Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Civility Matters

by Jeremiah Ho


While admittedly I’m not usually a huge follower of David Brooks’ conservativism at The New York Times, I do agree with his comments about the decline of our social capitalism here in the U.S. as we have become more isolated across ethnic, diverse, and class lines.  Specifically, he observes that the source of such isolation is philosophical:  “We chose the wrong philosophers,” he said to interviewer Robert Costa.  As he elaborated further, Brooks remarked that we chose John Stuart Mill when we should have chosen Martin Buber, we chose Jeremy Bentham over Viktor Frankl, and likewise we chose Descartes over Saint Augustine.  

For Brooks, Mill impressed upon us a very individualistic worldview, when Buber offered a more communitarian perspective. Frankl’s idea that people were motivated by a search for meaningful, moral lives have been ignored in the light of Bentham’s pleasure versus pain principles.  Consequently, Brooks thinks that our society has become “too economic, too social sciency, and too utilitarian, and not enough moralistic.”  Descartes reached for the cognitive and rational when Saint Augustine focused on the emotional.  All in all, Brooks said, “And so basically we've turned into shells of ourselves and that's cut down on intimacy, and it's had these devastating social effects. But it's ideas that drive behavior, and I think we have some of the wrong ideas.”

One of these ideas, in my opinion, is about civility in public discourse. Instead of focusing on civility, many of us collectively—left and right—have been sidetracked toward the debate over political correctness as the way to confront or prevent marginalization of diverse viewpoints and visibility of particular issues.  Particularly as I see that the civility versus political correctness issue affects the development of human dignity and rights issues, I am starting the first of three posts on civility and authenticity here on this blog.              

 Besides David Brooks’ interview on Charlie Rose, the other inspiration for this first of three blog posts on civility was Keith Bybee’s book, How Civility Works, which I picked up at the exhibition hall at AALS this past January.  Bybee is the Paul E. and the Hon. Joanne F. Alper ’72 Judiciary Studies Professor of Law and Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University.  The size of the book (80+ pages) makes it more a pamphlet.  Yet, how many times in history have we seen pamphlets wield influence over the distribution of ideas?  Through almost a cultural studies lens, Bybee’s book here examines the purported “crisis” (his quotes, not mine) of civility in American discourse by observing what civility means and the history of civility as it relates to public debates in American society. 

What ends up very clear in How Civility Works is that civility, as a form of manners and a code of public behavior, can and has possessed a plurality of historical meanings as it has co-existed alongside our rambunctious American contrarianism (Chapter 2).  But what Bybee examines further is the tension that civility has on individual liberty—exactly the individuality explored by John Stuart Mill—and its potential threat to inhibit First Amendment free speech. Although civility can inhibit free speech, Bybee argues that civility can also underwrite free speech by facilitating a means of communication that reflects good character and personal decency (Chapter 3).  Such a means of communication through civility must embody authenticity, however, or risk a hypocritical exploitation of civility that leads to immoral behavior masked under false politeness; in other words, one’s civility must be real and that “realness” or authenticity is a moral virtue (Chapter 4). Finally, in order to fulfill civil discourse that is authentic but not overwhelming, Bybee suggests that discourse must utilize a balanced version of civility that not only sustains exchange of free ideas and promotes inclusivity but also is cautious of its chilling effects on free speech and reproduction of hierarchies (Chapter 5).  Its paradoxes are also its virtues. 

In sum, Bybee’s work here is prescient for recognizing how significant and importance functional dialogue is to a liberal society—and I mean “liberal” with a post-Enlightenment capital “L” and not necessarily “liberal” in its American political meaning. In the age of extremist ideas about populism and nationalism (ideas that can lead to marginalization, discrimination, and even violence), civility is sidestepped and reinterpreted as political correctness or seen as an inauthentic means of self-victimization that ought not to be given any credence.  What does this have to do with human rights?  Just watch and listen to the rhetoric in the Keystone pipeline debate, the tone of misogyny in women’s rights issues, or the political debates regarding transgender individuals and restroom use.  The lack of civility is a first step in marginalization and denying the inherent humanity of different people and their views.  It is also an assertion of power over another.  Reading Bybee’s book is a must in this age of conflict and separatism.

 My next post in this series will further address the topic of political correctness as a strawman for getting rid of civility in public discourse.

 How Civility Works. By Keith J. ByBee. Stanford University Press. 2016. Pp. 80. $12.99.




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