Civility and Disappointment

Amy Olberding on the Problems Civility Solves

Virtues are indirect confessions of human troubles. Virtues name human excellences, to be sure, but they name excellences in those areas of human experience that give us the most fits. Courage is a virtue not least because fear is damnably difficult to manage and temperance is a virtue because desire does tend to run away with us and outpace all our good sense. To speak of a virtue, then, is to speak of struggle, identifying rough terrain in the landscape of human experience and what we’ll need to successfully pass through it.

Courage and temperance lend themselves to this understanding, but what of civility? What is the trouble it captures? The answer here isn’t obvious, for different explanations of civility indicate different troubles. Yet how we describe our trouble will significantly influence whether we think civility worth cultivating, whether we will practice and prize it. Caring about being civil requires seeing the difficulty it navigates as genuine and vexing. I think there is indeed a genuine trouble that civility addresses, but doubts about just this often inflect our informal talk about civility.

When we equate civility with “niceness” or with being socially agreeable, we minimise and belittle the trouble civility would address. These characterisations suggest that the territory in human experience that civility would navigate is not legitimately challenging. The struggle to be nice or agreeable will be felt only by those who prize smooth social interactions, who dislike friction and resistance, or who want to walk on placid interactional ground. In the landscape of human experience, civility appeals to those who like a pleasant stroll, not hikers or mountain climbers. We might even say that civility is for those who can’t handle really rough terrain. This might be but to insult them, but the implied critique runs deeper than this.

Identifying the trouble civility addresses with a desire for smooth social relations sets civility against important moral values. For prizing frictionless social interaction will have us favouring banal pleasantry when profound objection is needed, blandly tolerating the morally intolerable, or overlooking injustices because pointing them out would be disruptive. The “civil” will let Uncle Frank offensively opine in the bigoted ways he will because to do otherwise would spoil the family dinner. We’ll sacrifice values such as justice and fairness on the dubious altar of superficially getting along. If civility sets out to navigate the challenge of achieving smooth social interaction, it will be a dangerous moral mistake to extol it as a virtue. But this is surely one of the least compelling ways to characterise the struggles civility is meant to address. Other ways of framing the problem pick out more genuinely vexing moral trouble.

In much of European cultural history, civility features as a way to navigate the trouble of co-existing with others. Where we must share resources, and deliberate together about public needs and goods, we ever risk conflicts becoming aggressive contests for raw dominance. Civility answers this unhappy risk by working as a wall would, establishing a protective behavioural barrier between ourselves and others. Civility, as Clifford Orwin explains, works on a “good fences make good neighbors” model: Because we must co-exist, we require boundaries that demarcate the nature and limits of our togetherness, borders that distinguish the stuff of shared, common life from our individual spheres of privacy and self-determination. Civility structures interaction so that we can discuss and disagree over issues of public concern, but do so without coercively imposing our views on others or inhibiting their free development of their own values and life arrangements. This manner of framing the trouble civility aims to address identifies a tension I expect most of us find familiar: the strain between living by our own lights, as individuals, and living together, within a society we must share and structure with others.

As an individual, I may harbour formidable contempt and disdain for the way that you, as an individual, arrange your life and fashion your values. You may feel the same of me. This is a genuinely vexatious feature of communal life, a truly troubling terrain. We regularly rub shoulders with people whose values, beliefs, goals, and, indeed, entire life arrangements strike us as both wrong and bad. Worse yet, we are obliged to interact and deliberate with them over issues of shared concern – our social and civic lives are lived with them. We naturally wish that such people were otherwise, that they would accept and embrace what we judge true and good instead. We may even wish that they would just go away or even die already! The impulse to compel them to our side (or to exile or kill them) is just what civility is meant to block. It treats the problem of co-existing amidst deep difference by erecting social barriers we cannot cross. We cannot degrade, coerce, or force. We eschew insult, denigration, or abuse that would intimidate or browbeat others to accept our views as their own. We exhibit tolerance in order to keep life tolerable. This, then, is a more compelling account of the problem civility might solve. The problem here picked out is real, but I think it obscures a more fundamental kind of trouble.

