The Nature of Civic Culture
Philosophy and Civil Society
The mark of civic friendship is an affection that actively grants to the other an open space for the free play of desire, an active affirmation both of mutual difference and of an identity beyond all differences.
In contexts where the clear and firm direction of desire is most needed, the libertarian nature of civic friendship can express personal disengagement from and even a positive indifference to others.
The story of liberty is a story that affirms the pursuit of particularistic desire in general and affirms all particularistic desire equally without regard to any specific ranking system or world view.
Civic friendship first must be clearly distinguished from a different sort of friendship: the sort of friendship that unites persons who are members of the same particularistic cultural community — persons who share a common world view and use the same primary moral vocabulary. Let us call this sort of friendship communitarian solidarity.
Communities whose members are united by this kind solidarity are exclusive in a special but familiar sense. Such communities include and exclude persons on the basis of a set of criteria drawn from a particularistic conception of the good life. Qualifications for membership in particularistic cultural communities include not only specific beliefs, commitments, and behaviors, but often also personal traits such as birth, class, gender, talent, educational credentials, ethnicity, nationality, and so on.
Consequently, built into this bond of affection is an awareness and affirmation of distinction and difference. This awareness of distinction contains an at least implicit reference to others who have been excluded. Where persons are united in communitarian solidarity, an “us" is distinguished from a “them."
This opposition between the “us" and the “them" is not just incidental to communitarian solidarity. Communitarian solidarity increases in intensity as awareness of this opposition grows. For this reason, communitarian solidarity actually seeks out ways to enhance this awareness, using means such as distinctive clothing, distinctive speech, distinctive patterns of consumption, distinctive rites of initiation and passage, and so on.
This awareness of distinction necessarily involves the imposition of a certain minimal level of conformity in belief and behavior on those united in communitarian solidarity. The condition for the maintenance of the communitarian bond of affection is continued adherence to the ranking systems, the standards of excellence, and the virtue concepts of the particularistic cultural community. Any weakening of this adherence on the part of any member of the community weakens the solidarity that binds him or her to the other members.
The role of collective life narratives in the support of communitarian solidarity
The primary means of establishing and shaping communitarian solidarity is through the construction of collective life narratives. Such collective life narratives tell the story of how a particular community (whether consisting of lovers, family members, villagers, or persons sharing a common ethnic, class or religious identity) came to be and of where its future lies.
Human bonding of all kinds, as a bonding of desire, is achieved most effectively and fundamentally through the sharing of a common story. As in the case of all life narratives, the rhetorical function of collective life narratives is to represent and render intelligible the current status of desire with respect to its satisfaction. The form of desire proper to the communitarian bond of affection is a desire for narrative significance. By constructing a common narrative representation of events, persons united in communitarian friendship reinforce one another’s readings of the narrative significance of those events.
Thus, communities in the process of formation create for their members a common past and a common future. On the other hand, members of communities in the process of disintegration express that disintegration by warring over the interpretation of past events as they bear upon future prospects. Further, communities characterized by oppression of one group by another generate among the oppressed collective counter-narratives that tell a very different story of what the community has been and will be.
Because collective life narratives provide the basis for communitarian solidarity among persons sharing a common life ideal, they are always stories told from the “inside" — i.e., they are always moral histories, histories whose reading of events is governed by the ranking system and virtue concepts proper to the group. A collective life narrative is written in the primary moral language of a particularistic cultural community. It assigns to actions and persons attributes of rank and relative esteem reflective of the community’s standards of excellence.
Members of the community who incorporate their own personal life narratives into the larger collective life narrative of the group get their heroes and villains from these stories. Community solidarity is thus a bond of affection between persons who in some measure share the same heroes and villains.
How civic friendship differs from communitarian solidarity
Civic friendship differs radically from communitarian solidarity. The members of a liberal democracy are not united on the basis of a shared conception of the good life or a shared collective life narrative.
Liberal political community is indeed an exclusive community, but the criteria of exclusion and inclusion applied by a civic community are not defined by the possession of shared personal traits as evaluated by some particularistic cultural ranking system. Criteria for membership in a civic community are defined constitutionally without regard to the differentiating biological, economic, and cultural properties of its members. The citizens of a liberal democracy are defined constitutionally as free and equal individuals. The friendship proper to citizens must be a friendship proper to free and equal individuals, a friendship that disregards, for the purposes of civic friendship, personal traits that are evaluated differently by different local ranking systems.
