Should Politics be Civil?

Charles Sumner
Senator Charles Sumner was beaten nearly to death by Representative Preston Brooks on the Senate floor in 1856

From President Trump’s name-calling and obscene language, to incidents where members of his administration have been shouted at or denied service at restaurants, recent coverage of U.S. politics has been unusually focused on the topic of civility. In 2013, philosopher Christopher F. Zurn explored the question of how seriously we should take civility in politics.

Zurn was writing three years before Trump’s election, with a different set of uncivil behaviors in mind. In 2009, a member of Congress had shouted “you lie” at President Obama during a speech. Even more dramatically, in 2011, U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot, not long after her name had appeared on a “target list” of politicians, with their districts marked by crosshairs.

Drawing on the work of Cheshire Calhoun, a philosopher who has analyzed civility in the personal sphere, Zurn writes that civility is always tied to social convention—rules that are based in a particular time and place—but following those rules conveys “the equal respect owed universally to all persons as…

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