“When once the forms of civility are violated, there remains little hope of return to kindness and decency.” – British author Samuel Johnson
While there are benefits to political correctness in the context of respect and civility, it does go too far when it stifles free speech.
In a letter to incoming students at the University of Chicago, John Ellison clearly laid out what they could expect.
“Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
The Chicago Tribune writes (Aug. 25), “The letter included a link to a university report issued by its Committee on Freedom of Expression, established in 2015, to articulate the university’s policy on free expression.
“ ‘It is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive,’ the report states. ‘Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.’ ”
While some have argued that the letter comes as a result of a backlash to lawsuits brought against colleges and universities for sponsoring controversial speakers, the purpose of a school is to help students gain the knowledge necessary to navigate the world. Part of that knowledge comes from listening to others with whom we may not agree. Nonetheless, that knowledge can be presented in a respectful way.
In Stephen Carter’s 1998 book, Civility, the Yale law professor points out that Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “democracy itself ‘can be seen not only as a type of government but as a system of manners, a form of social life.’ ”
Using the French diplomat’s thesis, Carter offers a list of manners that he calls “the etiquette of democracy”:
- Our duty to be civil toward others does not depend on whether we like them or not.
Carter amplifies on a point that carries particular significance in our current election cycle.
“As a matter of democratic politics, this rule is perfectly sensible. Whatever may be the rights and obligations that we distribute in a democracy, we should not limit them to the people who happen to be our friends or who think as we do. This suggests in turn that even politicians mired in difficult campaigns, or activists fighting their desperate battles, should take care to show others the respect that fellow citizens deserve. Otherwise, we are kidding ourselves if we imagine that the step from disrespecting those we dislike to disrespecting the electoral process in which they, rather than we, emerge victorious is a particularly large one.”
- Civility requires that we sacrifice for strangers, not just the people we know.
“…the struggle to protect the democratic freedoms of those we know well should not be different from the struggle to protect the democratic freedoms of those we do not know at all.”
- Civility has two parts: generosity, even when it is costly, and trust, even when there is risk.
“Civility proposes… that we should trust that the judgment of others is as good as our own.”
- Civility creates not merely a negative duty to do no harm, but an affirmative duty to do good.
- Civility requires a commitment to live a common moral life, so we should try to follow the norms of the community if the norms are not actually immoral.
“The trust that civility requires of us sometimes means that we must accept the moral judgments of others. This may seem antithetical to freedom but actually is essential to it. … Of course, if we are to follow most of the norms of our community, we must also take a hand in shaping them, through moral conversation, and the community itself must welcome conversation about moral truth, in order to create a moral world in which most citizens will want to participate.”
- We must come into the presence of our fellow human beings with a sense of awe and gratitude.
“We must not encounter our fellow citizens with suspicion or pessimism or hostility; we must encounter them with the realization that they are as fully remarkable as we are…”
- Civility assumes that we will disagree; it requires us not to mask our differences but to resolve them respectfully.
“We must never make the mistake of supposing that democracy requires consensus. It does not. It requires debate, which in turn presupposes that we do indeed have disagreements. But civility demands of us that we not allow those disagreements to push us into words or acts of sharp offense or violence. I do not mean that nothing is worth fighting for – only that the number of things worth fighting for should, in a democracy, be small. If the number seems large, it is unlikely that democracy is any longer the proper word for our society.”
- Civility requires that we listen to others with knowledge of the possibility that they are right and we are wrong.
“This process, which I call civil listening, is as the heart of the dialogue that allows democracy to function. The function of debate in a truly civil society is not only to prevail; the function is to allow the best idea to win out.”
- Civility requires that we express ourselves in ways that demonstrate our respect for others.
“So much for negative campaigning. And demonizing our opponents. And adopting, in everyday language, the habit of using violence or offensive words and phrases. We show respect for ourselves and others when we trouble ourselves to think carefully about what we say, rather than grabbing for the first expletive that comes to mind.”
- Civility requires resistance to the dominance of social life by the values of the marketplace. Thus, the basic principles of civility—generosity and trust—should apply as fully in the market and in politics as in every other human activity.
“Perhaps the greatest threat to reconstructing civility is the tendency in recent decades of the values of the market (and, to a lesser extent, of politics) to dominate the rest of social life. … The accident of the line of work in which you find yourself is almost never an excuse for incivility, with the exception, perhaps, of those who must defend our country (and sometimes our streets) from violent assaults and therefore must be prepared to be violent in return. But the old saw that some professions – law, for example, or journalism – require incivility is not more than an excuse for moral laziness.”
- Civility allows for criticism of others, and sometimes even requires it, but the criticism should always be civil.
- Civility discourages the use of legislation rather than conversation to settle disputes, except as a last, carefully considered resort.
“…we tend to rush toward legislation and regulation – in short, toward coercive means of correction – whenever we spot a problem and believe we have found the solution. Conservatives seem to think that only liberals do this, and vice versa, but the truth is that everybody does. … When we legislate as soon as we think we have the answer, we forget to engage in civil listening.”
- Teaching civility, by word and deed, is an obligation of the family. The state must not interfere with the family’s effort to create a coherent moral universe for its children.
- Civility values diversity, disagreement, and the possibility of resistance, and therefore the state must not use education to try to standardize our children.
“The education of children is of vital importance, but raising smart children is not substitute for raising moral children.”
- Religions do their greatest service to civility when they preach not only love of neighbor but resistance to wrong.
In re-examining my report card from Sister Marie’s First Grade class at Immaculate Conception School, I noticed that while the front side lists the grades on various subjects, the reverse lists characteristics of comportment. Among them: “Careful of Property,” “Listens Attentively,” “Speaks Clearly,” and “Respects Rights of Others.”
I was surprised to see that while I dropped from an “A” at the beginning of the term to a “C” in “Respects Rights of Others,” I ended the year with an “A.”
However, I dropped from an “A” to a “B-” in “Attentive Listening.” I hope I’ve changed in the years since.
Coming Friday: Colin Kaepernick