Friday, August 5, 2011

Civility: It’s All the Rage

Only a few short months ago in Wisconsin, protesters engaged in what the Christian Science Monitor called, a “week of rage” through protests over the governor’s budgetary cuts that would weaken collective bargaining power of public employees. Their rage was compared to that expressed by tea party activists over the past two years and even activists leading the protest that caused Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to resign.

In late February the University of Arizona announced the establishment of a National Institute for Civil Discourse, naming former presidents Clinton and Bush (Sr.) as chairs. Acting in the wake of the violent rampage in Arizona that took the lives of 6 people and maimed 19 others, including Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Arizona Board of Regents member Fred DuVal charged the Institute with the task of defining “best practices and corrosive practices” in debate. He asked, “How do we nurture robustness on one hand and not in any way chill speech, and keep it in bounds that are not destructive to democracy? Will it change the nature of dialogue? That will be a tall order.”

We are left wondering, when policies or actions are deeply worrisome or especially egregious, is “civil” discourse the best approach? We are reminded of noted Duke University historian William Chafe’s assessment of Civil Rights Era efforts: “From a black point of view, of course, the ground rules, or ‘civilities,’ were often just a way of delaying action.” Citizens, especially those who actively protest, need to find ways to say what they think without targeting and vilifying those with whom they disagree. But who decides what is “egregious” enough to warrant civil unrest that stops governments from working, that closes businesses and schools, and that draws comparisons between Madison, Wisconsin and Cairo, Egypt? Are we going to justify the mode of political participation by the outcome such that perhaps only protest could have forced Mubarak to resign, whereas civil deliberation might be more effective in Wisconsin?

Many colleges across the country, especially those rocked by budget, tuition, and collective-bargaining protests in recent months, increasingly feel pressured to maintain or restore civility by calling for respectful, tolerant, and considerate action that avoids ad hominem attacks, and especially outright violence, against others. Admittedly, civility is generally beneficial at universities and throughout public life because it brings courtesy and consideration to discussions that may touch on difficult or even anger-inducing subjects, discussions that might otherwise get out of hand or devolve into malicious accusations or hurtful statements. Civility works to establish stable environments where points of difference can be explored.

But aligned with an important distinction recently made by Peter Levine, director of Tufts University Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, we don’t think that colleges and universities should teach students to be civil and respectful. We believe colleges and universities should teach students about civility and respect. For as Levine explains, “Civility is not a self-evident or transcendent good. It can promote fair, responsible, participatory democracy, but it can also trade off against other democratic values. Civility is welcome by, and likely to benefit, some citizens more than others, and is likely to help in some situations more than in others …The ethical question is how to think about civility if promoting it would have asymmetrical effects? (p. 13).”

While there is much to value in campuses and classrooms that uphold civility, we fear that blanket imposition or straightforward teaching of civility may restrict the important work of democracy undertaken by many of today’s protestors. Strict expectations of cordial behavior may stifle dissent, for dissenters sometimes need a space for impassioned outcry. They may need to be able to express frustration and articulate ideas that overtly challenge mainstream or dominant beliefs and may do so in ways that don’t conform to traditionally accepted ways of civilly communicating. In the case of marginalized people, like those Chafe chronicles in his work, they may need to use forms of expression that dominant participants may see as outside the accepted approaches of civil conversation. In college classrooms norms of civility can prevent young dissenters from speaking out, even when they are justified in doing so, because they fear (or fear punishment for) disrupting the classroom community, leading the class away from central subject material, expressing uncivil emotions, being ostracized, or hurting other people’s feelings. Pressures to be polite can lead participants to temper or censure their passionate feelings and thereby curtail their move toward action. Norms of civility can also prevent some participants from listening or responding to the worthwhile contributions of others when those contributions are seen as biased, hysterical, angry, or otherwise uncivil. Alternatively, some participants can hide behind a mask of civility, thereby burying problematic emotions like fear or resentment and biases against certain peoples by maintaining a calm façade.

We are not suggesting that classroom or general public civility be abolished; rather, we want educators to be more critical of how civility might silence certain voices, might empower some participants to write off the contributions of others, and might actually stifle real political change, which requires acts and speeches that disrupt the peaceful status quo—an element all too often wrapped up with the stable environments that civility seeks to preserve. Civility must be balanced with appropriate and justified moments of incivility in order for dissenters to raise problems, especially those of injustice, that need to be ameliorated in order for democracy to proceed or flourish.

We hope that campuses are seizing these teachable moments in history. Colleges and universities should be teaching students to think critically about whether civility is a value, how it can conflict with other values, and how, at times, it can be employed or disregarded by good people doing their best under challenging circumstances.

Sarah Stitzlein and guest contributor Nancy Thomas of the Democracy Imperative

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