘civility’ with astute historical analysis of touchstone texts in political thought.”―Jeffrey Collins, Queens University
“Mere Civility is a terrific book―learned, vigorous, and challenging. Bejan makes Roger Williams the hero of this story and the thinker who provides a principled justification for America’s exceptional permissiveness toward ‘uncivil’ speech. Justifying the American status quo isn’t easy. Doing it with arguments that are often surprising is even harder.”―Alison McQueen, Stanford University
“This carefully argued and documented volume documents three early modern understandings of civility, offering that of Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams, as a fitting response to our perceived crisis of civility.”―J. H. Fritz, Choice
“Impressive.”―Scott Yenor, Claremont Review of Books
About the Author
- Publisher : Harvard University Press; Reprint edition (October 29, 2019)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 288 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0674241649
- ISBN-13 : 978-0674241640
- Item Weight : 11.2 ounces
- Dimensions : 6.1 x 0.9 x 9.2 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #990,541 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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It is really refreshing to read such a well argued monograph that proposes a more civil libertarian approach to tolerance. In an age of "safe spaces" and "micro-agressions," Prof. Bejan's work is needed all the more. And yet even those who won't agree with Bejan will gain much from this book: her analyses of Williams, Hobbes, and Locke are all beautifully contextualized, carefully drawn, and filled with interesting information. More generally, Bejan demonstrates that our current age of uncivil discourse is hardly an anomaly: the early modern period had its own precursors to speech codes and hate-speech legislation, and the printing press once played the role of today's Internet.
In all, this is a fascinating book on a crucial topic. Anyone worried about the current state of our political rhetoric must read it.
Stated briefly (and, hence, inaccurately), the thesis of the book is that Roger Williams hit on an idea of mere civility that allows for rude, rambunctious, honest debate without the disputants attempting to eject each other from society, and that this theory is better than the other alternatives. Those alternatives--civility through conformity of publicly expressed views (Hobbes) and civility through joint commitment to minimum requirements for trustworthiness (Locke)--are given not only their historical contexts but also explained in their modern day incarnations. Dr. Bejan effectively utilizes these models of civility as a contrast to show why Williams' conception is the only one that truly take the vagaries and variety of human character and opinion into account. The result is to provide significant insight not just into the religious toleration issues Williams, Hobbes, and Locke were grappling with, but also into our own more modern issues of largely political (in)civility.
Of course, if you do have a PhD, this book is also full of notes and references to the other major writers in the field, and it engages deeply with the surrounding literature. Luckily for the rest of us, you don't need to already have read that literature to understand the points being made.
For Williams, the free exchange of ideas was necessary for freedom, education and civil tolerance. For Hobbes it was the end of civility and people must be silenced for the good of all. Today we have free speech. Will we prove Williams or Hobbes correct? Today we have plenty of intolerance on the left as well as the right. Sometimes calls for civility effectively silence others.
Whether you, like me, agree with Williams that a high degree of disagreement should not only be tolerated but encouraged and debated (that we have a civil obligation to make our best reasoned arguments with those who disagree), or you think we should keep quiet, a degree of personal responsibility is required to maintain any such freedom. But if speech is intended to bludgeon and inhibit the chance of others to speak freely, this conflict of rights becomes difficult to sanction.
Civility need not be pleasant, particularly peaceful or harmonious but it will be open, and this openness is a foundation that might dispel a lack of trust. Or we can go on ignoring one half of our countrymen by denying their values.