Reflections on the Civility Forum

By Nicholaos Jones, philosophy professor, University of Alabama-Huntsville
*Winner of the 2011 Whetstone-Seaman Faculty Development Award

Glenn Dasher, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at UA-Huntsville, asked me to write an essay for the civility forum in August 2010. I agreed, even though my only professional exposure to thinking about issues of politics and morality is an introduction to ethics course I teach every semester. The theme of that course is how to use ethical theories as guides for resolving conflicting (or potentially conflicting) desires. My essay is an attempt to develop this theme on a political level, where conflicts occur among people’s different values. The basic idea for the structure of the paper comes from Plato’s Republic, where an investigation of the nature of justice leads Socrates and his interlocutors to imagine different sociopolitical structures and, ultimately, to use their conclusions about the nature of justice in a city to draw conclusions about the nature of justice in the soul, a city in microcosm. Plato’s conclusion in the Republic is that a person is just when there is harmony among the three different parts of the soul—appetite, emotion, and reason. My analysis differs from Plato’s in three important ways: first, in focusing on the nature of civility rather than the nature of justice; second, in not following Plato’s rigid division of the soul into discrete parts, each with its own distinctive function; third, in striving to accommodate the democratic spirit of honoring even priorities that are, from certain evaluative perspectives, corrupt or misguided. But, despite these differences, I think the most interesting part of my essay leans heavily on Plato’s insight that political virtues, such as justice and civility, depend for their realization upon the existence of those virtues within individuals.

For the most part, the panelists for the civility forum focused their comments on the political themes of my essay rather than the psychological themes. This strikes me as a helpful and legitimate focus, since the point of the forum was to discuss civility in a political context and since people tend to think of civility as a political virtue rather than a personal one, as a way of treating others rather than a way of treating oneself. Each of the panelists, moreover, offered excellent food for thought about what civility means in a political context, and I’d like to use the rest of this post to offer some brief and friendly responses to their ideas.

Mr. Lennox suggested that the source of incivility is a gap between how we know we should behave and how we actually behave, and he advocated, as a solution to this gap, a principle of non-interference according to which we ought not impose our values upon each other. I agree with Mr. Lennox that there often is a gap of the sort he mentioned. But I think the source of incivility runs deeper. We often do not know how we should behave; the pathways of right and wrong tend to be snarled and jumbled (to use a phrase from Zhuangzi), if only because our society is one in which there are many competing moral ideals and our lives are ones in which we lack any obvious way of discriminating between correct ideals and false ones. Since civility is precisely that virtue that allows us to engage with others in the presence of moral uncertainty, the source of incivility must involve, at least in part, how we react to that uncertainty. For similar reasons, although non-interference is a central value of liberal societies, it is not sufficient as a solution to incivility, since situations in which reacting to moral uncertainty is challenging tend to be ones in which non-interference is not an option. (Paradigm example of what I have in mind here are political policy and law making, which by nature interfere with our behaviors.)

Dr. Jackson suggested that courtesy is the key to promoting civility. I agree that courtesy is a key ingredient of civil behavior, and that lack of courtesy is one way in which incivility manifests itself. However, there are different codes of conduct regarding how to be courteous. Dr. Jackson touted the code of the southern gentleman. But even if this code were able to be developed in a way that does not promote or reinforce unjust or otherwise immoral political structures, there are other codes for how to be courteous, and this diversity among codes makes it likely that there will be some situations in which the codes offer conflicting guidance for how to be courteous. When these situations arise, being courteous is not enough for being civil, especially when behaviors that are courteous according to one code come off as discourteous, and even corrupt, according to another code.

Ms. Romey offered invaluable reports of her on-the-ground experiences with incivility among high school students. Like Mr. Lennox and Dr. Jackson, she raised the question about why our public discourse has become saturated with incivility. The answer I have to offer for her question about why, when compared to the 1960s, we tend to be more uncivil to each other now, is that there is less uniformity and more diversity in public life today than in the 1960s. When the level of consensus about fundamental values and priorities decreases, we should expect the level of incivility to decrease as well, because absence of consensus raises the frequency with which we must engage with those with whom we disagree and thereby raises the opportunities we have to polarize ourselves and attempt to silence or disenfranchise those who advocate competing ideals.

Mr. Stewart emphasized respect as a key ingredient of civility, and he made the excellent point that the basic message of the civil rights movement was not that we ought to be civil toward each other, but instead that we ought to respect each others’ humanity. I agree with all of his comments, and I want to add only that civility involves more than respect: it involves communicating that respect in a sincere way. This was one of the points I tried to make in discussing different ways in which societies might try to be civil societies.

Representing the college student perspective on civility, Ms. Smith offered some helpful insights about what it’s like to be a college student today and the ways in which incivility manifests itself in college classrooms. She also suggested that we should teach civility in all college-level courses, not just special courses devoted to the topic. This strikes me as an excellent idea, especially since civility, like other virtues, is best realized through repeated and habitual practice. But I think more is required. I tried to argue in my essay that if we want people to be civil toward each other, we need to do more than discuss ideas–we need people to be civil to themselves. The next question to ask, of course, is how we can do that. Here I think we need to focus on engaging people bodily rather than just intellectually; we need to create conditions that engage people’s outward performances in ways that prompt internal change, in much the same way that Christians pray or do Stations of the Cross, and Buddhists meditate, in order to alter internal attitudes. One of the audience members at the forum, Mr. Charles McGee, suggested bread and soup luncheons as a way of getting people to engage with those who have different moral perspectives; I encourage my ethics students to perform community service, as a way of gaining exposure to people with whom they would not normally interact. But more work needs to be done here, both in terms of discovering the kinds of practices that promote intrapersonal civility and in terms of getting people to engage in those practices.

*To read Nick Jones’ paper on civility, along with the runner-up and other finalists for the Whetstone-Seaman Faculty Development Award, please visit the Alabama Humanities Review.