The Etiquette of Democracy

by Stephen L. Carter

Stephen L. Carter is professor of law at Yale University and author of The Culture of Disbelief.

This article is excerpted from Civility: manners, morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy, published in May, 1998. This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 8, 1998, pp. 366-371. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This article prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Our rights are protected by the Constitution, but our exercise of those rights is governed by our moral disciplines. Civility entails treating fellow citizens as people of goodwill—which is a risky act of trust. Laws on sexual harassment and "hate speech" sprout up when people do not share a code of civility.

In the summer of 1966, my parents moved with their five children to a large house near the corner of 35th and Macomb Streets in Cleveland Park, a neighborhood in the middle of Northwest Washington, D.C., and, in those days, a lily-white enclave. My father, trained as a lawyer, was working for the federal government, and this was an area of the city where many lawyers and government officials lived. There were senators, there were lobbyists, there were undersecretaries of this and that. My first impression was of block upon block of grim, forbidding old homes, each of which seemed to feature a massive dog and spoiled children in the uniforms of various private schools. My two brothers and two sisters and I sat on the front steps, missing our playmates, as the movers carried in our furniture. Cars passed what was now our house, slowing for a look, as did people on foot. We waited for somebody to say hello, to welcome us. Nobody did.

We children had no previous experience of white neighborhoods. But we had heard unpleasant rumors. The gang of boys I used to hang out with in Southwest Washington traded tall tales of places where white people did evil things to us, mostly in the South, where none of us had ever lived, nor wanted to.

I watched the strange new people passing us and wordlessly watching back, and I knew we were not welcome here. I knew we would not be liked here. I knew we would have no friends here. I knew we should not have moved here. I knew...

And all at once, a white woman arriving home from work at the house across the street from ours turned and smiled with obvious delight and waved and called out, "Welcome!" in a booming, confident voice I would come to love. She bustled into her house, only to emerge, minutes later, with a huge tray of cream cheese and jelly sandwiches, which she carried to our porch and offered around with her ready smile, simultaneously feeding and greeting the children of a family she had never met—and a black family at that—with nothing to gain for herself except perhaps the knowledge that she had done the right thing. We were strangers, black strangers, and she went out of her way to make us feel welcome. This woman’s name was Sara Kestenbaum. Sara died much too soon, but she remains, in my experience, one of the great exemplars of all that is best about civility.

Sara Kestenbaum’s special contribution to civility back in 1966 was to create for us a sense of belonging where none had existed before. And she did so even though she had never seen any of us in her life. She managed, in the course of a single day, to turn us from strangers into friends, a remarkable gift that few share. (My wife is one of the few.) But we must never require friendship as the price of civility, and the great majority of us who lack that gift nevertheless hold the same obligation of civility.

This story illustrates what I mean when I say that civility is the set of sacrifices we make for the sake of our fellow passengers. Sara Kestenbaum was generous to us, giving of herself with no benefit to herself, and she demonstrated not merely a welcome that nobody else offered, but a faith in us, a trust that we were people to whom one could and should be generous. And so we have the beginning of a definition of sacrificial civility: Civility has two parts: generosity, even when it is costly, and trust, even when there is risk.

Saying hello to a stranger on the street or driving with a bit more care are acts of generosity. Conceding the basic goodwill of my fellow citizens, even when I disagree with them, is an act of trust. By greeting us as she did, in the midst of a white neighborhood and a racially charged era, Sara was generous when nobody forced her to be, and trusting when there was no reason to be. Of such risks is true civility constructed.

Historians and sociologists of civility might have predicted that our new neighbors would be friendly, even had the racial issue not been present. The city, in a peculiar way, holds within its history the collapse of one form of civility, based on norms learned from small, known communities, and the development of another, based on norms learned from larger, anonymous ones. Although this is not the place to do the history in great detail—others have done it, and excellently—it will be useful to hit the high points.

Most of us have heard the old bromide that people who live in cities are not as polite as people in the country. New Yorkers, we think, epitomize rudeness, whereas folks in the South, say, are just as friendly as they can be. The bromide, however, turns out not to be a bromide: more and more experimental evidence confirms it. Something seems to happen to the psyche, to the personality, maybe even to the soul, when people live together in vast numbers. We find ourselves avoiding each other if only to keep from tripping over each other. We demand what has come to be called our "space."