This fact gives to civic friendship a certain appearance of paradox. Communitarian solidarity is built out of an awareness of distinction. Where communitarian solidarity exists, an “us" is opposed to a “them." But in the case of civic friendship, the bond of affection is built out of an awareness of a very different sort of distinction.
This distinction cannot in principle be understood properly as an opposition of an “us" to a “them." The “us" defined by the bond of civility embraces, at least potentially, all human beings. Citizens united in friendship as citizens are united as free and equal individuals, precisely in their difference from all those differences in personal traits, values, and beliefs that define the criteria for membership in particularistic cultural communities.
Civic friendship is a bond of affection effective between persons precisely to the extent that those persons do not distinguish themselves from one another on the basis of the biological, economic, and cultural properties that are fundamental to communitarian solidarity.
Thus, civility also bases itself on a distinction between sameness and difference, but the affirmation of sameness in civic friendship is really an affirmation of difference in two respects: (1) an affirmation of difference in world view, values, and personal traits, and (2) an affirmation of the difference of both self and other from all such differences — i.e., an affirmation of the freedom of self and other as citizens.
Civic friendship as the bond uniting those who pursue the civic good
Civic friendship, then, is a very complex and peculiar phenomenon.
Communitarian solidarity creates and nurtures the awareness of biological, economic, and cultural differences distinguishing those who belong to a given community from those who do not. As an affirmation of difference, communitarian solidarity consists in a relatively straightforward affirmation the difference of self from other. On the one side stands the “us," on the other side, the “them." Communitarian solidarity flourishes where members of a given particularistic cultural community perceive in one another an exclusive identification with the “us" as opposed to a “them."
But the impulse behind civic friendship is very different. Civic friendship follows a logic very different from that of communitarian solidarity because civic friendship is a bond uniting those who pursue the civic good. Civic friendship flourishes where members of a civic community perceive in one another an identification with and commitment to the civic good.
The civic good is to be distinguished from the communitarian good in that the civic good is a partial good. Its pursuit does not comprehend the whole of life. The civic good consists in the liberation of particularistic desire. Those who pursue the civic good do not abandon their commitment or allegiance to a particular cultural community. Rather, pursuit of the civic good seeks only a modification of that commitment — a modification whereby it becomes a commitment undertaken in full freedom and responsibility. Those who are united in civic friendship wish for one another the attainment and exercise of this capacity for freedom and responsibility.
Civic friendship is thus a bond of affection between free and responsible individuals who are and wish to be freely committed to a particularistic way of life or ideal of happiness. Civic friendship nurtures the capacity for free and responsible choice. It does this by establishing a bond of affection between persons that is not based upon similarities of biological, economic, or cultural traits. Civility establishes a sameness, an equivalence between persons that lies beyond all such differences.
One citizen, in behaving civilly toward another — i.e., in affirming this equivalence — affirms his or her own civic identity as one that is not exclusively determined by any particularistic ranking system or world view. Citizens united by civic friendship are the same precisely insofar as they grant to themselves and to one another the possibility of being different. Their unity is constituted by an affirmation of their difference from all particular differences that determine particularistic community identifications.
Accordingly, the mark of civility is not a wish to change others, to make them conform more completely to the requirements of some particularistic ranking system. Nor is the mark of civility a mere willingness to live and let live, a tolerance bordering on indifference to the other. Rather, the mark of civic friendship is an affection that actively grants to the other an open space for the free play of desire, an active affirmation both of mutual difference and of an identity beyond all differences.
The tension between civic friendship and communitarian solidarity
Thus, while communitarian solidarity thrives where there exists an identity of interests and tastes, civic friendship is libertarian, empowering otherness and difference. While communitarian solidarity thrives where there exists shared measures of excellence and personal worth, civic friendship is egalitarian, establishing a bond that disregards all measures of relative rank and merit.
Given their very different logics, civic friendship and communitarian solidarity coexist uneasily with one another. In a civic community, persons are expected to develop and exercise equally a capacity for both — another example of the extraordinary cultural demands made upon those who live under liberal democratic regimes.
Just as liberal democracy in general requires citizens to be both committed to a particular way of life and detached from it sufficiently to exercise the capacities of civic freedom and civic justice, so also liberal democracy requires citizens to cultivate solidarity with the members of their family and their ethnic, class, and religious communities, while at the same time cultivating a bond of civility with those who pursue very different and even conflicting life ideals. The difficulties involved in the realization of this ideal of the equal cultivation of both communitarian solidarity and civic friendship are enormous.
