BOSTON — At a time when many Americans believe there’s a profound lack of civility in society, leading thinkers gathered Friday to talk about civility in history, culture and the media.
In a forum presented by the University of Massachusetts Boston’s new Center for Civil Discourse, participants were challenged to think about the state of civility. (Disclosure: WBUR was the forum media partner.)
Even though half of the public thinks there’s little civility today, several historians say it used to be worse — a lot worse. In 1856 Mass. Sen. Charles Sumner, an abolitionist, was nearly caned to death in the Senate chamber. And some speakers at the time used to burn the Constitution to make a point. So while today’s rhetoric is heated, it is less violent that is used to be.
“I do not think that we are in uncharted territory,” said Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy at the forum. Kennedy says we don’t remember our own history. “These civility crises come up periodically. Fifteen years ago people were talking about a civility crisis. We live in a rambunctious democracy where there is going to be conflict.”
Harvard Law professor
Another speaker pointed out that political conversations today are different because the explosion of new media has made them more widespread.
Beyond the historical perspective, a WBUR poll released this week shows currently 83 percent of people in Massachusetts say that leaders in Washington cannot work together as well as they used to.
The survey, conducted by MassINC, also asked if the overall tone of politics in this state is more courteous than in the rest of the country. By a 5 percent margin, people agreed it is better here in the Bay State.
Friday’s forum also looked at whether civility inhibits dissent. Austin Sarat says it might. The professor of political science at Amherst College said his mother used to tell him that being polite is always right. Sarat said, “Sorry, mom.”
“It’s not always better to be polite than to be right, and breaches of civility do not always threaten democratic dialogue,” Sarat said. “Civility is a secondary, not a primary, moral virtue. And second, we need to be careful to nurture the conditions under which civility can flourish.”
It flourishes more when you understand the perspective of an opposing view, said Alan Wolfe, a professor of political science at Boston College.
“The act of putting yourself in the position of another person presupposes treating that person civilly,” Wolfe said.
But there is a serious breakdown of civility in politics, argued Mark Lilla, an essayist and historian of ideas at Columbia University. He said there’s less respect for well-educated people in politics these days.
“There is something that’s entered our civil discourse that has not only been indifferent to it, but hostile to it,” Lilla said, “an idealization of ignorance, a contempt for learning, for science, and for the so-called elites who master them.”
The media’s role in civility was also examined at Friday’s forum. The key question: is the press part of the problem, or part the solution?