Interview #1 – Teresa Bejan


Professor Teresa M. Bejan is Associate Professor of Political Theory in the Department of Politics and International Relations and a Fellow of Oriel College at the University of Oxford.

Before coming to Oxford, she served as an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto and as a Fellow in the Society of Fellows in the Humanities and a Lecturer in Political Science at Columbia University. She received her Ph.D. with distinction from Yale University in 2013 and holds previous degrees from the Universities of Chicago and Cambridge. In 2015, her dissertation was awarded the Leo Strauss Award from the American Political Science Association for the best doctoral dissertation in political philosophy.

Professor Bejan’s research brings perspectives from early modern English and American political thought to bear on questions in contemporary political theory and practice. Her book, Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration, examines contemporary calls for civility in light of seventeenth-century debates about religious toleration in England and America.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity. The views shared here do not reflect nor do they suggest the views of the Virginia Review of Politics.

Special thanks to Professor Stephen White, Professor David LeBlang, Professor Murad Idris, Eileen Ying, and Eric Xu.


Virginia Review of Politics: Can you please give an overview of some of your work?

Teresa Bejan: I’m a political theorist and historian of political thought by training, and at Oxford I teach everything from theory of politics to the chief history of political thought course there, “Plato to Rousseau,” so, you know, very short ground to cover. In my own research, I focus on early modern English and early American political thought, but with an eye towards contemporary questions. As I tell my colleagues in History, I’m “shamelessly presentist,” which is why I will always be much happier in a political science department, as opposed to a history department.

VRoP: Many people, especially college students, see political theory as a boring and dry field. What do you believe your field can contribute to modern discourse?

TB: If it’s true, that’s very sad. Perhaps political theorists have not been the best advocates or defenders of their own discipline. Political theory—I may be engaging in special pleading here—is an essential training in how to understand the political world you inhabit and to alienate yourselves from the assumptions that have been handed down to you by your parents or your peer group.

When I say that political theorists haven’t necessarily been the best advocates in their own case, I mean that, unfortunately, we gravitate towards two extremes. There’s the extreme that says “okay, well political theory is about the Tradition, and the important thing is to immerse yourself in that Tradition and bring yourself to its bar, not the other way around.” And then there's another extreme that says “No no, anything written before 1971 is ancient and thus has nothing to say to the present.” I think that both extremes are mistaken.

Political theory, however you choose to approach it, is grounded in a canon of shared texts—but that [canon] is always flexible. We can argue about what goes in and out, but having a shared core of texts that we’re thinking with and against is really crucial to the training. The training is about getting students to alienate themselves from the concepts and categories through which they organize their social and political experience, [concepts and categories] which to us seem obvious. I worry that a lot of time, students’ frustration with political theory is a product of their unwillingness to alienate themselves from their assumptions. They think, “oh, well that doesn’t speak directly to my worldview in ways that I understand, ergo it must not be important.” So I would say that political theorists need to be more vocal evangelists, perhaps, for the importance of what we do and how we do it.

VRoP: In your recent Washington Post article “ You don’t have to be nice to political opponents. But you do have to talk to them”, you mention the silencing of Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor in the name of civility. How has this kind of “civility rhetoric” played a role in American politics historically?

TB: Well I will say, for the record, that I did not write the title. It’s a good title, but I can’t claim credit.

In conducting our political disagreements, we sometimes want to accuse our opponents of breaking the rules, of going beyond the pale of civil debate. When we talk about civility, nominally, we’re making a claim about the manner in which disagreement is expressed. But the point about ‘civility-talk’ is that it’s very easy to see the ways in which, often, worries about the manner of disagreement very quickly reduce to the fact of disagreement. This is clearest to us when someone on our own side is silenced in the name of civility [but it goes both ways]. Civility seems like a great thing, and surely debate should be more civil, but looking at the way in which calls for civility and accusations of incivility are functioning in a particular context is always crucial.

I don’t then conclude—and this is the argument to the Washington Post piece—that civility is always and everywhere a kind of civilizing discourse that’s meant to marginalize the marginal or silence dissent. I think that there is a virtue of civility that’s important, and especially important to American democratic disagreement. But I think part of the virtue of civility, or “mere civility” in my sense, is a kind of skepticism about civility-talk. To those who say “if only my opponents could be more reasonable” – I say “Yes, I think we all agree that if our opponents could be more reasonable: in fact, we agree with our opponents about that!”

VRoP: In your book, you differentiate between Williams’, Hobbes’, and Locke’s conceptions of toleration as “mere civility,” “civil silence,” and “civil charity” respectively. How do these differ, and how do they manifest themselves in contemporary discourse?

