On Civil Disagreement

Joshua Jeffrey, Professor of English


In the modern age, there is no skill simultaneously more needed and more absent than that of civil disagreement.

Civil, of course, has several meanings. In one sense, it means “having to do with the citizens of a state,” developing out of the Latin words civilis, an adjective describing things related to government, and civitas, meaning the community of citizens or the state. And in that sense alone, you might say that civil disagreement is alive and well in America. In fact, disagreement among citizens about matters of government has long since outstripped baseball as the true national pastime.

But there is another meaning of the word civil: courteous, polite, as in our word “civility.” Where today can we find people disagreeing about fundamental issues and yet remaining courteous, even friendly to one another? Certainly not in the houses of government. Certainly not in the increasingly rancorous world of the internet, where party lines are drawn up like barricades across which people hurl insults and death threats.

I find myself musing, in these divided and divisive times, on the relationship between G.K. Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw. Chesterton, a beaming behemoth of a man who was thoroughly conservative in his politics and thoroughly orthodox in his Christian convictions, and Shaw, a rail-skinny vegetarian who was a socialist and an atheist, spent years debating each other both in person and on the page. And yet they had, in spite of fundamental disagreements on almost everything that matters, a genuine (if complex) friendship which lasted for 35 years. Chesterton once said of Shaw, “He is something of a pagan, and like many other pagans, he is a very fine man.”

Well, you might say, that’s a nice little story. But does it really matter whether we disagree courteously or rudely? At heart, the point is that we disagree.

By way of answer, let’s return to the Latin etymology of our word “civil.” It isn’t necessarily obvious to us that there is a connection between courtesy and citizenship. But the Romans clearly saw a connection. Why?

Roman government prior to the rise of Augustus was a republic. Public policies of all types were determined by debate and discussion, whether in the halls of the Senate or in gatherings of the common people. The only way for such a government form to thrive was for the representatives involved in such gatherings to be able to listen to their opponents, speak with courtesy rather than anger, and reach compromises based on a common desire for the public good.

Ironically, the strongest affirmation of the Romans’ intuitions about the link between courtesy and effective citizenship is the result of such courtesy eventually breaking down in

Rome. In the final decades of the Republic, the senate was largely divided into two factions, the “optimates,” who claimed to look out for the interests of the Roman state as a whole but tended to focus on the good of the upper class, and the “populares,” who claimed to look out for the interest of the common people. Their disagreements grew less and less civil throughout the early 1st century BC. In the end, this led to an inability to compromise, which in turn led to attempts to unilaterally enforce policies through abuse of constitutional powers, which in turn led to violent coups and assassinations, and finally the utter collapse of the Republic.

All of the above, as Professor Schrum would be quick to point out, is a radical oversimplification of a complex period of history. But nonetheless it makes the point pretty clear. Fail to be civil, and eventually you won’t have a civitas.

With that dire threat in mind, what can we do?

I won’t try to speak to fixing the broader political problem, as I think it’s rather too large for one literature teacher to manage. But one small way to fight this battle is in the classroom. At Cambridge, the round-table discussions we call seminars are our chief training ground for such civil disagreement. Hopefully, through years of practice in such conversations and debates, students will learn to disagree well, and to maintain friendships in spite of different convictions. If so, perhaps they will be able to speak into the wider world, and help us to avoid the fate of Rome.