The Forum | Freedom of Expression

Restoring Civility to Our National Discourse

July 25, 2018

Political civility “is about disagreeing without disrespect” and “seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences,” according to the Institute for Civility in Government.

Recent polls have shown that a troubling percentage of students from across the political spectrum support using violence in response to ideas they view as disturbing. This is in part because of the growing belief that words are a form of violence, which makes the line between verbal dissent and physical violence much hazier.

American politics has always been home to hotly contested elections, but lately there seems to be a particular hostility underlying national discourse. Since the 2016 presidential election, stories of violence and confrontational behavior have become a regular part of the daily news cycle. Last June, a man opened fire on Republicans practicing for a congressional baseball game, an attack that nearly took the life of House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA). Just two months later in Charlottesville, white nationalists and supremacists converged on the city for a rally, which later resulted in one death and 19 injuries among the counter-protesters after an alleged rally participant barraged through the group using his vehicle.

The fiery rhetoric on both sides has continued unabated, and the line between protests and violence is blurring. This effect is evident on college campuses with confrontational political rallies, violent protests, and the employment of the “heckler’s veto.” This has led to high-profile, well-documented disturbances on campuses including Middlebury College, University of California–Berkeley, and Evergreen State College.

The trend toward violence is dangerous, and if it continues, civility will cease to exist in the national conversation. Yet some have suggested that civility isn’t worth fighting for because it can be used by those in power to dictate the terms of debate. However, that is precisely the sort of problem that political civility is designed to protect against. Ultimately, political civility is a two-way street, and it is just as important that those with power show civility in their conduct. The American people agree, stating that civility in politics is not only possible but is also a prerequisite for a healthy democracy.

Will Higher Education Take the Lead?

The fight to save civility must start on college campuses. The Weekly Standard recently explained that, although Americans take civility for granted, it is not natural to the human condition. Similarly, Hannah Arendt, a German-born American philosopher who fled Nazi Germany, wrote that “every generation, civilization is invaded by barbarians—we call them ‘children’.” Civility is not an innate skill and must be taught to each subsequent generation. Colleges must rise to meet that challenge.

In Building a Culture of Free Expression on the American College Campus: Challenges & Solutions, an essay published by ACTA in April, Professor Joyce Lee Malcolm discusses a landmark report presented by Yale University’s Committee on Freedom of Expression that “identified the ‘primary function of a university’ to be the dissemination of knowledge through research and teaching by promoting the free exchange of ideas, which needs the ‘fullest degree of intellectual freedom.’” If that is the primary function of a university, institutions must equip students through a strong liberal arts education with the tools necessary to engage in constructive civil dialogue.

A strong liberal arts education prioritizes instilling in students a deep appreciation for the importance of civility; only through civil dialogue can students engage in the free exchange of ideas that is at the core of an enriching college experience. College campuses must be bastions of free thought, incubators for innovative ideas, and, above all, safe. Only then can students be empowered to voice and debate their ideas without fear of censorship. These campuses can serve as an example to the rest of the country and can begin to reintroduce the American people to the Founding-era principle of political civility.

In Campus Intolerance: Then & Now, an essay published by ACTA in February, Professor Guenter Lewy argues that while administrators may not have the best track record on protecting the free exchange of ideas on campus, they must take initiative to change speech codes and similar restrictions that chill intellectual discourse. He cites the Chicago Principles as a model for protecting speech. These guiding principles emphasize a commitment to defending free expression and encouraging members of academia to respond to objectionable speech not by suppressing it, “but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas they oppose.”

Speech codes are a symptom; the real disease is a culture on campuses of conformity and intolerance. To facilitate civil conversations, it is necessary for faculty and administrators at universities to foster an environment of intellectual curiosity, where students can seek out knowledge both in and out of the classroom. Liberal arts colleges ought to be leading this charge to develop lifelong learners and quality members of civil society.

Ryan Ansloan is currently an intern on ACTA’s guidance counselor project and is a law student at the Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of New Mexico.


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