TB: Mere Civility is a work of intellectual history, so it is very much about recovering and discussing 17th century debates about religious toleration in-depth. But it’s also an exercise in political theory. I’m trying to distinguish between what I call three conceptions of civility you see historically, but that also have a long legacy we still see evidence of today.

“Civil silence” is the conception of civility that I associate with Thomas Hobbes, and it’s basically the thought that, in a tolerant society, we want people to live happily side-by-side, despite their differences. And the way to do that is through an extension of the common-sense observation that you shouldn’t talk about religion or politics at the dinner table. The way we’re going to get along is by not having the disagreements that lead to incivility and acrimony at all. You can differ all you want, but you mustn’t disagree. I see a strong legacy of this in a lot of contemporary civility-talk, which boils down to telling our opponents to “shut up.” When we accuse people of incivility, it’s a way of saying “you should be quiet, because you’re introducing ideas or complaints that I find uncomfortable.” You often see this kind of civil silencing especially in modern universities, which attempt to eradicate certain controversies by not allowing the disagreement to take place at all. So civil silence is a vision of a tolerant society in which we police speech for the sake of social harmony.

[Locke’s] “civil charity” is slightly different. It says that in a tolerant society, we really want there to be disagreement, because disagreement is the motor of social progress [and] how democracy functions: we disagree, we learn through argument. But in order for our arguments and our disagreements to be productive, you can’t have a limitless degree of diversity. Certain positions must be beyond the pale; they don’t deserve a seat at the table. So civil charity functions not through suppression of disagreement, but rather exclusion of difference. I think you see this very often [today] in the way that people construe a civil disagreement as something that can take place only between those who already agree on the fundamentals of liberal democracy, or secularism, and so on.

You’ll notice, however, that in terms of contemporary examples, the civil silence and civil charity positions often merge into each other, through the idea that a tolerant society is society of mutual respect. Thus those who express views that are disrespectful of difference, or disrespectful of other modes of being violate both senses of civility, both civil silence and civil charity.

The title of the book, [comes from the] conception I revive from Roger Williams.“Mere civility” is a conversational virtue that tries to avoid the Scylla of civil silence on the one hand and the Charybdis of civil charity on the other by insisting that a tolerant society needs to tolerate diversity and disagreement. But in doing that, we’re going to have a lot of uncomfortable disagreements. Mere civility is a kind of learning to live with the disagreeableness of disagreement. I describe it in the Washington Post piece as the virtue that governs those “unpleasant but unavoidable interactions between ex-spouses, bad neighbors, and members of the other party.” The test of civility is remaining present, remaining in the room and talking with those with whom you really, fundamentally disagree. But that’s a quite difficult and demanding thing. I don’t think mere civility is easy.

VRoP: In your talk on “Acknowledging Equality,” you mention the difficulty of defining what “equality” actually means, whether it be equality as “identity,” “proportion,” or “parity.” How do these concepts differ, and how do we conceptualize inequality today?

TB: I gave that lecture at Cambridge last spring, and it’s the basis of my next book. The thought is that, for modern political thought, we treat equality as the fundamental first principle from which all else follows in a kind of logical deduction. What I try to point out in the lecture is that for all of its appearance of certainty, self-evidence, and clarity, when it comes to understanding the relation involved in describing someone or something as “equal,” it’s actually not at all clear. And if you parse this historically, you begin to see that there are a number of possible relationships involved.

One, as you mention, is “identity:” the idea that things are equal by virtue of being identical. This, I think, is the mathematical or geometric sense of equality. In ancient political thought—and this continues on into medieval and early modern thought, particularly in discussions of justice—you have this idea of equality as “proportion,” as a consideration of balance. This goes to ideas of justice as distributing equal shares to equals. So if you two sitting here are equals, then the just outcome is for you to get the same amount of x. But if you’re unequal, then [one of] you should get [more of x]. But this itself is understood as an “equal” outcome. This understanding of equality-as-proportion sounds very alien to us today, because we think of equality mostly in the sense of identity or similarity, but for the history of political thought, equality as proportion was the dominant sense. Then finally, there’s this third concept of equality as “parity,” which is an idea of shared status. Peers are not identical, they’re not even necessarily similar. But somehow we consider them to be equal by virtue of some shared characteristic. And I think that when we invoke the idea of equality as applying to human beings, when we think of natural equality or civic equality, we’re really talking about parity. We’re trying to establish the sense that individuals, for all of their differences, should nevertheless be treated as peers by virtue of their shared humanity.

