Mere Civility

Today, politicians and intellectuals warn that we face a crisis of civility. In liberal democracies committed to tolerating diversity as well as active, often heated disagreement, the loss of this conversational virtue appears critical. But is civility really a virtue? Or is it, as critics claim, a covert demand for conformity that silences dissent?

Teresa M. Bejan's first book, Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration, sheds light on our predicament by examining early modern debates about religious toleration. As concerns about uncivil disagreement achieved new prominence after the Reformation, seventeenth-century figures like the founder of Rhode Island Roger Williams, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke could agree that some restraint on the war of words would be necessary. But they recognized that the prosecution of incivility was often difficult to distinguish from persecution. In their efforts to reconcile diversity with disagreement, they developed competing conceptions of civility as the social bond of tolerant societies that still resonate.

In this “penetrating and sophisticated” book, Bejan argues that Williams’s unabashedly mere civility—a minimal, occasionally contemptuous adherence to contingent rules of respectful behavior—offers a promising path forward in confronting our own crisis of civility, one that fundamentally challenges our assumptions about what a tolerant—and civil—society should look like.

Named a New Statesman and Church Times Best Book of 2018

​For further praise of Mere Civility, see: