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Everyone keep it civil to grease the wheels of democracy

By Nicole Billante and Peter Saunders - posted Wednesday, 13 November 2002

Civility has been making the news over the last few weeks. This is heartening, for civility is a crucial social virtue, and it is important that we as a society reflect on it from time to time. We need regularly to think about what we consider to be appropriate standards of public behaviour, and we need to discuss what we should be doing if these standards start to slip.

But what exactly do we mean by ‘civility’? Some contributors to the recent discussions have been sceptical about the use of the word. They suspect that civility is being used by the ‘conservative establishment’ as an excuse to maintain their place in the social order, and they deny that civility has any place in politics. Politics, they say, should be about robust and lively debate rather than being watered down by conventional niceties like politeness and manners.

But criticisms like these are in danger of missing the crucial point, which is that civility is about showing respect for other people. It is basic to a civilised society. There are nearly 20 million of us living in Australia. Many of us disagree over many things – not just politics, but religion, sport, music, the list is endless. If millions of us are to get along with each other, despite our manifold differences, we have to show respect for each other.


Civility therefore means that you should not be unduly rude, aggressive, dismissive or hateful towards other people simply because they do not share your views or your lifestyle. This is not only a good moral principle – something we should teach our children – but it also makes a lot of practical sense, for if I show respect for you, you will hopefully show respect for me, and we shall both be better off as a result.

If these norms of respect – what are usually called the ‘rules of politeness’ – break down, then we are all in trouble. Order crumbles into chaos as tolerance frays, so daring to be different suddenly becomes dangerous. In the end, civility is what safeguards the weak and the vulnerable. If we are not willing to control our own behaviour, then governments and police officers will end up having to do it for us.

This is why the critics are wrong when they claim that civility is an ‘establishment’ concern, or that it is about maintaining the power of the elite. Quite the opposite is actually the case. When social rules start fraying and people start to elbow others out of the way to get what they want, it is the weakest who suffer first. Civility is not about deference to elites or knowing your place – it is about treating everybody you encounter with respect. In this sense, it is a profoundly democratic virtue.

Most ordinary Australians understand this. At The Centre for Independent Studies, we have been conducting focus groups with different groups in Sydney – affluent and hard-up, young and old – to talk about civility. We have found that it is not just on the North Shore that people express a distaste for foul language and a concern that we should show respect for others. They say much the same thing in the less affluent parts of Sydney. It is insulting of critics to suggest that ‘working class language’ is opposed to civility, or that only toffs and Tories are civil to each other. Civility is a virtue that crosses all social classes.

It is also a virtue that crosses all sides of politics – and if it doesn’t, then it should. Yale Professor Stephen Carter argues that civility is ‘pre-political’. In other words, it is the precondition for political debate. It sets the ground rules. If politicians are unwilling to be civil to each other – to respect each other – then they will never be able to engage in a dialogue about why they disagree with each other, and democratic politics will be weakened.

Civility requires that politicians should be willing to listen to those with opinions different to their own. It does not mean they have to water down their opinions – only that they should recognise that those who disagree with them are not necessarily in bad faith simply because they hold a different view or subscribe to a different set of moral principles. Politicians should remember that nobody holds a 100 per cent monopoly over all wisdom.


Being civil does not mean that you give up on emotion or commitment, nor does it mean that you hold back from expressing your views and ideas as forcefully as you can. Civility allows for robustness, disagreement, even conflict. To say that a call for civility is a call for effete and superficial politics (as has been suggested) is absurd.

It is precisely because people are expected to observe basic rules of civility that they can make their opinions heard. Politics without civility may make for good journalistic copy, but it does not give you a lively democracy. Quite the reverse – in the end it produces anarchy and barbarism.

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About the Authors

Nicole Billante is a research assistant at the Center for Independent Studies.

Peter Saunders is a distinguished fellow of the Centre for Independent Studies, now living in England. After nine years living and working in Australia, Peter Saunders returned to the UK in June 2008 to work as a freelance researcher and independent writer of fiction and non-fiction.He is author of Poverty in Australia: Beyond the Rhetoric and Australia's Welfare Habit, and how to kick it. Peter Saunder's website is here.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Nicole Billante
All articles by Peter Saunders
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