In his classic text The Individual and the Social World, psychologist Stanley Milgram warned against overstating the case for urban incivility: "In some instances it is not simply that, in the city, traditional courtesies are violated; rather, the cities develop new norms of noninvolvement." Thus, when visitors arrive from rural areas with very different rules of conduct and complain that they seem to have landed in a foreign country, they are, in a sense, absolutely right. The city, like any other community, creates its own standards of behavior, along with its own pressures to obey them. The only trouble is, the standards are often morally inferior to the ones they replace. Milgram continues:

These [new norms] are so well defined and so deeply a part of city life that they constitute the norms people are reluctant to violate. Men are actually embarrassed to give up a seat on the subway to an old woman; they mumble "I was getting off anyway," instead of making the gesture in a straightforward and gracious way.

Instinct says that Milgram is right. So do experiments—for example, observing whether passersby will help a disabled man who falls to the ground. For half a century, every scholar who has examined the question has found city dwellers far less likely to be helpful or polite than those who live in rural areas—and the bigger the city, the ruder its citizens. Probably they do not see themselves as rude: they are only conforming their conduct to the expectations of their urban world.

And why do city dwellers develop these norms—what might be called norms of rudeness rather than norms of civility? Because, says Milgram, "everyone realizes that, in situations of high population density, people cannot implicate themselves in each other’s affairs, for to do so would create conditions of continual distraction which would frustrate purposeful action." In other words, if people in cities are nice to each other, they will be too busy with each other’s problems to get anything done.

Yet this explanation is obviously incomplete. In the city of Milgram’s vision, strangers are cold to each other because it is too costly to behave any other way. Social historians, however, have linked the rise of the national concern over matters of etiquette in the 19th century to the rise of the great industrial city precisely because the bold new cities were places where, for the first time, it was possible to live and work entirely among strangers.

Prior to the development of the great cities, most people lived in the same community their entire lives, surrounded by an extended family (perhaps a large one) and a thick network of other relationships that helped to nurture and enforce norms of behavior. The new industrial cities created enormous freedom: people moved to the cities and lived there alone, or with their nuclear families, but without the significant community ties that simultaneously offered moral guidance and limited their choices. People were mobile: they went where the jobs were. But this new freedom, as the historian John Diggins has pointed out, created problems of its own: "The more free the individual felt himself to be, the more isolated and lonely he actually became until he craved to forsake his solitude in order to surrender his self to the new invisible authority of society itself." With the advance of capitalism, then, the nation moved from the idea of local norms of behavior, created and nurtured by the community (often the religious community), to the idea of citywide or even national norms. Now the norms were generated not by people one knew but by a larger, anonymous, untouchable entity. "Society" replaced "community."

One beneficiary of the change was the publishing industry. As the new citizens— now literally citizens, residents of cities—struggled to work out how to relate to the strangers by whom they were surrounded the demand for authoritative rules exploded. Suddenly, everybody wanted to know how to behave, how to get along with strangers. Responding to the manners craze, publishers coughed up a flood of books on etiquette, most of them quite thin, producing, as one observer has noted, "weak opinion strongly held."

Unlike the Europeans, who held that good manners were the property of the upper classes, Americans nourished the conceit that anybody could learn etiquette. Many of the books were inexpensive. One of the most popular was Irwin Beadle’s popular 1859 volume, Dime Book of Popular Etiquette, the price of which was stated in the title. There were books about how to act when traveling on the railroads, books about behavior on the street or in the theater, books aimed at women, books aimed at men. Special books were written to guide foreign immigrants to America—and rural immigrants to the cities. And people who never read books on anything else worked on their manners. John F. Kasson says in Rudeness and Civility: Manners in 19th Century Urban America that "most etiquette manuals were sold to people who would never have thought of entering a bookstore," mainly by direct mail. There were books for all ages, for all regions, from all angles, and they shared a common theme: If you want to be somebody in America, you must learn to mind your manners.

One result of this urban fad was that the fledgling public schools (most of them in those days still called common schools) began to include the study of manners in the curriculum. Part of the reason was nativism, a fear that the new immigrants did not know how Americans were expected to behave. But a larger part was probably status anxiety, a fear that if children did not learn proper etiquette, they would not amount to anything. In an eerie foreshadowing of today’s debates over character education, journalists warned that the family could not do it alone: the schools had to help. And so a new subject— "morals and deportment"—was born. Now that society rather than community set the standards, children needed a way to find out what the standards were.

