Has COVID-19 Undermined our Commitment to Civility?

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When we think about what makes a healthy, just society, most democratically-minded persons will most likely gravitate toward ‘free and fair’ elections, or equality of opportunity, or public accountability, or non-discriminatory laws, or a commitment to mutual respect and toleration. These are all undoubtedly important, but behind them all are a range of background practices that constitute the conditions of our common life. Figures as diverse as George Orwell and Georg Hegel, John Stuart Mill and John Dewey, Richard Rorty and Annette Baier, paid uncommonly close attention to these background conditions: Orwell grouped them under the phrase “common decency”; Hegel called them a society’s “ethical substance”; Baier highlights the indispensability of “trust”; and Dewey lauded the everyday habits of patience, turn-taking in conversation, mutual curiosity, and warm hand-shaking that allow democracy to become a moral reality.

For all their differences, what each of these conditions have in common is that they place a floor beneath our civil interactions, ensuring that however far we might fall in living up to our democratic commitments, there are certain actions that are simply beyond the pale. There is a level, in other words, to which we will not stoop. In fact, there have been times over the last two decades – such has been the extent of moral disagreement, political fragmentation, and mutual suspicion – when it seemed as though our fraying social fabric was being held together by little more than sympathetic glances between commuters, lighthearted exchanges while waiting in line, and serendipitous moments of mutual recognition on public transport.

One of the perhaps underappreciated aspects of COVID-19 is the way the pandemic has dealt a blow to these daily interactions which reinforce our commitment to communality. Which is to say, our commitment to civility. From the heedless rush to secure “necessities” in the early days of the pandemic, to the unequal privileges afforded to the “vaccinated” (access to public spaces, international travel, etc.), it seems that behaviour that once offended our spontaneous sense of fairness and politeness, patience and decency, is now ‘fair game’.

So what is ‘civility’? What is the regulative role it plays in our common life? And how might we begin to recover a sense of its importance now that the pandemic has begun to subside?

Our guests, Matteo Bonotti and Steven Zech, are co-authors of Recovering Civility during COVID-19, published Open Access with Palgrave Macmillan.

Period25 Mar 2021

Media contributions

1

Media contributions

  • TitleHas COVID-19 Undermined our Commitment to Civility?
    Media name/outletABC Radio National - The Minefield
    Media typeRadio
    Duration/Length/Size54min 5sec
    CountryAustralia
    Date25/03/21
    DescriptionWhen we think about what makes a healthy, just society, most democratically-minded persons will most likely gravitate toward ‘free and fair’ elections, or equality of opportunity, or public accountability, or non-discriminatory laws, or a commitment to mutual respect and toleration. These are all undoubtedly important, but behind them all are a range of background practices that constitute the conditions of our common life. Figures as diverse as George Orwell and Georg Hegel, John Stuart Mill and John Dewey, Richard Rorty and Annette Baier, paid uncommonly close attention to these background conditions: Orwell grouped them under the phrase “common decency”; Hegel called them a society’s “ethical substance”; Baier highlights the indispensability of “trust”; and Dewey lauded the everyday habits of patience, turn-taking in conversation, mutual curiosity, and warm hand-shaking that allow democracy to become a moral reality.

    For all their differences, what each of these conditions have in common is that they place a floor beneath our civil interactions, ensuring that however far we might fall in living up to our democratic commitments, there are certain actions that are simply beyond the pale. There is a level, in other words, to which we will not stoop. In fact, there have been times over the last two decades – such has been the extent of moral disagreement, political fragmentation, and mutual suspicion – when it seemed as though our fraying social fabric was being held together by little more than sympathetic glances between commuters, lighthearted exchanges while waiting in line, and serendipitous moments of mutual recognition on public transport.

    One of the perhaps underappreciated aspects of COVID-19 is the way the pandemic has dealt a blow to these daily interactions which reinforce our commitment to communality. Which is to say, our commitment to civility. From the heedless rush to secure “necessities” in the early days of the pandemic, to the unequal privileges afforded to the “vaccinated” (access to public spaces, international travel, etc.), it seems that behaviour that once offended our spontaneous sense of fairness and politeness, patience and decency, is now ‘fair game’.

    So what is ‘civility’? What is the regulative role it plays in our common life? And how might we begin to recover a sense of its importance now that the pandemic has begun to subside?

    Our guests, Matteo Bonotti and Steven Zech, are co-authors of Recovering Civility during COVID-19, published Open Access with Palgrave Macmillan.
    Producer/AuthorWaleed Aly and Scott Stephens
    URLhttps://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/theminefield/has-covid-19-undermined-our-commitment-to-civility/13270094
    PersonsSteven Zech, Matteo Bonotti