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Violence & Civility

In response to:

A Special Supplement: On Violence from the July 2, 1970 issue

To the Editors:

The key concept in J.M. Cameron’s essay “On Violence” [NYR, July 2] is not violence but civility. At least it is the key to further analysis of his argument. The word “violence” he perversely makes even more elusive than it is for non-philosophers by trying to get it to carry all its secondary meanings and connotations around all the time. What a relief that he does not similarly encumber the word “civility”! The confusion could have been comical, what with courtesy of manner, Roman law, and bridge and highway construction. Sparing us the irrelevant referents, he assigns to “civility” a meaning which, while subtle, he intends to be unitary and constant throughout his essay:

The goods of civility are what Hobbes took them to be: the sociability which is made possible by the general reliability of those with whom one lives (men are predictable in their daily lives and keep their promises and don’t lie too much), literature, history, and the arts…the cultivation of the earth with the enjoyment of its fruits, technology applied to making us comfortable and delighting the senses, and so on.

The closest he comes to specifying a meaning for “violence” is assigning it the role of antithesis to civility:

…where there is violence there is that much less civility, and where there is a great deal of violence civility tends to vanish.

I can willingly accept Mr. Cameron’s civility as a useful primitive concept in discussion of political morality. But only by understanding his emphasis to be on the first three operative words of his definition: “sociability,” “reliability,” “predictable.” That is, I take Mr. Cameron’s civility to mean stability of society, but more particularly, that stability which gives him comfort, confidence in his social milieu, and enjoyment of a continuing culture. As to “literature, technology, and so on,” they must be in the definition merely to illustrate aspects and conditions of the civil life—otherwise, disruptive examples of literature or technology would make his concept embrace its opposite.

Mr. Cameron’s essay, rich though it is in detail and even in wisdom, has a simple conclusion. He admonishes us, the left, that “as a whole…the universities remain enclaves of civility,” and that consequently we had better not

…invite the violence that comes from the injustices of our society to enter the world of the university.

Now I agree that reliability and continuity in our social relations and language are essential to all our life. We must understand their relatively invisible function before we can cope (as increasingly we must) with the more conspicuous roles of novelty and disruption. I am not able to give an adequate discussion of the importance to the left of the defense of civility; I wish I were. But let us be clear that Mr. Cameron is not fit to do it either.

His psychology ascribes honesty, generosity, all the basis for mutual confidence to inherited, traditional social norms. Once the “institutions and traditions” are allowed to change, once we throw traditional “moral and intellectual paradigms” into question, Mr. Cameron is sure that the “world of human action” whose connective fabric is language will be “replaced by the warm volitional world of I want! I want!

Most of us have experienced situations in which tradition dictated hypocrisy, selfishness, or isolation, and in which honesty, generosity, or mutual confidence was achieved by innovation. At least we think we have. Transcending of the inherited morality may be much less common and less significant than we Pollyannas on the left think. But it is significant, even if rare; understanding and fostering it are urgently dictated by the objective of transforming—or even saving—human society.

Now whenever one demands things which the entrenched don’t feel like granting, and brings the demands in ways they hadn’t expected, they call it violence. Mr. Cameron generally accepts their usage of the word, though he understands the conservative bias involved. He is tolerant of the demanders, and if they are weak and oppressed he is even sympathetic. But his tolerance and sympathy are in spite of the ingredient of social innovation. Any breach of the traditional norms of behavior, being a breach of predictability and hence of civility, is for him a sacrifice of social value—possibly to be excused by a sufficient comcomitant gain of justice, but still a sacrifice. He would never see a positive value to a suspension of the traditional expectations, like the French students’ May events (Tout est possible), conferring permission to innovate. He would never speak of such a lapse of decorum as “liberation.”

No doubt it would be antirational of us to use our word “liberation” loosely—as a synonym for “lapse of decorum,” say, or for “disruption.” And no doubt there are situations, on campuses and off, which however conducive to innovation fail to give birth to any; it would be antirational of us to view them as other than a missed opportunity. But there is no rationality to Mr. Cameron’s denial that liberating situations can exist. Indeed he avows such profound agnosticism as to the consequences of political action that he should be embarrassed to chide us or anyone else for lack of rationality in politics.

Disruption is sometimes liberating and sometimes not. Mr. Cameron disqualifies himself from drawing these distinctions. We must find the courage and understanding to make them ourselves.

Chandler Davis

Department of Mathematics

University of Toronto, Canada

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