We are social creatures. The language of “co-existence” obscures how fundamentally we need and rely on others. Cooperation between us provisions life with much that we require and much that we enjoy. This is but a basic fact about us, but there is more as well. When life is at its finest, sociality is not broadly to be suffered, but instead a good we seek and prize. The trouble isn’t only what we struggle with but also what we would struggle for: Good fences may make good neighbours, but none of us thrive utterly alone behind fences. We need community. More ambitiously, we want to be well and favourably bonded to others – we want the enrichments of companionship, of affection and affiliation, of shared purpose and experience. The real and gnarly trouble is that other people can so often make it terribly, damnably difficult to keep wanting this.

I want to like people. I want to want to like people. I am frequently disappointed in both of these desires. There are many people I do not in fact like. Far worse, some make the desire to like people seem utter folly – not only do I not like them, they tempt me to misanthropy, that totalising disdain for humanity writ large. My thoughts only turn toward high abstractions about “the struggle to co-exist” when my desire to like others is already frustrated or utterly defeated. To be sure, in the broad scheme of things, it makes sense to speak of civil restraint where we must co-exist amidst our many differences. But I don’t live in any airy broad scheme of things. I trudge the rough ground of encounters with displeasing and disobliging other people – across canyons of profound dispute and through gopher holes of small slights and trifling insult. Abstractions obscure what this is like. “Co-existence amidst differences” is an altogether bloodless description of the struggle when my stubborn, patent need of other people registers as heavy burden begrudgingly borne, when the company of others sends me running to build fences. What if, then, the trouble civility would address is just that other people are disappointing? Or, bolder still, what if being social creatures, as we are and must be, is all too often a profoundly disappointing way to be? This is a far more challenging territory that civility might navigate.

Framing the trouble civility would address as disappointment acknowledges not just that we need other people, but that this need is best met where we can also want them. If we would not only co-exist, but also cooperate and form community, we require hope and optimism. We need to be well-disposed toward others, open to forms of social and civic life that can turn “me and you” into “us”. But of course such optimism is a fragile, easily fractured thing. To have it is to be vulnerable to disappointment, and the disappointments can be many and diverse. Small marks of disrespect can bring it on and great disputes may call it roaring forth. The common thread that runs throughout is that we find ourselves put off. In place of hope comes disaffection. Any desire to be well-disposed founders on what we sometimes find that people are. At worst, the word itself – people – can become an imprecation: Too often, faced with what they’re like, I mutter to myself, “ugh, people.” Disappointment is both commonplace and perilous.

What I most begrudge when I am disappointed is how readily I am transformed into disappointment for another. Have enough encounters with unlovely others and the ugly becomes catching. I not only cease to care for company with others, I deny them what I find myself denied: the myriad pro-social gestures that signal respect, consideration, or tolerance. If they are optimistic, I become the force that shatters it, my interactions rendered surly, churlish, even sometimes mean. When disappointment costs me optimism, I too become a bit of blight, the one who puts another off. Civility, I think, could be some fix for this. The wall I’d have us build with it would be between ourselves and disappointment.

The early Confucian philosophers come nearest to representing civility as disappointment management. This owes in part to their starting from a far more acute awareness of human dependencies, both the goods we win in shared effort and our reliance on the efforts of others to become whatever we as individuals will be. They discerned that the need of others is fundamental, but that how we treat this need is not. Are we open to connection and cooperation with others, well-disposed toward them and what they offer? Or are we braced but to endure the company of others, cynically pitched for quick dislike and expecting alienation? Our inevitable disappointments – whether in particular people or the communities we inhabit – will incline us toward the latter. Yet what we do in disappointment will matter not just to those we encounter but to ourselves and to the social world we experience.

If I incline toward pessimism or even despair about the prospects for community and cooperation with others, the pro-social gestures of civil interaction will naturally be more difficult to motivate. Even so, a commitment to civil practices, to making these my habit and my way, serves the laudatory purpose of protecting all who encounter me from the disappointments I might bring. I resolve upon restraint where I can’t be well-disposed. Instead of showing what I feel, I abide by shared conventions and display respect, consideration, and tolerance to others. I thereby save you from the signals that would betray my disappointment and thus might summon up the same in you. This much is but what civility for the sake of co-existence does. But, the Confucians suggest, restraint in disappointment can become resistance to disappointment. That is, civility does more than just suppress external signs of social pessimism. It can address them at their gnarly roots, at our internal attitudes and the disappointing world we inhabit.

