In Praise of Civility

Without respectful discourse, free speech isn’t much more than a hostile shouting match.  

Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

One month before the 2016 presidential election, I spoke on a panel in Charlottesville, Virginia, on the topic of campus speech. The audience was generally enthusiastic and engaged. A tense moment arrived, however, when one individual, who identified himself as a “deplorable,” took issue with the composition of the panel (two white women and myself, an African American male). He explained that the panel in his view was slanted, did not represent a more conservative position, and that I, as an African American, represented so much of why he as a working-class white male struggles in this economy.

I attempted to engage him calmly both during the open question-and-answer session and individually after the panel. Despite my best efforts, it was clear that he had little interest in respectful discourse, and he continued interrupting me loudly and angrily.

The incident with the self-described “deplorable” in Charlottesville left a lasting impression. My 2016, pre-election encounter now appears to be one of countless examples of the sort of uncivil discourse that has since become normal in our society. Since then, it’s become quite common, particularly within the political sphere, for all kinds of speech, regardless of how inflammatory it might be, to be expressed openly and sometimes loudly, without consequence. Many people couch this kind of speech in terms of a backlash against “political correctness,” and they view such speech as a right that comes without any responsibility to engage with others respectfully. It also appears that society has become complacent with the tendency of individuals to talk at, rather than to, one another. At its core, this notion of uninhibited, anti-politically correct speech has dimmed the hope of productive dialogue.

At a time when university administrators grapple with debates about free speech on campus and people across the nation witness the consequences of free speech in a polarized political climate, administrators, educators, and civic leaders should promote civility as an important element of constructive conversations. This duty becomes a moral imperative in forums where polemic issues take center stage. As Father John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame observes in his book, Conviction and Peril of Our Passionate Beliefs, “Civility is what allows speech to be heard.”

While civility is crucial, it does have limits. Civility does not require engagement with individuals who utter speech that, at its core, has no connection with respect or mutuality. While those who express bigoted views may have a right to free expression, those who seek civil discourse are not required to engage with those individuals. One may simply walk away from the speaker and refuse to listen, thereby denying the speaker an audience.

My exchange with the self-described “deplorable” has haunted me and prompted considerable introspection. Could I have chosen my words more carefully to guard against alienating him? Since our encounter, did he think more about my bid for greater civility? On the day of that exchange, two men who identified themselves as attorneys for that individual complimented me on the respectful way that I dealt with the situation, saying that I had handled him better than most people he has confronted.

Though my attempt to persuade my hostile adversary seemed to fail, I take solace in the observations of those two men and those in the audience who witnessed the exchange and appreciated the civil manner in which I handled the situation. Perhaps the lesson from the incident is not the value of immediate persuasion, but the need to encourage the appreciation and embrace of civility.