Partly what I want to accomplish in this book is conceptual ground-clearing, to show that equality is actually quite complicated in terms of the relations we’re specifying, and that this can, in turn, help explain why, for all of its apparent clarity and self-evidence, appealing to equality in an argument doesn’t actually lead to an obvious agreement about the outcome. So [equality is] another case where by doing some historical work, we can alienate ourselves from terms that we consider to be obvious, and make some progress in thinking about politics today.

VRoP: Censorship and intolerance seem to be tied to inequalities. Even in democratic societies, where legitimacy is supposedly derived from the majority, those in the majority often use their positions to silence those in the minority. Are intolerance and inequality inextricably linked? Or is there a way for those in the minority to allow their voices to be heard?

TB: I would say that the relationship between toleration and equality on the one hand and intolerance and inequality on the other is less tight, maybe, than we’d assume it would be. The idea that they are inextricably connected is itself a product of a particular history, and a specific understanding of what toleration looks like institutionally.

Historically, we often have a kind of de facto toleration of religious minorities, [who] don’t enjoy equal rights. The idea that toleration demands a kind of status equality, of equal citizenship—that is really a radical, fringe, weird position, advocated by only the crackpot crazies in the 17th century, most of whom were religious radicals. My favorite is of course Roger Williams. And one of the things I try to point out in the book is that we take that solution for granted, but it’s not obvious. It’s actually pretty aberrant in the history of human societies and politics. The idea that the solution to the problem of people fighting about their religious differences is that you should give people equal rights—that’s not obvious at all.

This is a great example of what political theory can do for us. We think of [equality and toleration] as always going together, but in fact they’re more contingently connected. You might conclude from that, “okay we should care less about equality” or “we should care less about toleration,” but that is not actually the conclusion I want to draw. We have to think a lot more seriously about how these [ideas] connect and how we can defend or justify the institutions which treat them as connected—and not take them for granted.

VRoP: One prominent area of “incivility” is online comment sections. How does anonymity play into civil discourse? How have recent technologies such as the internet changed the nature of civil discourse?

TB: I’m not an expert on norms of discussion in online fora, and I say that simply because I do know that such experts exist. I think it's intuitive to think that anonymity leads to more uncivil disagreement—that people don’t feel responsible, they divorce themselves from [their] words, they see [online and in person] as different worlds. I would say that part of the contemporary perception that there’s a crisis of civility has to do with a kind of incivility of disagreement on the internet, [and] technological transformations that have led to more anonymous debate and a greater sense of the distance between us and our opponents.

That being said, I don’t think that the transformations introduced by the internet are unprecedented and therefore require solutions that are entirely new [or that] contravene principles of liberal democracy. Of course, what I’m thinking about here is the idea that, “well because of the challenges of the internet, we need to abandon principles of free speech, embrace greater censorship, or introduce a new kind of authority that’s going to police the internet.” That’s a non sequitur, and part of what I want to do in the book is show that the liberal institutions we think are inadequate to deal with the epidemic of uncivil speech that we are confronting today, these were developed precisely in response to an earlier epidemic of uncivil speech. We need to understand them as solutions to that problem before we dismiss them as having nothing to do with the problems we’re dealing with today.

VRoP: I recently read a paper on Halloween as a time of open expression of racist ideologies. Your own alma mater, Yale, where you received your PhD, had a controversy a few years ago about racially insensitive halloween costumes. To what extent does the notion of “mere civility” extend beyond words and actions, and into expressions such as costumes?

TB: Mere civility is a “conversational” virtue in its most expansive 17th-century sense. What do I mean by that? Well, we often think of conversation as being primarily about logos, about speech and the exchange of arguments. But conversation in the sense of early modern political thought means any kind of interaction, so conversational virtue does apply to expression, and speech in its broadest sense. The wearing of a Halloween costume, the carrying of a placard, or the wearing of a t-shirt: I understand these expansively as speech or expression to which civility is the relevant virtue. But here, mere civility makes stronger demands on the listeners or recipients of the speech than of the person wearing the costume. Mere civility would dictate that one not choose a costume with the thought of offending or attacking a particular group or subgroup, but similarly it says that what we can control most of all is our response to that disrespectful or uncivil speech.

