Over two dozen students and faculty members gathered during lunch hour Wednesday in the Quigley Auditorium to take part in an interactive presentation on the concept of civility.
The presentation, titled “Can Civility Fail Us? A Critical Examination of a Celebrated Concept,” was given by students in the Andrew Goodman Foundation’s Vote Everywhere project and prompted a lengthy discussion over virtues and vices linked to the ubiquitous term.
Andrew Bloeser, assistant professor of political science and adviser to students in the Andrew Goodman Foundation, kicked off the event by speaking about the organization’s history and goals for the ensuing discussion.
“(Andrew Goodman) was a civil rights activist who lost his life in Freedom Summer when he and two other activists were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan,” Bloeser said. “His legacy lives on today with the Andrew Goodman Foundation which attempts to promote not just civic engagement, but thoughtful and critical civic engagement. It’s in that spirit that we bring you this town hall meeting.”
The students presenting on behalf of the Andrew Goodman Foundation were Candaisy Crawford, ’19, Samantha Darris, ’21, Mia Cota-Robles Rossi, ’21, and Gabby Dorsey, ’22. The presentation began with a reminder of how relevant the discussion about civility is for the Allegheny community in wake of recent displays of incivility.
“I don’t know if anyone remembers, but last year, there was the Baldwin incident where racial slurs were carved into the doors of students of color on campus as well as swastikas drawn on the doors of Jewish students,” Darris said. “So, incivility is definitely something that we see on this campus.”
Darris pointed to the racial bias incident that sparked protests last semester over the college administration’s handling of a case where a racial slur was spoken directly to a student of color, as well as data indicating incivility is perceived to be on the rise across the nation despite civility being purported to have high value.
“We came to the understanding that civility is about understanding and problem solving, especially when it comes to politics,” Crawford said. “Incivility can really get in the way of that sometimes and people can stop focusing on the problems we’re trying to solve.”
Given the disparity between civility’s value and the way people act, Crawford then asked the audience how much they think Americans are committed to upholding civility — not just using it to further their own interests.
“I think our commitment to civility often appears to be more rhetorical in nature,” Quinn Broussard, ’22, said. “It often seems to me as though people tend to evoke it as a kind of silencing tactic when people try to have discussions about things that are important rather than actually promoting respect for different viewpoints.”
Next, Cota-Robles Rossi presented a graph which displayed results from a survey conducted by the Center for Political Participation regarding the type of people who would be more willing to dismiss the concept of civility altogether in order to uphold their own ideas of what America should be like.
Answers to the survey indicated relative levels of hostility toward immigrants and women and the graph showed that those who had higher levels of resentment toward these groups were more likely to sacrifice civility to preserve their ideas of the American way of life.
With this information in mind, Dorsey asked the audience if they thought civility could fail in the quest to achieve more helpful and effective political communication.
“I’m wondering if we can have civility in a context where people can’t respect each other enough to acknowledge that something wasn’t civil,” responded Sharon Wesoky, professor of political science. “Unless we’re able to have the kind of mutual respect to listen to what different sides see as uncivil or not, then civility doesn’t exist.”
Dorsey said too much emphasis on civility can mask prejudice with polite manners and perpetuates threatening tendencies to dilute political debate.
“If you hold hostile ideologies but you present them in a civil manner, that’s okay under the assumption that civility is the ultimate goal to achieve in our democracy,” Dorsey said. “It can also be used to stifle debate … if you are afraid of disagreeing with someone because you view it as uncivil you are less likely to debate with them, and debate is healthy for democracy.”
Dorsey expressed concern for what the notion of civility can do to the messages of marginalized groups. She critiqued the idea that there is an obligation for those who have been treated unjustly to respond in terms that would be considered civil by the standards of those same unjust social power groups and how, if they are not perceived to be meeting those standards, their messages often become disenfranchised.
The group then discussed data from a CPP poll that showed 59 percent of people interviewed believe it is uncivil to judge others negatively for holding different beliefs and 51 percent believed it was uncivil to publicly criticize those who disagree.
“Pause on that, and think about whether you can have a political conversation that involves disagreement where you might have a strong position if 59 percent of people … do not want to have a conversation if there could be a disagreement where people judge each other negatively,” Bloeser said. “Can you have political debate in a democracy if you don’t have some kind of disagreement and ability to criticize people who have a different point of view? It becomes very challenging.”
The audience was then asked whether or not there were values or qualities that could be more useful to achieving a more perfect democracy in light of civility’s potential shortcomings.
“When we were talking about this we came up with justice as a more valuable ideology than civility,” Crawford said. “Civility is kind of trained to get to justice in our society, and especially in our democracy that’s what we’re striving for.”
“I think justice, just like civility, can be subject to change and subject to people’s interpretation and, as we talked about before, subject to power,” said Rebekah Alexander, ’19. “For me, I would say a quality we should strive to emphasize or value would be disagreement. Because isn’t being able to disagree with one another the fundamental idea of civility and justice?”
“I think what we should value is diversity,” said Lidia Gebrekirstos, ’21. “Diversity of race, thought, ideology … and tolerance for each other.”
The discussion then turned toward Allegheny’s Prize for Civility in Public Life, which is awarded once per year to two public servants from opposing sides who display remarkable acts of civility.
Bloeser asked the audience if they thought civility was something the college should be honoring above other concepts and whether they thought Martin Luther King Jr. would have won the award in 1963 when much of his peaceful demonstrations were considered uncivil.
“We might need to ask ourselves, is (civility) the thing that we would like to honor most?” Bloeser said.
The presentation ended with the group urging the audience to continue examining their thoughts on civility, questioning what it really means to be civil and asking themselves whether civility is really what democracy should strive toward most.
“We’re at a liberal arts college and we need to be thinking critically about the limitations of civility a concept,” Bloeser said. “We need to be thinking about ways which perhaps civility can leave problems in place and not sufficiently address them, we need to be thinking about ways in which a commitment to civility above all else might actually contribute to and compound social and political problems.”