How To Be Civil In An Uncivil Society


Recently, the newest writer for Thoughts on Liberty wrote an article claiming former President Herbert Hoover was laissez-faire that riled up a number of libertarians on Facebook, self-fellating pseudo-academic rhetoric aside. I’m not worried for Maddie – she’s a big girl, she’s been given a platform for her ideas and with that comes certain responsibilities.

Now let me explain how civil society is important to the first thing.

It’s hard to pin down definitions of civil society. Originating with Tocqueville, he viewed it as a sort of “regulation” of civilian affairs that was voluntary, and therefore superior, to despotic governmental checks on behavior. Robert Putnam called it “social capital.” Jane Austen might have called it “manners.”

Traditionally, these kind of self-governing institutions were seen as more formal moral guides, which originated from churches, unions, or in its broadest interpretation, the family. But for many people, those institutions of civil society are not as present anymore; there are many people for whom churches and unions and even families (at least the one you create) have diminished from influence.

Some, myself included, think art (whether that’s David Foster Wallace or Netflix) must be filling this gap much more than we recognize. Sarah Skwire over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians has written extensively about the importance of digging deeper into the literature or art we imbibe so mindlessly, particularly from a libertarian perspective.

But what about civil society for the layperson who lives outside the pockets of academic libertarianism? And do we really blame people for opting out of that breed of debate that, while calling itself academic, is far too often characterized by hubris and repetition?

A lot of us, apparently, do.

It is one thing to attack an argument — or to point out where someone is just flat-out wrong, which was a necessary trial-by-fire for this Hoover piece, and that was obviously not done in the editing process. But it is quite another to stroke one’s beard and indulge in masturbatory monologues about one’s dedication to the task of teaching everyone else how to argue. The first is helpful, essential, and contributive. The latter is uncivil, and, I would argue, unacademic. It’s revealing that for those commenters, it’s not about learning—it’s about making themselves feel good. Over a student, in this case, no less. And over a student that had checked with her professors before posting her article; it’s not like she hadn’t done her research. Where is the valiant libertarian defense of academic standards there?

Does every contributor at Thoughts on Liberty agree? No. Is this a platform for testing out ideas and receiving pushback? Yes. Should everything be of sound quality? Yes. For any poor articles that are ailing you, I would recommend a prescription of pointing out precisely where you feel the article is mistaken – as the first four commenters did – proceeding about your day with some decorum, and maybe popping a Xanax or shooting a Diet Dr. Pepper.

As with all free things, it becomes a lot less insufferable when balanced by civil society. In its absence, we see “culture-by-default,” which by its nature is thoughtless.