Civility and Its Discontents

On college campuses, discussions of civility have become strikingly uncivil.

The event that has clearly inspired the recent spate of what I would term "anti-civility" declarations was the decision by the University of Illinois to rescind an offer of a tenured professorship to Steven G. Salaita on the basis of comments on Twitter and in other contexts that were perceived--by some--to be at best inflammatory and at worst anti-Semitic. Those who oppose the Salaita decision contend that the university is using the standard of civility as an excuse to restrict academic freedom and to silence voices that challenge authority.

Related arguments have since arisen at other institutions, including the University of California at Berkeley, whose chancellor began the year with a request for civility that has provoked a backlash, and Ohio University, where a controversial You Tube video led the president to appeal for civility, which in turn led once again to claims that the actual attempt was to stifle free speech.

There is nothing fundamentally new about this argument--Benjamin DeMott voiced it with much passion in his 1996 essay, "Seduced by Civility: Political Manners and the Crisis of Democratic Values"--but the Salaita case has lent it considerably more energy and visibility.

Both those who have called for civility and those who have rejected such calls are inclined to define the concept in ways that are, in my view, unhelpful. Berkeley's chancellor observed that "free speech and civility are two sides of a single coin." [1] This is, at best, misleading. Incivility is a necessary corollary of free speech. Free speech would be more easily achieved if everyone were civil; it is more elusive and more precious because it must allow for the fact that some people are not.

On the other side, civility's critics are too quick to equate it with mere politeness or to assume that all calls for civility are calls to silence dissent. To be civil is not, in its most profound sense, to be courteous, and while appeals for civility can certainly be used by those in power to deny agency to those who are not, this is not necessarily or universally the case.

If we are going to argue about civility, let us at least argue about a question more consequential than whether it is good to be polite or whether all leaders who defend civility are tyrants. Let us argue about whether Stephen L. Carter is right when he contends that civility is "an attitude of respect, even love, for our fellow citizens" and that "civility is a moral issue, not just a matter of habit or convention: it is morally better to be civil than to be uncivil." [2]

Now, that is interesting.

My own view is that Carter is correct, though I would extend his argument in a more pragmatic direction. Putting aside moral issues, I believe that civility is more effective than incivility in accomplishing one's goals, particularly if one's goals include the changing of minds or policies. If the aim is chiefly to energize those with whom one already agrees, incivility can be a powerful and seductive tactic; but, like some other seductive things, it can feel good but accomplish little. If the aim is persuasion, civility is more effective in virtually every case.

Few rules apply universally, and it is certainly possible to point to instances in which uncivil behavior changed public policy. But I believe that these instances are greatly outnumbered by those in which it has been ineffective or even counter-productive, and that the change agents most admired and most influential have been masters of civility in the deep sense defined by Carter.

I would also be more sympathetic to those who are outraged by calls for civility in the Salaita case--such as the American Association of University Professors--if they were more consistent in their denunciation of attempts to silence dissent. We have seen during the past year numerous instances on college campuses of speakers who are found objectionable by one group or another being chased away by threats of disruption to events such as commencement. If the Salaita case is a threat to academic freedom and inconsistent with the ideals of the academy, so too are these attempts to bar the gates against those with whose views some--even the majority--disagree. Yet, as far as I know, they have not caused the AAUP to voice cries of protest.

A skeptic might find in this selective umbrage a certain political component.

So long as no actual harm is caused and no one's opportunity to live and work in safety is threatened, rudeness, coarseness, and other varieties of incivility should not be forcibly excluded from a college community. (And anyone who has spent much time on college campuses knows that such forms of behavior are regrettably common and generally tolerated.) They come with the territory of free speech. So too, however, does the right to denounce them and to insist that they will, in the end, be unpersuasive.

1 Nicholas Dirks, message to Berkeley community, 5 September 2014.
2 Stephen L. Carter, Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy (New York: Basic Books, 1998), xii.