It Seems To Me

Making Nice

What makes society civil?

As I understand it, when political scientists and sociologists refer to a society as “civil” they are citing the many important functions that are performed by voluntary, intermediate institutions. These institutions are intermediate between the state and the individual. They are voluntary in that the performance of individuals within these institutions is not dictated by the state or by the exigencies of the market. Churches, trade unions, philanthropic bodies, and clubs are examples of such institutions.

Each of these intermediate institutions is a society in itself, and each of us spends much of his life in them. Some of these little societies are civil and some are not. I use the word “civil” here to mean that the participants are cooperative and respectful of the others and their interests. That is different from “polite,” which is a surface quality. The chairman of a congressional committee who calls upon “the gentle lady from Arkasota,” while thinking, “you dumb hillbilly bitch,” is polite but not civil in my sense.

What makes some of these minisocieties civil and some not? I think of two in my experience that were especially civil. One was the Center for Advanced Study of the Behavioral Sciences, where I spent a year as a fellow more than 30 years ago. There were about 30 of us fellows at the center–economists, political scientists, historians, sociologists, and psychologists. Most of us knew few–if any–of the others before we met there, but we immediately became friends and enjoyed a pleasant social life together. More important, we could consult each other and collect candid advice. There was no feeling of rivalry among us.

Being happy just to be at the center had something to do with the pervasive good feelings. Also, each of us had shed both his ego requirements and drive for status–at least for the duration of the year’s leave. The fellowship was not part of one’s real life, it was an interlude to be enjoyed and not spoiled by conflict. It was as if we were on a cruise ship with passengers we had never seen before and would probably not see again after the cruise was over.

M y second example is the book discussion group I belong to at Washington’s Cosmos Club (a venerable gentlemen’s club, which now admits women as well). Book discussion groups are regularly described as scenes of rivalry and hostility–of fights over which books to read and who gets to talk the most. Why is our group civil? I credit, in part, the physical and psychological environment of the club, which makes for dignified clubbiness. But what’s more important is the character of the participants. We are all members or spouses of members of the club. We are mostly pretty old. And we have mostly had, and may still be having, some achievement and attention outside the book discussion group. So nobody feels the need to assert his individuality and importance. We can relax and enjoy the pleasure of civil behavior to each other.

These may seem trivial cases, in which neither the gain from cooperative effort nor the possible gain from individual assertion is very large. The key is not in the absolute strength of these gains but in their relative strength. In the cases I have mentioned, the two forces are weak, but the need for ego-satisfaction in this arena is weaker than the gain from cooperation.

I can give a more serious example. For many years, starting with the end of World War II, I worked for an organization of businessmen formulating policy statements on issues of economic policy. We were all–businessmen and staff–impressed with the failures of policy that caused the Depression and that may have contributed to the outbreak of war. We thought we had some insights that would help to avert such failures in the future. At the same time, the organization was a major scene in which we might struggle for self-expression and status. It was where we staffers spent most of our waking hours, derived our incomes, and achieved status internally and to the rest of the world. But the divisiveness of these interests was outweighed by our common interest in the program on which we had embarked. So we all worked together eagerly and happily to try to bring about a change of policy. We were a civil society.

But after about 10 years, the memories of Depression and war were fading, some of what we thought were new ideas had become conventional wisdom, and many of the most inspiring leaders of the group had gone on to other things or had retired. Then we gradually sank into bureaucratic rivalry and sparring–into incivility.

Different participants in a society will have different views of how civil it is. I thought that those of us who worked on the economics side of the Nixon administration made up a civil society. We had a common goal–the success of the administration in economics–and felt besieged by a common enemy, the media. I did not covet anyone else’s job and did not feel that anyone coveted mine. I had no ambitions for more status and attention within that society. But then I read in Bob Haldeman’s diary, which was published in 1994, that in 1972 Secretary of the Treasury John Connally had complained to Haldeman that several people–including me–were conspiring against him. Evidently, Connally did not regard that society as civil. For him it was a jungle out there, even though one of the predators was really a rabbit.

Civil behavior has two sides. One side is treating other people with civility. The second side is interpreting the attitude and behavior of other people toward oneself as civil. For most people I suppose the first side is difficult without the second. In the Nixon administration, John Connally was not civil in the second sense. That led him to the not-very-civil act of complaining to Bob Haldeman.

Civility is not one of the major virtues. It is not like courage or honesty. The friendly cooperation that characterizes civil societies is a pale shadow of the love that inspires great self-sacrifice. But to participate in societies that one perceives to be civil adds much to the pleasure of life.