Civility and the Humanities

On February 24, 2015, Jim Leach, the ninth chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, visited Brigham Young University’s campus to give a forum address. As an NEH chairman, Leach advocated the importance of the humanities in a nation shifting its focus to the STEM field, offering an important defense of the humanities as a necessary sector of study. In his forum address, Leach included many reasons to study a field in the humanities, asserting that humanities studies liberate the mind, help people understand deeper-level ideologies that may contribute to conflict, and help people develop empathy and understanding. Leach also discussed civility, asserting that civility requires that you respond respectfully to others. I found much of his speech compelling, but the one idea that I kept returning to was his mention of civility.

Civility seems like it should be an innate characteristic, but there is quite a lot of debate about the term “civility” and how it plays out in ideological discourse. Recently, Saida Grundy, an incoming professor at Boston University, has come under fire for her tweets that some found offensive. The university president supported Grundy as a professor while showing disapproval of her tweets. Victoria McCard, a tenured professor at the University of North Georgia, reportedly faced possible termination after offending a guest lecturer. Jim Leach commented on civility shortly after many editorials were circulating about the meaning of civility in light of professor Steven Salaita losing a job offer from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign for writing what the university determined were uncivil tweets about Israeli conflict. In response to Steven Salaita’s predicament, Hua Hsu critiques civility as a form of discourse that suppresses conversation, ultimately arguing against top-down mandated codes of civility. He makes the assertions, “Civility is invoked as a method of discipline, as a way of sanding down the edges of a conversation,” and “at its worst, concern for civility is a way to avoid having difficult conversations at all.” Hsu concludes, “Civility as a kind of individual moral compass should remain a virtue. But civility as a type of discourse—as a high road that nobody ever actually walks—is the opposite.” His negative views of civility as a mandated ideology leaves the topic of civility to a person’s own moral compass rather than as a driving discourse within arenas that involve ideology, such as the academic sector. His response is understandable when detrimental ideologies threaten the careers of individuals because of a judgment of incivility.

However, aside from the debate about jobs threatened because of incivility and top-down mandated civility codes, the academic sector is an important place to encourage civil discourse. Civility does not require people to relinquish their opinions; rather, it provides the opportunity for opinions to be expressed through respect for other people. One such embodiment of this comes through Harper Lee’s iconic character Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, who tells Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Atticus Finch is the embodiment of civility in the way that he treats other people and tries to understand their points of view, and in how he handles his case defending Tom Robinson. However, his civility does not “sand down the edges of a conversation” (Hsu) because Atticus is straightforward in his court case and requires his witnesses to answer questions that will free Tom from implication. He does not excuse behavior, but he also never treats his witnesses with disrespect. Atticus does not avoid difficult conversations when they are required, but he does always avoid incivility. This is why Atticus was chosen for Tom Robinson’s case despite the fact that he knew it was near impossible for him to win. Even when Mr. Ewell antagonizes him by spitting in his face and threatening him, Atticus does not retaliate, but he also does not ever concede with Mr. Ewell’s viewpoints. By example and through his words, he teaches his children that respect is of the utmost importance, but he never requires them to alter their opinions about things they see as unjust.

Using Atticus Finch as a framework for understanding civility and connecting it to study within the humanities, disciplines in the humanities are arguably some of the most effective modes of discourse to help people consider things from another point of view, to research and understand deeper ideologies, and to learn how to respond respectfully to others. Aside from developing empathy through analyzing characters, cultures, languages, and philosophies, the humanities also teaches students how to use civility within a discourse. In academic papers, scholars have conversations and even disagreements within their fields, but the most successful disagreements give ample, respectful representation of the argument they are countering along with a respectful response. Yet, by no means does this countering require a sanding down of conversation, nor does it act as a way to create ideological superiority. In fact, humanities students are taught to make assertive, intelligent, and well-argued claims in their papers backed up with sufficient, logical evidence. Civility as a moral compass should not be separate from ideology and public discourse; rather, civility should be the underlying ideology that contributes to public discourse. This would allow for debates to be full without being rooted with disrespect, a characteristic that would greatly benefit any workplace or sector.

Posted by Brittany Bruner, Humanities Center Intern
Photo by Neil Moralee

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