The cultivation of civic friendship can very often seem actively hostile to the cultivation of communitarian solidarity. Communitarian solidarity supports the pursuit of a particularistic conception of the good life. It seeks to nurture and perfect in fellow community members those attitudes, dispositions, and skills necessary for the attainment of a particularistic ideal of happiness. The mark of communitarian solidarity is thus a desire and even a commitment to change others, to help them to conform more completely to the highest standards of the community.
In order to flourish, human desire needs such direction. The nurture and direction of particularistic desire very often requires a strong assertion of authority and a demand for exclusive compliance with a specific ranking system. Communitarian solidarity has for this reason a certain priority in relation to civic friendship. In contexts where clear and firm direction is most needed — say, in family relationships, in education, in economic, partisan political or religious affairs — the libertarian nature of civic friendship, its affirmation and nurturing of difference, can express personal disengagement from and even a positive indifference to others.
The civic good, we must recall, is a partial and not a comprehensive good. The free space granted to others by civic friendship in pursuit of the civic good cannot encompass the whole of life. Just as civic identity exists only as a modification of communitarian identity, so also civic friendship exists only as a modification of communitarian solidarity. The very possibility of civic friendship therefore depends upon strong communitarian identity.
Citizens who are not firmly anchored in communitarian solidarity will neither understand nor appreciate the practice of civility. Accordingly, the affirmation of otherness and difference proper to civility is inappropriate when it has the effect of undermining the ordered and disciplined pursuit of a particularistic ideal of happiness. The practice of civility as a civic virtue, then, requires moral insight. It requires a prudence guided by a clear understanding of the good civility serves.
The story of liberty: the narrative foundations of civic friendship
Cultivation of civic friendship also can have the effect of weakening the narrative foundations of communitarian solidarity. Communitarian solidarity is forged and maintained by the sharing of a collective life narrative. The rhetorical function of collective life narratives is to create a bond between the members of a given cultural community, a bond that supports the pursuit of a particularistic conception of the good life.
Civic friendship is also forged and maintained by the sharing of a common narrative, but the rhetorical function of this civic narrative is quite different. The story of a civic community is the story of the pursuit of the civic good, the pursuit of civic freedom and civic justice. But the desire for the civic good is not a desire for a comprehensive good that can give direction and meaning to life as a whole.
The story of liberty is a story that affirms the pursuit of particularistic desire in general and affirms all particularistic desire equally without regard to any specific ranking system or world view. A citizen identifies with the story of liberty to the extent that he or she externalizes all attributes of rank or relative esteem gained by identification with the collective life narrative of any particularistic cultural community. This identification with the story of liberty is perfected by what I have called the practice of life-narrational equalization.
Civic friendship is a bond of affection based upon this equalization of all particularistic desire and this externalization of all attributes of local rank and status. But a developed capacity for this equalization and externalization of rank can have a corrosive effect upon belief in the collective life narratives of particularistic cultural communities.
Affirmation of the community life narrative of a civic community in effect requires a certain relativization of local collective life narratives. It requires that these local collective life narratives be placed in the context of an encompassing narrative that equalizes all particularistic desire and represents the histories of all particularistic cultural communities, as it were, from the outside. Yet the narrative of the civic community is a moral history. It tells the story of the struggle for and defense of civic freedom and civic justice. It has its heroes and villains.
It is important to see, however, that genuinely civic heroes, unlike the partisan heroes proper to communitarian moral histories, are heroes precisely to the extent that their actions have affirmed the equalization of all particularistic desire and the externalization of all local measures of rank and relative esteem. Such heroes do not serve well as models for shaping of particularistic desire and aspiration over the course of an entire life. They offer no specific direction beyond that of an affirmation of individual liberty to choose and follow a particular ideal of happiness.
Thus, the narrative requirements of civic friendship here come into conflict with the narrative requirements of communitarian solidarity. This conflict is not inevitable, but its proper mediation requires, once again, a moral insight informed by a clear understanding of the end served by civic friendship. When civility is cultivated without the guidance of such insight, the affirmation of otherness and difference proper to civic friendship, its libertarian and egalitarian nature, can actually make citizens even more vulnerable to the cultural dangers endemic to liberal democracy — the dangers of nihilism and alienation.
Page last edited: February 03, 2002
Copyright © 1997 - 2002
Thomas Bridges. All rights reserved.
Hosted by Interland