CIVILITY by Stephen L. Carter


Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy
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Spirited argument for an uncontroversial position. Complaints about incivility are timeless, but Carter (Law/Yale; The Dissent of the Governed, p. 312, etc.) believes that this time the barbarians really are at the door. Culture warriors promoting their vision of society love this theme, of course, but Carter’s agenda is both more specific and more open-minded. His focus on manners is not derived from horror at the thought of using the wrong fork to eat a salad. Rather, he defines civility as “the sum of the many sacrifices we are called [upon] to make for the sake of living together” and thereby places manners at the crux of relations between people in social settings. Community life requires that one regularly place the common good above one’s own immediate self-interest, even when associating with strangers. Unfortunately, he notes, in today’s world, respect for such rules of conduct has been lost in the assertion of individual rights and the growing dominance of the market (with its emphasis on self-interest) in our lives, resulting in an increasingly uncivil social environment. Carter suggests several tonics for this ailment. The most amusing is his prescription for the violent metaphors in our language: “we must smash them, crush them, track them to their lairs and eradicate every trace.” The most ambiguous is the family, defined as —an act of loving and intimate sacrifice,— which still begs the question of who and what constitutes a family. The most important is religion, appropriately identified as the single traditional source of American beliefs not necessarily linked to self-interest. Ultimately, the book comes across as an extended harangue rather than a plan for action, however, leaving Carter’s purpose unclear. Some interesting background on manners, but do we really need an argument for not being uncouth?

Pub Date: May 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-465-02384-3
Page count: 352pp
Publisher: Basic
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1998


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