Critical civility, conflicts and foreign policy

Iselin Frydenlund's concept of critical civility emerged from empirical studies of the violent conflict in Sri Lanka (doctoral dissertation, University of Oslo 2011). The conflict had many dimensions, one of them being the ethno-religious. Frydenlund's doctoral study focused on the religious dimension and identified a conflict line within the community of Singhalese Buddhist monks, between those who supported the Singhalese government's violent politics and those who made concrete efforts to help Tamil civilians, often with a danger to their own life. In opposition to the vast majority of their colleagues and fellow Singhalese Buddhists who defined the monk's social role as a duty to serve their own community and the Singhalese nation, these monks argued for compassion and empathy on the basis of their own understanding of Buddhism.

To make a long story short, Frydenlund needed an analytical tool in order to analyse such instances of civil resistance and protest through positive counter action, and came up with the concept of critical civility. This term puts a name to a much neglected aspect of a kind of local peace efforts (which seems to emerge in conflict situations), namely that some - individuals or groups - go against their own group, or rather the norms of beaviour of the dominant majority. For such resistance to group pressure to count as 'critical civility' it must be grounded in or motivated by the group's own ethical norms - which the majority has set aside in an abnormal situation.

In my view Frydenlund's term has much potential as a way to highlight silent protest in situations of violent conflict where all parties, not least the media have a tendency to focus attention on violence and suffering, or what Jurgensmeyer (2000) calls performative violence, i.e. terrorism and forget the silent, peaceful resistance of individuals and groups. If peace is the ultimate aim there is much to gain from making the civil, peaceful actors more visible - in academic studies of conflicts and maybe in the mass media and on the political agenda. By furnishing us with an analytical term which makes it possible to get new insights; alternative ways of seeing the conflict and understand its dynamics, Frydenlund's term 'critical civility' may help us along.

'Critical civility' emerges from a combination of empirical studies and need for theoretical perspectives on local conflicts. It is intended as an elaboration of the descriptive term 'islands of civility'. I suspect that it is also inspired by the legal concept of 'civil disobedience' - an illegal protest which is nevertheless recognized as being inspired by high ethical standards, e.g. groups who chain themselves to installations in order to stop the building of new nuclear power plants.

Being grounded in a particular empirical study, 'critical civility' nevertheless has the potential to become a universal analytical term. The tradition of defining 'civility' in opposition to 'barbarianism' goes all the way back to the Greeks. Similar notions can be found in all cultures that are scripture based, or what we used to call 'high culture', e.g. China, India, etc. Hence in one respect this is mainly a reiteration of the us/them distinction: we are the civilized, they need to be kept at a distance. 'They' are defined as driven by base instincts, i.e. closer to beasts than 'us'- who are civilized. It should also be noted that the us/them distinction creates an affinity between us - the academic community - and those others whose actions we label civil, e.g. Buddhist monks who help Tamils to fins their lost children, against "them" - all the rest. In view of the willingness to sacrifice one's own social standing and living in the peril of loosing one's life, 'critical civility' as  Frydenlund defines it, implies a culling of "base instincts" and the pursuit of self interest. The term also entails a critical attitude towards ones group, and a legitimation strategy which makes a claim to represent the original (normal) norms and values of the group and criticizes the majority's actions and reactions as morally wrong. 

Now, it is evident to me that the concept may be fruitfully employed to bring out the dynamics and power struggles within well defined groups (e.g. monks). However, I would also like to reflect on its limitations and pose the following question: is it possible for a state (like Norway) to create a strategy for its foreign policy focusing its resources in order to strengthen 'critical civility' in a given local setting? My first impulse is a negative answer: foreign support for a critical minority would take away its autonomy and make it more vulnerable simply because it would now be a part of the foreign power's - not its own range of action. To the extent that critical civility is tolerated by the majority it is because the majority recognizes its moral high ground, and its own superior power. In this delicate balance critical civility is allowed a certain range of action, a place, so to speak, in the logic of the conflict. Critical civility is therefore an analytical term which may allow us to identify pockets of resistance to 'uncivilized behaviour'. However, it is important to remember that 'civility' has two faces: one which is universal, diffuse and loosely defined in opposition to 'beast', and another side which is local, precise, and defined in connection with the tradition (cultural and/or religious) that the champions of critical civility share with their group.


Anne Stensvold is Professor of the History of Religions at the Faculty of Humanities, University of Oslo

By Anne Stensvold
Published Jan. 10, 2012 8:13 AM - Last modified June 4, 2015 1:51 PM