September 28, 2010
Civility in a Fractured Society

Moderator Kathryn Kennison and Panelists Chairman Jim Leach, Rabbi Sandy Sasso and Dr. Brian Casey discuss civility at the IMA.

National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman Jim Leach visited Indiana as part of his 50-state Civility Tour. Here is a recap of one of the events–a panel featuring Chairman Leach, Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck and DePauw University Dr. Brian Casey. The discussion was moderated by Kathryn Kennison.

In his opening remarks, Chairman Leach described the reason behind his civility tour—which has stops in all 50 states; Rabbi Sasso then reflected on the power of narrative and stories to illustrate examples of civil debate; and Dr. Casey mused on the tendency in modern mass-media discourse to frame debate as an over-polarized, false dichotomy. 

Chairman Leach then commented on civility in modern life; the postwar generations are the first to have the power to end worldwide civilization, and in his opinion have been burdened with that obligation of restraint.  He and Dr. Casey then discussed historical precedents of incivility in American life and politics; the mid-19th century, after all, saw the nation split violently over irreparable political debates but also fostered the nation’s first native literary flowering in the works of Thoreau, Melville, Whitman, and so on (the “American Renaissance”).  This led to a musing among all three panelists: do eras of contention inspire artists and writers to greater works than periods of relative calm?

All panelists, led by Dr. Casey, then reflected on the role of the humanities in driving civility by encouraging a sympathetic mindset.  Dr. Casey fretted that education, and particularly higher education, in America has become too centered on the self and is ignoring its traditional duty of expanding students’ worldviews through exposure to a wide range of cultures.  All agreed that respect and empathy for the “other,” whoever that might be, is at the core of civility and a fundamental cornerstone of the humanities.  Chairman Leach remarked on the virtue of respectful argument as a bulwark against political dogmatism and tyranny.

Dr. Casey then opened a question to the panel: In the modern media world, wherein vast amounts of opinion and information can be communicated extremely rapidly with little or no analysis, who (if anyone) is to determine what is “signal” and what is “noise?”  This question was quickly tied into a discussion of the recent primaries and the large role played by nonparty and radical (“Tea Party”) activists in particular.  Questions of “populist rage” arose: As humanists presumably interested in fostering civic political discourse, can we counter it?  Should we attempt to counter it?  Rabbi Sasso concluded this discussion with the comment that, in her opinion, the counter to “noise” is active listening and respectful response.

An audience member then asked a question centered on the bridge between civil discourse and civil language: It is clear that modern, anonymous online communities allow a dramatic coarsening of language and debate.  Have we, in the interests of encouraging political and social expression, created an environment entirely free of rules?  Is there a case for censorship?  Chairman Leach led the response discussion, urging great caution in this area: Personal censorship, he charged, can quickly slide into political censorship.  The panel seemed to generally agree that, regrettable as coarse and vulgar language is, it is preferable to active censoring of voices that might otherwise go unheard.

Another audience question requested recommendations on books.  Dr. Casey suggested Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning  Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (first published in 1964).  His discussion of the book was not entirely cogent, but he seemed to be of the opinion that Hofstadter more-or-less predicted the current state of American discourse and still had much to say to a modern audience on how readily reason and debate can be devalued over pleas to raw emotion.  Rabbi Sasso recommended her own In God’s Name, a children’s book on both the personalization and universality of notions of the holy.  Chairman Leach had no specific books to recommend, preferring instead to recommend reading essentially anything, especially fiction, that expanded the reader’s worldview.  Literature, he argued, helps us “stretch our imaginations” and “expand our horizons,” building our previously-noted skills in empathy for and engaging with “the other.”

Posted In: Miscellaneous

One response to “Civility in a Fractured Society”

  1. Clarke Kahlo says:

    Here’s an opinion piece on civility from a year ago–

    On consultation and civility in community-building

    Over the years, various outside experts have been engaged to review how things work in Indianapolis. Some have aptly criticized our skewed process for public consultation in decision-making. Urbanologist Neal Peirce spoke to Indianapolis CEOs in 1991. The Indianapolis Star reported it, in part,

    “A handful of decision-makers for years secretly and exclusively charted Indianapolis’ future. But that won’t work anymore, said journalist and urbanologist Neal Peirce, who researched the city’s development for Lilly Endowment. ‘You have a culture of very closed decision-making, a history of caucuses rather than primaries, a tradition of secrecy’ Peirce recently told a group of chief executive officers in Indianapolis….” Indianapolis Star, 5-6-91

    In 1996, Peirce and his team of researchers revisited Indianapolis, and in his extensive Peirce Report, echoed his earlier criticism, also urging, in part, that we “democratize development decisions, and end the monopoly that planners and developers have in deciding the physical appearance of the community.”
    Sometimes, even local business columnists will venture to remind us. Most recently John Ketzenberger’s September 13th parting-thoughts column noted, foremost, that “Indianapolis has to make a better transition from its paternalistic leadership structure to one that includes more people”.
    It’s been nearly 20 years since Neal Peirce’s 1991 challenge, but the powers-that-be have been mostly unmoved to respond. Former mayor Stephen Goldsmith was notoriously anti-public, and the subsequent two terms of Bart Peterson did little to truly embrace the idea of public consultation.
    Two current plans in midtown Indianapolis evidence that a top-down, anti-public philosophy yet persists.

    The Waterwork’s plan to de-vegetate the canal side banks with limestone rip-rap was announced to the community at a meeting on August 24th and presented as a done-deal. The waterworks department wasn’t even present at the meeting, and Veolia, the private contractual operator, told the stunned audience that its destructive project would commence almost immediately. One public commenter, after prefacing his comment with the adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, sharply criticized the rip-rap plan as “plug-ugly” especially considering its adverse impact on the popular greenway trail. Previously very quiet and deferential, the audience heartily applauded the plain-spoken opinion.

    Later, a second public meeting was organized by a community organization to give the public an opportunity to explore and discuss the project. In the meeting notice, the organizer gratuitously admonished against “finger-pointing, blaming, grandstanding or making personal attacks”, even though there had been no misbehavior at the initial meeting. As of this writing, the city and Veolia have made several beneficial design and schedule modifications to the plan as a result of the input of hundreds of concerned citizens and their newly-retained technical advisers.

    A pending commercial redevelopment plan provides the second current example. At a recent meeting on the controversial plan at 49th and Pennsylvania in the Meridian Kessler area, the convener of a public forum pointedly admonished everyone “to be civil” to the developers and to other viewpoints.
    A few weeks later, following a column in the Indianapolis Star about the project and the concerns of the immediate neighbors, a few anonymous posters to the Star’s website blithely dismissed the concerned neighbors as “NIMBYs” and “a few loud mouths”. The NIMBY charge has come to be a predictable rejoinder from those who don’t care about community impacts and the undisclosed public costs of development– they just want to anonymously discredit the remonstrators. These folks don’t care that the

    zoning process is, by local law, a public process wherein any interested citizen is legally empowered to participate.

    Like the City’s canal project, the redevelopment plan is still a work in progress and can be improved if the developers and their prospective tenants can accept that their first proposal is not viable due to its high impact. As Publilius Syrus said “It’s a bad plan that admits of no modification.”

    Following his speech to the American Enterprise Institute, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas penned a column in 2001 in The Wall Street Journal which addressed the question of civility, entitled
    “Be not afraid”. He wrote:

    “…I do not believe that one should fight over things that don’t really matter. But what about those things that do matter? It is not comforting to think that the natural tendency inside us to settle for the bottom, or even the middle of the stream.

    This tendency, in large part, results from an overemphasis on civility. None of us should be uncivil in our manner as we debate issue of consequence. No matter how difficult it is, good manners should be routine. However, in the effort to be civil in conduct, many who know better actually dilute firmly held views to avoid appearing “judgmental”. They curb their tongues not only in form but also in substance. The insistence on civility in the form of our debates has the perverse effect of cannibalizing our principles, the very essence of a civil society.

    This is why civility cannot be the governing principle of citizenship or leadership. As Gertrude Himmelfarb observed in her book, “One Nation, Two Cultures”, “to reduce citizenship to the modern idea of civility, the good-neighbor idea is to belittle not only the political role of the citizen but also the virtues expected of the citizen – the “civic virtues” as they were known in antiquity and early republican thought.

    …The Founders warned us that freedom requires constant vigilance, and repeated action. It is said that, when asked what sort of government the Founders had created, Benjamin Franklin replied that they had given us “A republic, if you can keep it.” Today, as in the past, we will need a brave “civic virtue”, not a timid civility, to keep our republic. So, this evening, I leave you with the simple exhortation: “Be not afraid.”

    Civility too is often in the eye of the beholder. Those who propose aggressive plans with unmitigated adverse impacts, and don’t want to be challenged, often claim that direct, persistent questioning by concerned citizens is rude or uncivil. Citizens who feel that their interests are being unfairly ignored or subordinated usually feel they’re justified in forcefully pressing their case to demand both full public disclosure and use of best design practices.

    As our city fathers might seek to facilitate public consultation and encourage civic engagement in general (which former Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton often persuasively urges), let’s be more tolerant of plain-spoken public input. There are too many examples of bad planning and policy that were hatched and ratified in boardrooms and backroom caucuses without any public advice and consent. At present, the public is still pathetically under-represented and under-protected in most public policy arenas, and has ample justification to be forceful, and, by Justice Thomas’ advice, both well-mannered and bravely civically-virtuous.

    Clarke Kahlo

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