Too often we speak as if civility is nought but a system of social signalling. My civilities and incivilities are taken to work as public announcements of my internal attitudes, demonstrations of whether I do indeed respect you, care about your feelings, and accept the differences between us. That our social conduct has this power – the power to communicate our inner dispositions toward others – is what motivates the language of restraint. Sometimes, after all, it’s best not to expose what I really think. But what I “really think” is often more malleable than this implies and civility can be a signal sent not just to you, but to myself.

Confucian accounts of civility recognise a reciprocal influence between behaviour and dispositions, between what we do and our internal attitudes, emotions, and habits of mind. We easily recognise the influence of inner disposition on external behaviour – where I feel friendly, expressing it with a smile and warm gestures flows rather seamlessly. But Confucian civility remarks how external expressions can influence and coax along corresponding internal states as well: Just as internal feelings can steer external conduct, external conduct can steer internal feelings. This is why Xunzi characterises civil behaviour as working on us the way a whetstone works on a blade: the force of well-disposed external behaviour can sharpen up internal pro-social attitudes made dull by disappointment. If I behave well-disposed to others, my inner life will be steered toward becoming so disposed; behaving as if I am ready to like others can encourage my internal openness to really like them. Put plainly, civility need not just restrain ill-feeling, it can build fellow-feeling. Its goal is not best understood as gritting my teeth in order to be polite. The aim instead is to loosen my jaw, diminishing the tension that has obligatory conduct grinding against rebellious impulse. As my impulses shift toward better, they will likewise shift what I experience of others.

Civility will not just do its work on me alone, but on those with whom I interact as well. The landscape of our relations with others is not fixed but akin to farmland responsive to what we sow. Our social nature entails a dynamism that civility can steer to favour pro-social goods and ends. In The Will to Believe, William James observes how our social experiences can be influenced by the expectations we bring to them. One of his examples is especially telling: If I believe that you like me, it is far more likely that you will. This owes to how my initial attitude will inflect our interaction. When I trust that you like me, I behave in more likeable ways, thus laying better conditions for you to like me. In something like this way, optimistic civil gestures, even undertaken against internal disappointment, may work to make the world less disappointing.

When my behaviours communicate that I am well-disposed, I increase the likelihood that you will not only take me so, but respond in kind. Xunzi compares us to horses in this: just as when one horse neighs, others neigh in answer, so too human beings responsively mirror cues they see in each other. Social psychologists observe effects like this in the dynamics of group interactions: we catch and reciprocate the attitudinal and emotive moods we see in others. Civil behaviours that signal I am well-disposed toward you can encourage you to behave in ways well-disposed toward me; my optimism may summon yours along. This will not simply improve our interactions, it too will work on me and my internal workings. When my hopeful, well-disposed behaviours draw from you evidence that optimism is well-placed, my optimism can increase. By acting on my hopes for good relation and shared humanity, I seed conditions that can make these so.

A Confucian-inspired civility starts from a deeper sense of where our trouble really lies and ends with a more robust and motivating explanation of what civility is and does. Civility is not just stuffing down what will disrupt or effortful restraint in disagreement. It navigates instead the rougher territory of finding people and our sociality itself disappointing and tries to clear some ground to seed for better. I can change myself, inculcating more robust defences against too quick and easy disappointment. My responses to a disappointing social world can also coax the world toward better. When I summon up some hope in you, the labour for community can be work that we will now together share. This is a strikingly optimistic account of what optimism in our interactions can do. But of course the sorry and regrettable reality is that civility cannot inevitably or reliably produce these effects. Some seeds fall on fallow ground; some crops fail no matter how we try.

Behaving well-disposed toward others will sometimes transpire as effortful optimism betrayed. One tries, sometimes even heroically, to appear and be well-disposed, yet others may stubbornly, defiantly answer back with disregard, hostility, or enmity. They will not be steered. This too is part of what trying to be civil entails, and it may exacerbate the disappointments civility seeks to address. I may well find myself yet more disappointed or even abjectly alienated where I have extended a tentative hand of fellow-feeling only to have it rebuffed. This also likely explains why the most habitually uncivil among us seem to suffer less than those still trying – if you give up the struggle to operate in hope, other people have far less power to disappoint you. Using civility to resist disappointment sometimes can and will perversely bring its increase.