In the case of Halloween costumes, I think one of the questions that arose in the Yale discussion was what kind of speech or expression should be permissible in a modern university, as a tolerant society. Aren’t certain types of speech, of expression, of Halloween costumes, intolerable from the perspective of our tolerant society? I think that understanding this as a question of civility can help us here. The debate is really about how we should draw the boundaries of our [conversational] community and whom we must exclude in order for it to be the kind of community we want. But as soon as you realize that the question is about whom to silence and whom to exclude, it becomes more difficult to do so in the name of tolerance, inclusion, and social harmony!

As may be clear from the book and my more popular writings, I would identify myself as a kind of “free-speech fundamentalist.” I think that universities, insofar as they occupy a very important position within liberal democracies, need to err on the side of maximal toleration for views deemed “offensive,” “uncivil,” “hateful,” etc. But even if you don’t accept that position, I think the frame of understanding such questions as questions about civility in a tolerant society is a helpful way of understanding the dynamics of what’s going on.

VRoP: Recently, many speakers on college campuses, such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Charles Murray, have been protested by students because of perceived discriminatory and exclusive views. With regards to perceived racial insensitivities and diversity of opinion, how should colleges, idealized as spaces of free discourse, balance freedom of speech with cultural sensitivity?

TB: I think that every student, every faculty member, and every administrator should ask her or himself everyday, “what is a university for?” It’s really essential. I struggle to understand how “providing a culture of sensitivity” can be an answer to that question. A version of [that answer] might be “I think a university is for the provision of an inclusive, and ‘safe’, space for learning, and ethical and character development.” But I think that that’s a slightly different answer than “cultural sensitivity,” and it immediately raises questions about “what is development” and “how does development happen?”

What I’ve noticed in my brief career thus far as a professor is a kind of discomfort among my colleagues about what, exactly, is meant to happen in the three or four years a student is in university. I always thought what was supposed to happen was something called “education,” which is a kind of transformation and (from educare in Latin) a “leading forth”: We [your teachers] lead you out of your state, and you leave University different, as someone else, other than the you who came in. I don’t know if that idea is necessarily as shared as I thought it was. We may be shifting to an idea of universities as “expressive” [rather than “educational”] spaces, where students come in and try to discover and express their identity in a supportive environment. I tend to think that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what a university can, let alone must, be in a free society.

But now I’ve gotten far afield of your particular examples, indeed. Milo Yiannopoulos and Charles Murray, I think that these are different cases. Not different in the sense that my institutional advice would be different—I think that in both cases if they’re invited to speak at your university you should give a platform to both—but my reasons for this are different.

In the case of Yiannopoulos, I think that students are very often unaware of the extent to which their actions reach audiences beyond themselves. Yiannopoulos wants nothing more than to be protested, silenced, and disinvited. That’s like handing someone the cross on which he [wants] to martyr himself. If you care about not giving Yiannopoulos and others like him a platform, then the worst thing you can do is to deny him a platform once it’s been extended! You don’t have to invite him, but if the invitation happens, there’s something really counterproductive about the student responses. It becomes more about signalling one’s opposition to his message—but this perversely amplifies the message. It allows him to turn himself into a martyr.

With Charles Murray, I think it’s a more difficult case because the problem with Middlebury wasn’t that students were protesting; it was that they actually [physically] attacked Murray and the other professor with whom he was speaking. I’m all for student protests, as a free-speech fundamentalist, I think you should absolutely protest, but as soon as it extends into physical violence and exercising the “heckler's veto” [by not letting people into the venue and shouting down speakers] it's a violation of the principle on which the protesters themselves are relying. This is the key point and what I say to students: You’re going to miss your principles when they’re gone. Free speech is a principle, which means you must extend it to those with whom you disagree. It’s very easy for an observer of [the Middlebury protest] to say, “okay, your principle is free speech—but for me, not for thee.” And [the person] silenced in the name of equality can say, “you don’t care about equality at all, you care about reserving special privileges and rights to yourself and then denying them to people who disagree with you!”

And I think that that’s the key point about principles: they must be extended even when—I’m with the ACLU on this—and most emphatically when, it’s most difficult to do so. That’s not to say we’re all going to feel good about it. In fact, I think we’re all going to feel pretty bad. But that sort of feeling of the badness [and the difficulty of toleration] is essential to becoming an educated person. That’s my theory and vision of the university, but it’s a debate that we need to, and will continue to have.

VRoP: What are your picks to win the NCAA tournament?

TB: Oh jeepers, you’re going to get me in trouble! Well, as a North Carolinian, I probably have to say UNC. But actually, no—I’ll say “I don’t engage in partisan contests.” I would have sided with neither the Blues nor the Greens in the Hippodrome. That’s a Byzantium joke; you should all study the history of political thought.