Forum on Civility Draws Audience of Hundreds
February 28, 2012
What is civility? Does the word indicate etiquette and manners, or a deeper and more fundamental quality in a democracy? Has America ever truly embraced civil discourse in its history? Have incivility and disrespect hindered Americans in recent years from working together?
On Friday, February 17, UMass Boston’s Center for Civil Discourse hosted its inaugural event: a national Forum on Civility and American Democracy that aimed to explore these and other questions with a day of discussion and thought.
The forum was the brainchild of Stephen Crosby, outgoing dean of the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies. The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), along with Mass Humanities, Boston’s National Public Radio station 90.9 WBUR, and the McCormack Graduate School helped to sponsor the forum.
Mary Jane Patrone, director of the Center for Civil Discourse, explained that the idea for the forum was sparked after James Leach, NEH’s chair, embarked on a 50-state “civility tour.”
“[Leach] believes the way we’re talking to each other now is not the way to get things done,” she said.
Polls have found that the majority of Americans agree with Leach, calling the lack of civility in political discourse a problem – making a forum on civility timely and relevant, said Crosby.
Crosby opened the program by addressing the importance of civility in American discourse.
“The Center for Civil Discourse has come to see civility… as a value which makes American democracy possible and successful,” he said, adding, “Civility enables our complex, diverse society to tolerate dissent, and to appreciate compromise.”
Leach was also on hand to offer opening thoughts on civility, calling for a “spirited but not mean-spirited” approach to resolving disagreements in American politics.
“Argumentation itself is a very important social good. We as a country have to celebrate argumentation. But… we have to be respectful of what other people think. We can be respectful and still argue,” he said.
The forum was divided into four panels with three panelists each, who spoke on civility in history, morality, culture, and the media. Most of the panelists were recruited from academia, with the last panel comprised of journalists. WBUR’s Tom Ashbrook, host of “On Point,” moderated the forum.
A diverse audience of students, community leaders, WBUR listeners, and political junkies packed the Campus Center Ballroom, while hundreds, including students from nine partner schools, watched on the Center for Civil Discourse’s website.
“I think that it’s a topic that holds great interest,” said Patrone. “We had over 500 people register within two days, and we had a waiting list of 180 people.”
Director Sue Baldauf of Bedford Youth and Family Services (MGS ’93) said she was pleased to see other municipal leaders, including town managers and state politicians, at the forum.
“When I see our leaders focused on this issue, I think that our public life is in better shape,” she said. “People are… thinking about how to move communities along in a civil way and also a fair and equitable way.”
In the first three panels, scholars such as Harvard Law School’s Randall Kennedy and Boston College’s Alan Wolf debated whether civility is overrated when responding to injustice, whether the current climate of disrespect in American political discourse is par for the course or getting worse, and whether civility can be achieved when minority cultures must still struggle for acceptance and integration into American policies and politics.
During the last panel, journalists Ellen Goodman of the Boston Globe, Joe Klein of Time Magazine, and Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post discussed their firsthand experiences with what they perceive as a decline in civility.
Of the panelists, Patrone said, “We wanted to look at the idea of civility from a humanities perspective. David [Tebaldi, of Mass Humanities] helped us find some of the scholars… We wanted it to be intellectually and academically stimulating but we also wanted it to be accessible to a much broader audience.”
To ground the conversation “in the real world today,” Patrone said, she and the other forum organizers added the panel of journalists.
Goodman, Klein, and Parker “were really interesting and really different from the first three panels,” Patrone said. “A lot of the scholars’ position is that America is rough and tumble, and it’s no worse now than it was before. If you listen to the journalists, I think they quite disagree with that, and they do believe that things have gotten worse and more hysterical.”
Overall, Sue Baldauf said, “The whole workshop was very timely in terms of thinking about what civility means in public life.”
As an alum, Baldauf was excited to learn about the new Center for Civil Discourse.
“I was really glad to see that, especially since I moved from my degree in public policy to municipal government. Seeing that made me proud that the university is continuing to grow,” she said.
The Center for Civil Discourse is planning to host a series of debates on public policy issues over the next year, says Patrone. The Democracy Debates will incorporate lessons from the Forum on Civility in American Democracy, she says, as they’ll explore “how we can talk about very contentious issues… without diminishing individuals’ passion for a position – that doesn’t devolve into name-calling and sound bites.”
If you missed the forum, you can watch the full videos from each panel presentation here.