That civility draws us deeper into social hopes that will sometimes and badly be betrayed is perhaps a species of the risk all virtues run. Just as the courageous will find life made harder for their courage – after all, they have less recourse to fleeing from peril than the cowardly or even the ordinary – so too, civility keeps us treading troubling ground where others stop. It entails a resolve to prize sociality, cooperation, and human dependencies even where our hopes for human solidarity and fellow-feeling will be rebuffed, rejected, or even despised. In this way, civility is often both ambitious and a failure. In this, I expect it is like mourning. It is at least telling that the Confucians, unparalleled among philosophers in their interest in civility, likewise have no rivals in their interest in bereavement.

Mourning our dead can be understood as resistance to unhappy reality. The sorrows of loss emerge in a longing as basic as it is impossible: We wish our dead living; they are dead and we wish they were not. We want in grief precisely what we cannot have, to go on together with another who is now utterly lost to us. One of the more remarkable insights the Confucians offer is that grief can be at once horrible to feel and exquisite to have. The misery of grief is born in beauty. We grieve when we have been most well and surely bonded, when the boundaries between the well-being of one and that of another are softest, when the good of one life has been nested in another’s, now ended. Part of what renders grief so terrible is that it remarks profoundest longing in the heartrending absence of its proper object. We cannot have what we want, yet still we want it. The Confucians count this one of our finest forms of longing.

The Confucians treat mourning ritual as a socially shared way to give structure to grief’s longings. Death means we cannot have what we really want, but mourning practices serve to signal that we stubbornly want it still, that we pledge ourselves to the wanting even when it exacts from us more pain than leaving off wanting would. It is often simple prudence not to want what you cannot have. Even so, sometimes longing, profoundly and disruptively, for what you cannot have is precisely what it means to be engrossed in its value. In bereavement, we value another and value life shared with another by the rebellious, futile, beautiful wish to have them back. We cannot have what we want, but the wish is not inert. It is instead an active element in shaping the meaningful moral arc of a life. We carve out and travel paths of shared life, even as we know that, in the idiom of C.S. Lewis, the roads of all rich and resolute relations end in culs de sac, in loss and sorrow. We suffer the defeat of loss because living in attachment has value we will not sacrifice for greater safety.

In some circumstances and perhaps even in some eras, practicing civility may not be that different from mourning. The resolve to practice open optimism in a world that will betray it is a way to pledge myself against reality, to prize longings I lack the power to fulfil. In practicing civility against even profound disappointment, I commit to a rebellious, futile, beautiful wish of sorts: the world that the hopeful optimism of civility describes is a world that I still and stubbornly want. Disappointment is not thus dissipated, but it is transformed. I do not suffer disappointment in frustrated confusion and incomprehension, but in a circumspect commitment that reaches for a humanity we share together. The disappointments, when they come, will be horrible to feel, but exquisite to have.

Civility will not just do its work on me alone, but on those with whom I interact as well. The landscape of our relations with others is not fixed but akin to farmland responsive to what we sow. Our social nature entails a dynamism that civility can steer to favour pro-social goods and ends. In The Will to Believe, William James observes how our social experiences can be influenced by the expectations we bring to them. One of his examples is especially telling: If I believe that you like me, it is far more likely that you will. This owes to how my initial attitude will inflect our interaction. When I trust that you like me, I behave in more likeable ways, thus laying better conditions for you to like me. In something like this way, optimistic civil gestures, even undertaken against internal disappointment, may work to make the world less disappointing.

When my behaviours communicate that I am well-disposed, I increase the likelihood that you will not only take me so, but respond in kind. Xunzi compares us to horses in this: just as when one horse neighs, others neigh in answer, so too human beings responsively mirror cues they see in each other. Social psychologists observe effects like this in the dynamics of group interactions: we catch and reciprocate the attitudinal and emotive moods we see in others. Civil behaviours that signal I am well-disposed toward you can encourage you to behave in ways well-disposed toward me; my optimism may summon yours along. This will not simply improve our interactions, it too will work on me and my internal workings. When my hopeful, well-disposed behaviours draw from you evidence that optimism is well-placed, my optimism can increase. By acting on my hopes for good relation and shared humanity, I seed conditions that can make these so.