Which leads us to our second story.

When I was a child, attending grade school in Washington, D.C., we took classroom time to study manners. Not only the magic words, "please" and "thank you," but more complicated etiquette questions, such as how to answer the telephone ("Carter residence, Stephen speaking") and how to set the table (we were quizzed on whether knife blades should point in or out). We were taught to address adults with a title ("Sir" or "Ma’am") or by surname ("Mrs. White"). And somehow nobody—no children, no parents—objected to what nowadays would surely be viewed as indoctrination.

Today instruction of this sort is so rare that when a school tries to teach manners to children, it makes the news. When U.S. News & World Report ran a story in 1996 about the decline of civility, it opened with what it must have considered the man-bites-dog vignette—an account of a classroom where young people were taught to be polite. Ironically, this newsworthy curriculum evidently teaches a good deal less about etiquette than we learned back at Margaret M. Amidon Elementary School in the ‘60s, but that is still a good deal more than children learn in most places. Deportment classes are long gone. Now and then the schools teach some norms of conduct, but almost always about sex, and never the most important ones: Do not engage in harassment and Always use a condom seems to be the outer limits of their moral capacity. The idea that sex, as a unique human activity, might require a unique morality, different from the general moral rules against physical harm to others and harm to the self, is not one that public schools are prepared to entertain.

Respect for rules of conduct has been lost in the deafening and essentially empty rights-talk of our age. Following a rule of good manners may mean doing something you do not want to do, and the weird rhetoric of our self-indulgent age resists the idea that we have such things as obligations to others. We suffer from what James Q. Wilson has described as the elevation of self-expression over self-control. So when a black student at a Connecticut high school was disciplined in 1996 for wearing pants that drooped (exposing his underwear), not only did he claim a right to wear what he liked, but some community leaders hinted at racism, on the theory that many young African-American males dress this way. (The fact that the style is copied from prison garb, which lacks a belt, evidently makes no impression on these particular defenders of the race.)

When I was a child, had my school sought to discipline me, my parents would have assumed the school had good reason. And they probably would have punished me further at home. Unlike many of today’s parents, they would not have begun by challenging the teacher or principal who thought I had done wrong. To the student of civility, the relevant difference between that era and the present is the collapse of trust, particularly trust in strangers and in institutions. My parents would have trusted the school’s judgment—and thus trusted the school to punish me appropriately—but trust of that kind has largely dissolved. Trust (along with generosity) is at the heart of civility. But cynicism has replaced the healthier emotion of trust. Cynicism is the enemy of civility: it suggests a deep distrust of the motives of our fellow passengers, a distrust that ruins any project that rests, as civility does, on trusting others even when there is risk. And so, because we no longer trust each other, we place our trust in the vague and conversation-stifling language of "rights" instead.

Consider again the boy with the droopy pants. To talk about wearing a particular set of clothes as a "right" is demeaning to the bloody struggles for such basic rights as the vote and an unsegregated education. But the illusion that all desires are rights continues its insidious spread. At about the same time, a fired waitress at a restaurant not far from Yale, where I teach, announced a "right" to pierce her face with as many studs and rings as she wishes. And, not long ago, a television program featured an interview with a woman who insisted on the "right" to be as fat as she likes. Rights that are purchased at relatively low cost stand a fair chance of being abused, simply because there is no history behind them, and thus little pressure to use them responsibly—in short, because nobody knows why the right exists. But even a right that possesses a grimly instructive history—a right like freedom of speech—may fall subject to abuse when we forget where it came from.

This proposition helps explain the facts, if not the outcome, of Cohen v. California, a 1971 decision in which the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a young man who wore on his jacket the benign legend F___ THE DRAFT. The case arose as the public language grew vulgar. The 19th and early 20th centuries offered a tradition of public insults that were witty, pointed, occasionally cruel, but not obscene or particularly offensive. Politicians and other public figures competed to demonstrate their cleverness in repartee. (One of my favorites is Benjamin Disraeli’s explanation of the difference between a misfortune and a calamity: "If Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune. And if anyone pulled him out, that would be a calamity.") Nowadays the tradition of barbed wit has given way to a witless barbarism, our lazier conversational habit of reaching for the first bit of profanity that comes to mind. The restraint and forethought that are necessary to be clever, even in insult, are what a sacrificial civility demands. When we are lazy about our words, we are telling those at whom our vulgarity is directed that they are so far beneath us that they are not worth the effort of stopping to think how best to insult them; we prefer, animal-like, to make the first sound that comes to mind.

