An Emergent Viewpoint on Civility

By Peter L. Berger, Director

January 11, 1999

When ISEC (presently called CURA) began, in the mid-eighties, there was no intention of starting a school of thought or even of proposing a viewpoint common to all projects carried on under its auspices. There was indeed an underlying orientation – to wit, to study the cultural foundations of capitalism free of the anti-capitalist ideology which at that time was still very prominent in academia. In other words, ISEC had an agenda but not a doctrine. We continue to follow this agenda in much of our work today, but as time passed this agenda has expanded. The logic of our research led us to explore, not only the interrelation of culture and economic developments, but also of culture and democracy, since the conjunction of capitalism and democracy became an increasingly important question. In consequence, very naturally, we had to deal with the institutions of civil society, and more generally with civility, civic virtue and citizenship. Put simply, we had to ask general questions about the moral foundations of democratic capitalism. Our approach, as a social-science research center, has been empirical rather than philosophical, but we did not try to avoid the philosophical questions. Our broad cross-national interest was very helpful in this enterprise, allowing us to compare the American situation with similar developments in other societies (thus, incidentally, supporting my own firm conviction that, even if one is only interested in the American case, one will understand it much better if one compares it with other cases -comparison almost always illuminates).

The interest in civility was developed through several projects, beginning with two summer seminars explicitly devoted to an exploration of the concept of civil society. These seminars were ably directed by ISEC’s associate director, Robert Hefner, who also edited the book that resulted from this endeavor- Democratic Civility: The History and Cross-cultural Possibility of a Modem Political Ideal (New Brunswick, NJ, Transaction, 1998). The interest in civil society was continued in several working groups dealing with changes in important American institutions. Thus far the most important product of this ongoing program has been the book by Robert Wuthnow (Princeton sociologist), Loose Connections: Joining Together in America’s Fragmented Communities (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1998) – a work that presents a much more positive picture, based on empirical research, of the condition of voluntary associations in America than the one that had been argued by Robert Putnam. However, questions of civil society and civility entered into virtually all ISEC’s projects, not only those explicitly devoted to them. This was especially evident in ISEC’s biweekly in-house seminars, which provided the occasion for an ongoing conversation between ISEC faculty, graduate fellows and visitors (thus supporting another conviction of mine, no doubt derived from my spiritual home in the institution of the Viennese coffeehouse – that if you put intelligent people around a table long enough, they will come up with something interesting).

In the course of all this there emerged, in a spontaneous and at first barely noticed way, a set of insights that most if not all of us at ISEC came to share. These can be summarized as follows:

1. The phrase “civil society” (that concept of Enlightenment thought which, after long dormancy, suddenly returned from eastern Europe in the 1980’s as a banner of democratic renewal), while fine in itself, was also too vague. It had to be sharpened by analyzing the institutions that make it real in the life of a society. These are the intermediate or mediating institutions which already Alexis de Tocqueville had perceived as the groundwork of democracy.

2. Religion, emphatically so in America but also elsewhere, is at the core of many if not most of these institutions. (This is an empirical proposition, not a theological one.)

3. The last insight throws light on an intriguing American phenomenon: While the United States is the most religious western democracy, by any empirical measure, it has the most secularist legal definition of church/state relations of any western democracy (at least since the early 1960’s). This paradox is central to the ongoing American “culture war”. At present it is most directly explored in an ISEC project, directed by Charles Glenn (School of Education, Boston University), on the relations between government and faith-based social services and schools, both in this country and in European democracies.

4. Not all intermediate institutions contribute to civil society – some are inimical to civil society. Put differently, there are “good” and “bad” intermediate institutions. Thus one must go beyond a structural analysis of these institutions and must explore the values that animate them. Put differently again, one must go from the concept of civil society to a concept of civic virtues – that means, to the values that enhance civility and democratic citizenship. In my own case, this insight was greatly strengthened while serving as a consultant to the Bertelsmann Foundation’s eleven-country study of “normative conflicts” (that is, conflicts not just between vested interests but between different value systems, moralities and notions of societal identity). One of the most striking findings of this study was that, in some cases, intermediate institutions do indeed mediate – “civilize” – such conflicts, but that in other cases they aggravate them and thus polarize society (see the book edited by me, The Limits of Social Cohesion: Conflict and Mediation in Pluralist Societies, Boulder, CO, Westview Press, 1998). A medical analogy occurred to me here: While previously it was thought that all cholesterol was bad for you, it became subsequently clear that there is both “good” and “bad” cholesterol. Thus, after the concept of civil society was clarified by looking at specific institutions, the understanding of the latter must be clarified by looking at the specific values that animate them.

At present, by way of several projects, ISEC is taking these insights a step further – to wit, into a critique of the widely assumed view (often implicit rather than explicit) that civility is only possible on the basis of the worldview of the western secular Enlightenment – the view, sort of, that if only the whole world were composed of Swedish intellectuals, all would be well. This question is taken up most directly in the project directed by ISEC’s Adam Seligman (author of The Idea of Civil Society and of The Problem of Trust) on sources for tolerance and civility in the three monotheistic faiths. Seligman’s agenda is to show that these virtues can have a basis other than that of “progressive” secularity. He has brought together a group of Jewish, Christian and Muslim thinkers to pursue this agenda. Marilyn Halter (ISEC’s “Americanist”) has begun a study that could be described broadly as dealing with the normative limits of American citizenship. It will explore the relation of American citizenship and ethnic identity in Puerto Rico and Hawaii (the “limits” here being not just geographical but normative). Her question could be summarized as follows (my formulation rather than hers): What does American citizenship and American identity mean to a Hawaiian Nisei who adheres to the Shingon school of Japanese Buddhism? Robert Hefner has just completed his voluminous study of the struggle with modernity and pluralism among Muslim intellectuals in Indonesia. Its title: Civil Islam (presently submitted to Princeton University Press). Robert Weller (ISEC’s sinologist) has finished his book on the capacity of Chinese culture to sustain civil-society institutions (the book will be published by Westview Press). Both Hefner and Weller show in great detail how civility and its supporting institutions can emerge in non-western cultural contexts, thus offering a potentially much more optimistic view of the chances for democracy in the world. Both are presently engaged in empirical research on these questions in east and southeast Asia. Finally, I now direct ISEC’s most ambitious project to date, a ten-country study of globalization and culture (it is being co-directed by Samuel Huntington). The question of civility in the context of globalization is coming up in most of the country studies. For example: I have just returned from a site visit to Turkey, where there is a raging “culture war” between the militantly secularist regime and the resurgent Islamic movement. It is fair to say that the question of “civilizing” this conflict is the most important challenge facing that society. It is by no means alone in this. And, mutatis mutandis, the same question confronts American society.

The working title of Weller’s book is Alternate Civilities. This phrase could be used to describe the much broader agenda just outlined. It is an enormously important agenda, not least in the context of America’s “culture war”.

The intellectual developments described in this memorandum give me great satisfaction. They demonstrate that ISEC’s enterprise is bearing surprising and significant fruit (without detracting from other contributions by ISEC projects). It is particularly gratifying that this has happened in an environment free of ideological party-lines and without top-down dictation. InshaIJah (as we would say in Turkey or Indonesia), we intend to continue in this way of working.