A Confucian-inspired civility starts from a deeper sense of where our trouble really lies and ends with a more robust and motivating explanation of what civility is and does. Civility is not just stuffing down what will disrupt or effortful restraint in disagreement. It navigates instead the rougher territory of finding people and our sociality itself disappointing and tries to clear some ground to seed for better. I can change myself, inculcating more robust defences against too quick and easy disappointment. My responses to a disappointing social world can also coax the world toward better. When I summon up some hope in you, the labour for community can be work that we will now together share. This is a strikingly optimistic account of what optimism in our interactions can do. But of course the sorry and regrettable reality is that civility cannot inevitably or reliably produce these effects. Some seeds fall on fallow ground; some crops fail no matter how we try.

Behaving well-disposed toward others will sometimes transpire as effortful optimism betrayed. One tries, sometimes even heroically, to appear and be well-disposed, yet others may stubbornly, defiantly answer back with disregard, hostility, or enmity. They will not be steered. This too is part of what trying to be civil entails, and it may exacerbate the disappointments civility seeks to address. I may well find myself yet more disappointed or even abjectly alienated where I have extended a tentative hand of fellow-feeling only to have it rebuffed. This also likely explains why the most habitually uncivil among us seem to suffer less than those still trying – if you give up the struggle to operate in hope, other people have far less power to disappoint you. Using civility to resist disappointment sometimes can and will perversely bring its increase.

That civility draws us deeper into social hopes that will sometimes and badly be betrayed is perhaps a species of the risk all virtues run. Just as the courageous will find life made harder for their courage – after all, they have less recourse to fleeing from peril than the cowardly or even the ordinary – so too, civility keeps us treading troubling ground where others stop. It entails a resolve to prize sociality, cooperation, and human dependencies even where our hopes for human solidarity and fellow-feeling will be rebuffed, rejected, or even despised. In this way, civility is often both ambitious and a failure. In this, I expect it is like mourning. It is at least telling that the Confucians, unparalleled among philosophers in their interest in civility, likewise have no rivals in their interest in bereavement.

Mourning our dead can be understood as resistance to unhappy reality. The sorrows of loss emerge in a longing as basic as it is impossible: We wish our dead living; they are dead and we wish they were not. We want in grief precisely what we cannot have, to go on together with another who is now utterly lost to us. One of the more remarkable insights the Confucians offer is that grief can be at once horrible to feel and exquisite to have. The misery of grief is born in beauty. We grieve when we have been most well and surely bonded, when the boundaries between the well-being of one and that of another are softest, when the good of one life has been nested in another’s, now ended. Part of what renders grief so terrible is that it remarks profoundest longing in the heartrending absence of its proper object. We cannot have what we want, yet still we want it. The Confucians count this one of our finest forms of longing.

The Confucians treat mourning ritual as a socially shared way to give structure to grief’s longings. Death means we cannot have what we really want, but mourning practices serve to signal that we stubbornly want it still, that we pledge ourselves to the wanting even when it exacts from us more pain than leaving off wanting would. It is often simple prudence not to want what you cannot have. Even so, sometimes longing, profoundly and disruptively, for what you cannot have is precisely what it means to be engrossed in its value. In bereavement, we value another and value life shared with another by the rebellious, futile, beautiful wish to have them back. We cannot have what we want, but the wish is not inert. It is instead an active element in shaping the meaningful moral arc of a life. We carve out and travel paths of shared life, even as we know that, in the idiom of C.S. Lewis, the roads of all rich and resolute relations end in culs de sac, in loss and sorrow. We suffer the defeat of loss because living in attachment has value we will not sacrifice for greater safety.

In some circumstances and perhaps even in some eras, practicing civility may not be that different from mourning. The resolve to practice open optimism in a world that will betray it is a way to pledge myself against reality, to prize longings I lack the power to fulfil. In practicing civility against even profound disappointment, I commit to a rebellious, futile, beautiful wish of sorts: the world that the hopeful optimism of civility describes is a world that I still and stubbornly want. Disappointment is not thus dissipated, but it is transformed. I do not suffer disappointment in frustrated confusion and incomprehension, but in a circumspect commitment that reaches for a humanity we share together. The disappointments, when they come, will be horrible to feel, but exquisite to have.

Amy Olberding is Presidential Professor of Philosophy at University of Oklahoma and author of The Wrong of Rudeness (Oxford University Press, 2019).

 


Subscribe to The Philosophers' Magazine for exclusive content and access to 20 years of back issues.