John Duffy, Faculty Contributor

Civility occupies a curious place in contemporary American culture. The less it is observed, the more we seem to value it. Whether it is Rush Limbaugh calling a Georgetown graduate student a “slut,” or Glenn Beck joking about killing a public official with a shovel, or Bill Maher calling former governor Sarah Palin a —well, you can look it up —each fresh insult to public discourse is followed, almost reflexively, by an appeal for greater civility.

Such appeals are frequent given the toxic nature of our public arguments. During the recent “fiscal cliff” negotiations, for example, Speaker of the House John Boehner reportedly pointed a finger at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to say, “Go f*** yourself.” For his part, Reid had called Boehner a “dictator” the previous day, and has called former president George W. Bush a “loser” and a “liar.” And many recall Congressman Joe Wilson famously interrupting President Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress to shout, “You lie!”

Neither can we comfort ourselves by imagining that it is only the rich and powerful who revel in in noxious rhetoric.  The rest of us are not much better. Visit the comments section of any website devoted to the recent Manti Te’o controversy for examples of the casual cruelty that is so rampant on the Internet.

Not even Notre Dame is immune to such distempers. When the Most Reverend Daniel R. Jenky, Bishop of Peoria and one of Notre Dame’s Fellows of the University (and former rector of Dillon Hall), denounced what he called President Obama’s “radical, pro-abortion and extreme secularist agenda” and declared that the president “seemed intent on following a similar path” to the governments of Hitler and Stalin in their dealings with the Catholic Church, 163 Notre Dame faculty signed a public letter reproaching the bishop for “ignorance of history, insensitivity to victims of genocide, and absence of judgment.” This in turn prompted a backlash in which the faculty signatories were accused of  “scandalous” misrepresentation of the bishop’s remarks , of making “astonishingly simplistic and defamatory” accusations, and of engaging in “ritual denunciation, bullying, and a petulant tantrum.” Hardly civil exchanges.

[Here I must pause to disclose that I was a principal in that particular public storm. I contributed to the authorship of the faculty letter, collected signatures from faculty colleagues and signed the letter myself. For those interested, I elaborated on my reasons here.]

I do not write, however, to re-litigate the Jenky controversy. Rather, I write to note that civility may be one of those things we esteem so highly, as Andre Comte-Sponville wrote of generosity, because we are so lacking in it. More to the point, I write to suggest that civility may have worn out its welcome in American discourse, may be past its due date. The time may have arrived for us to move beyond civility and seek other values to guide our speech and writing.

This seems counter-intuitive, certainly. If civility were a stock, would it not be at an all-time high? Pundits and politicians routinely call for greater civility in public discourse, authors write best-selling and scholarly books about the topic, and universities establish entire institutes to promote it. Indeed, civility would seem a universally affirming term, one of those “warmly persuasive” words, as Raymond Williams wrote of “community,” “that seems never to be used unfavourably and never to be given any positive opposing or distinguishing term.”  We can all agree, one might think, that civility is a general good and a condition to which we should aspire in our public and private communications.

Except that we don’t. We don’t all agree, that is, on what is meant by civility and whether it is a general good. Conservative critics, for example, have denounced liberal calls for civility as “the new censorship,” a term offered by a caller to the Rush Limbaugh Show.   Conservative author Mark Levin argues that civility is a “political tool” used by those who wish to “silence” conservative voices. Victor Davis Hanson decries liberal hypocrisy in appeals for civility, arguing that while the Left castigates conservatives for fostering a “climate of hate,” its own inflammatory rhetoric is unrestrained. For their part, liberals criticize President Obama for placing too great a value on compromise and contend that civility is overrated in political combat. When it comes to civility we are like those, to rewrite Auden’s verse, who would “honor if we can/The [civil] man/Though we value none/But the [uncivil] one.”

And yet we do come to interactions with others in the expectation that certain values will guide the exchange. We expect to be treated fairly, and assume we are fair in our treatment of others. We expect others to be honest in their dealings with us, and we tell ourselves that we are honest in return. We admire the practices of consistency, generosity, and good judgment, and we value those who display them. There is a word for these practices. They are examples of what the ancients called virtues.

The word virtue, of course, sounds quaint to our ears. More, it has been tainted in contemporary discourse, associated with the worst of Victorian morality and certain sanctimonious pundits. These are not the conceptions of virtue I invoke here.

I am thinking instead of how the moral philosophers define virtue, as a character trait, a disposition, a way of living that, as Rosalind Hursthouse puts it, “goes all the way down” in defining the character of the moral agent. Virtues are those characteristics, such as truthfulness, humility, and courage, which provide answers to the questions “how should I live my life?” and “how should I act in this situation?” Plato and Aristotle examined the virtues in their writings, and philosophers from Thomas Aquinas to Alasdair MacIntyre have explored virtue-based approaches to ethics. Virtue-based ethics emphasizes the character of the individual whose moral choices are guided by habits of mind and heart that help one live a good life.

For our purposes, the virtues also offer a set of values to guide our speech and writing. Let us call these rhetorical virtues, or the communicative practices that contribute to the moral growth of the individual and, not incidentally, the development of a healthy public discourse.

To practice rhetorical virtue is to understand that speaking and writing are not merely instrumental but are fundamentally ethical activities. This means that we are obliged to ask certain questions of ourselves before we speak or write: how does our speech, if we speak, for example, to argue or critique, reflect the virtues of respectfulness or generosity?  How does our writing, when we write, say, to inquire or appeal, express the virtues of open-mindedness or good judgment? Both the ancient and Christian traditions recognized the Cardinal virtues of practical wisdom, justice, temperance and courage. To what extent do these and related virtues animate our words? How do we deflect the opposing impulses, the rhetorical vices that would drag us into discourses of cynicism, mockery and bitterness?

Such questions move us well beyond vague, largely unrealized hopes for civility. In their place is a more robust, more particular, and more demanding set of commitments. The rhetorical virtues require not merely that we persuade or exhort, the traditional ends of rhetoric, but that we communicate in a manner consistent with living a moral life. Our arguments become more than vehicles for persuasion. They become scenes of honesty, tolerance, even kindness. Nor does this mean we sacrifice our convictions, our passions.  Indeed, we can express these more fully in the knowledge that we are speaking or writing as ethical beings—or at least trying.

Are these practical aspirations? Are they productive? Will our personal commitment to the virtues of discourse result in John Boehner and Harry Reid embracing one another in a spirit of authentic bonhomie? (No.) Will it moderate the toxins of talk radio? (Don’t hold your breath.) Will it convince me that Bishop Jenky chose his analogies wisely or convince others that I did not respond to the Bishop’s sermon by making “astonishingly simplistic and defamatory” accusations? (Probably not.) Simply to name a virtue is not to live it, and what constitutes good judgment or wisdom will always be disputed.

What the practice of rhetorical virtue will do, however, is teach us that our rhetoric speaks more to our character than our opinions. Beyond that, a commitment to rhetorical virtue will help us learn how to argue even the most divisive topics—of politics, sexuality, religion—with regard for the worth of those with whom we disagree. Should we learn those lessons and model them for others, we might yet become, as Quintilian had it, good people, speaking well. And that may lead us someday toward a genuinely civil discourse.

Notre Dame students interested in reading more about Virtues of Discourse can visit the Center for Social Concerns website:

John Duffy is an Associate Professor of English and the Francis O’Malley Director of the University Writing Program at the University of Notre Dame. He welcomes comments on this essay: