I actually began this piece with the title, “Campus Protests and the Death of Civility,” then I suffered an unexpected twinge of hopefulness. Yet the vitriol, racial slurs, and even death threats surrounding the recent spate of campus protests1 do not encourage me.
To be clear: I do not mean to disparage the legitimate grievances of the protesters. Racial inequality and the harassment of minorities on college campuses are serious problems.
That they have not been adequately addressed by some colleges and universities is an understandable source of anger, for both students and faculty. Thus, vigorous protest is warranted; and, to their credit, most of the student protesters have behaved respectfully and peacefully.
But when an esteemed Yale professor is publicly berated by a student delivering an obscenity-laced rant,2 some critical process has gone wrong. Whatever the justice of the student’s claims, the manner of her attack points to a larger problem on our college campuses.
To be sure, this was only one incident. But as a 2007 paper by Professor Cynthia M. Clark and Pamela J. Springer3 pointed out, “. . . incivility on American college campuses is a serious and growing concern.” As Clark and Springer observed, “. . . courtesy and civility among faculty and students are fracturing and dissolving on college campuses across the country. Faculty members complain about the rise of uncivil behavior in their students and students voice similar complaints about faculty.”3
Clearly, incivility on campus is not limited to students. Robert E. Cipriano—a professor emeritus at Southern Connecticut State University—has vividly described how incivility can infect faculty as well. He writes,
. . . there are many non-collegial, uncivil, and nasty encounters that occur in the academy on a regular basis. I have spoken with countless department chairs, deans, and provosts who recount horror stories of how one cruel and venomous person spewing nastiness and malice in a vindictive manner caused a department to be dissolved.4
Furthermore, I would argue that these obnoxious occurrences are not confined to the halls of academe and represent a growing threat to civil society as a whole.
Very simply, I believe we are witnessing the gradual but steady erosion of civility in American culture. I am not alone in this. In an August 2011 Rasmussen Reports telephone survey, 76% of respondents expressed the view that Americans are becoming “more rude and less civilized.”5
This was up from 69% in 2010. And while American politics has always been characterized by rudeness and incivility, the current presidential campaign might be setting a new standard in sniping, snarkiness, and mud-slinging.
The Moral Basis of Civility
What is “civility” in the first place? The word may suggest merely “good manners,” politeness or perhaps the exaggerated upper class etiquette of Downton Abbey.
But civility is a much deeper concept that has its roots in fundamental ethical principles. As Lane and McCourt6 point out, “. . . a thorough characterization of civility must include the idea of making ethical choices.” They also observe that:
. . . civility is the result of a choice we make on behalf of others—disciplining our passions for the sake of cooperation and limiting our language to create community. This means that civil behavior requires us to communicate on the basis of respect, restraint, and responsibility.6
In his magisterial book, “Civility,” Yale Law professor Stephen L. Carter7 espouses an even more communitarian view of civility. He defines “civility” as “. . . the set of sacrifices we make for the sake of our common journey with others . . .”7 Carter goes on:
Rules of civility are . . . also rules of morality: it is morally proper to treat our fellow citizens with respect, and morally improper not to. Our crisis of civility, then, is part of a larger crisis of morality.7