Civility is widely regarded as a duty of democratic citizenship. This Article identifies a difficulty inherent within the enterprise of developing an adequate conception of civility. Challenging the idea civility is the requirement to remain calm, peaceable, or dispassionate in political debate, it is argued that that civility is instead the requirement to address one’s political arguments to one’s interlocutors. In this way, civility is a second-order requirement, a norm governing our conduct in political disagreement. From there, a conceptual problem for civility so understood is raised, the problem of semantic descent. It is argued that any plausible conception of civility is prone to being “weaponized,” transformed into a partisan device for incivility. The general upshot is that as important as civility is for a well-functioning democracy, its usefulness as a diagnostic tool for repairing political dysfunctions is limited.
Talisse, Robert B., "Semantic Descent: More Trouble for Civility" (2021). Connecticut Law Review. 452.