“Civility” is the buzzword of the day. Is it a necessary requirement for free and open discussion or a subterfuge? The spark that ignited the current civility debate was when a tenured professor at the University of Illinois had his appointment withdrawn by the president over his vocal criticism of Israel’s recent actions. Several other university presidents have joined the chorus calling for civil discourse and courtesy among all sides of an argument. In his article, Civility is for suckers: Campus hypocrisy and the “polite behavior” lie, Salon’s David Palumbo-Liu does a good job of arguing that calls for civility are actually the elite’s way of tamping down descent. It is, after all, only their definition of civility that counts.
It seems to me that the call for “civility” also moves the notion of debate into the realm of false equivalencies, where all sides of an argument are considered of equal value. Global warming is a perfect example. Even though the debate among scientists as to whether human activity is responsible for global warming was settled years ago, the American media has consistently given global warming deniers a platform to air their clearly unscientific, corporate-backed theories. So, does civility mean that we must seriously engage arguments that the earth is hollow or that the Holocaust didn’t happen? How can we even define reality if all beliefs are given equal weight?
And then there’s the question of what to do when civil debate accomplishes nothing and action is required. Our revolutionary forefathers clearly reached a point where they decided negotiating with the British was useless and it was time to fight for their rights. From the British perspective, however, the colonial rabble were clearly being uncivil about the whole thing. I doubt that you will find any American history books arguing that the revolutionaries should have been more conciliatory and open to debate. Would the leaders of the Civil Rights movement of the fifties and sixties have accomplished anything by sitting around a table calmly discussing their grievances with a bunch of white supremacists?
It’s clear that the current calls for civility are really elite code for, “Don’t rock the boat.” Real change is messy and disruptive and might delay my tee time.