Every few years, in response to one or more widely publicized episodes of rowdiness or rudeness, someone bemoans the decline of civility in U.S. politics, as when The New York Times noted in 1997 an "epidemic of incivility" in public meetings.
Such complaints sometimes suggest the good old days were more polite than they are today. In other instances Americans are described as worrisomely inconsiderate. Turning once again to The New York Times, we find the editors opining in 1876 that the United States was the "rudest of nations," with a problem of "national incivility."
This time-honored anxiety about civility is with us today. Harry Pastides, president of the University of South Carolina, is worried about the "decline in the civil tenor of our national discourse." Pastides has committed the eight campuses of his university to teaching civility because "the people of this nation deserve better."
I do not doubt that Pastides' goals are admirable and the product of deeply held convictions. However, I don't think his efforts will be successful.
Initially, any commitment to teaching civility to university students implies they do not fully understand the merits of politeness or the political and societal advantages of civility.
I have no first-hand experience with Pastides' students, but my institution's students are the politest people I've ever met, in a teaching career that covers 20 years and six states. Individually, some of my students are rude on some days, but they long ago learned they shouldn't be. They understand the basic rules of civility, even if they choose to ignore those rules.
Moreover, Pastides isn't talking about student-teacher interactions. He wants more civil discourse about politics, which I certainly appreciate. The problem is that 22-year-olds and graduate students are not the primary sources of shouting in contemporary political forums, as far as I can tell. Retirees and middle-aged workers have been responsible for more than their fair share of incivility in town hall meetings. A revised university code of conduct isn't going to influence the over-40 crowd.
My sense is that familiarity with politeness norms is most productively and most commonly cultivated in grade school and in family life. There is no student knowledge vacuum in the area of decorum and civil discourse that universities must rush to fill.
Our students have the basic idea. Politeness generally is good. Rudeness generally is not.
What can universities do about incivility? In part, they can study why ordinarily civil people choose to be uncivil. As one example, I want to suggest why incivility has a role to play in American politics and in any democratic society.
Those who hold political power always would prefer to have a polite debate, hold a vote in which their side will prevail and consider the democratic niceties fulfilled.
Politeness, as the politically powerful know, is boring. Incivility attracts attention. Those in the minority are particularly likely to be uncivil, because incivility encourages uncommitted voters and media organizations to pay attention, consider and promote minority views and, possibly, changes hearts and minds.
The list of impolite people and groups in politics is long and distinguished. There is good reason to believe that incivility was important in the successes of the movements to end slavery, secure civil rights for African-Americans, women and gay men. and reduce property taxes in California and other states, among many other causes.
Like most people, I prefer friendly and civil conversations about all topics, including politics. Debate about important issues in most cases can and should be both spirited and cordial.
In saying so, however, I would not uncritically make civil discourse into another tool of congressional or legislative majorities, whether Democratic or Republican. If political ideas, whether conservative or liberal, cannot withstand the passionate and disorderly speech of the minority, those political ideas usually will not endure in the long run.
So, at all our universities, let's explain why talk should be preferred to violence, and why all points of view must be heard if we want democracy to work. But let's celebrate the merits of civility with some qualification. In particular, let's not maintain that incivility is OK for our side, but terrible when it comes from the other side.
Politics in a democratic society can be a messy, unpleasant business. We always will be happiest when politics and politeness coexist in a productive way. Sometimes, however, the people of this nation both want and need a little incivility.