In Cohen v. California the justices were unfortunately correct that what the dissenters on the court called "Cohen’s absurd and immature antic" was protected by the freedom of speech. But it is important to add that when the framers of the Constitution envisioned the rough-and-tumble world of public argument, they almost certainly imagined heated disagreements against a background of broadly shared values; certainly that was the model offered by John Locke. It is unlikely that the framers imagined a world in which I might feel (morally) free to say the first thing that came into my head. I do think Cohen was rightly decided, but the danger deserves emphasis: When offensiveness becomes a constitutional right, it is a right without any tradition behind it, and consequently we have no norms to govern its use.

Consider once more the fired waitress. I do not deny that the piercing of one’s body conveys, in many cultures, information of great significance. But in America, we have no tradition to serve as guide. No elder stands behind our young to say, "Folks have fought and died for your right to pierce your face, so do it right"; no community exists that can model for a young person the responsible use of the "right"; for the right, even if called self-expression, comes from no source other than desire. If we fail to distinguish desire from right, we will not understand that rights are sensible and wise only within particular contexts that give them meaning.

The constitution protects a variety of rights, but our moral norms provide the discipline in their exercise. Sometimes what the moral norm of civility demands is that we restrain our self-expression for the sake of our community. That is why Isaac Peebles in the 19th century thought it was wrong for people to sing during a train ride; and why it is wrong to race our cars through the streets, stereos cranked high enough to be sure that everyone we pass has the opportunity to enjoy the music we happen to like; and why it was wrong for Cohn to wear his jacket; and why it is wrong for racists to burn crosses (another harmful act of self-expression that the courts have protected under the First Amendment). And it is why a waitress who encounters the dining public each day in her work must consider the interest of that public as she mulls the proper form of self-expression.

Consequently, our celebration of Howard Stern, Don Imus and other heroes of "shock radio" (as it is sometimes called) might be evidence of a certain loss of moral focus. The proposition that all speech must be protected should not be confused with the very different proposition that all speech must be celebrated. When radio station WABC in New York dismissed a popular talk show host, Bob Grant, who refused to stop making racist remarks on the air, some of his colleagues complained that he was being censored. (He was no more being censored than the producer of a television program that is canceled because of low ratings: in both cases, the content is the problem.) Lost in the brouhaha was the simple fact that Grant’s comments and conduct were reprehensible, and that his abuse of our precious freedoms was nothing to be celebrated.

The point is not that we should rule the offensive illegal, which is why the courts are correct to strike down efforts to regulate speech that some people do not like, and even most speech that hurts; the advantages of yielding to the government so much power over what we say have never been shown to outweigh the dangers. Yet we should recognize the terrible damage that free speech can do if people are unwilling to adhere to the basic precept of civility, that we must sometimes rein in our own impulses—including our impulses to speak hurtful words—for the sake of those who are making the democratic journey with us. The Book of Proverbs tells us, "Death and life are in the power of the tongue" (Prov. 18:21). The implication is that the choice of how to use the tongue, for good or for evil, is ours.

Words are magic. We conjure with them. We send messages, we paint images. With words we report the news, profess undying love, and preserve our religious traditions. Words at their best are the tools of morality, of progress, of hope. But words at their worst can wound. And wounds fester. Consequently, the way we use words matters. This explains why many traditional rules of etiquette, from Erasmus’s handbook in the 16th century to the explosion of guides to good manners during the Victorian era, were designed to govern how words, these marvelous, dangerous words, should be used. Even the controversial limits on sexual harassment and "hate speech" that have sprouted in our era, limits that often carry the force of law, are really just more rules of civility, more efforts, in a morally bereft age, to encourage us to discipline our desires.

My point is not to tell us how to speak. My point is to argue that how we speak is simply one point on a continuum of right and wrong ways to treat one another. And how we treat one another is what civility is about.