Civility not yet dead in American politics

Civility — the ability to substantively and respectfully discuss issues with those who see things differently from you — is largely assumed to have disappeared from American society.

From California Rep. Maxine Waters’ urging people to “to push back on [administration officials] and… tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere” to Donald Trump’s blasé reaction to Charlottesville’s Nazis and denigration of news reporters, there seem to be few political principals or even leaders in general who strongly speak out for civility on all sides of our polarized America.

Hillary Clinton recently said that “You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about. That's why I believe, if we are fortunate enough to win back the House and or the Senate, that's when civility can start again. But until then, the only thing that the Republicans seem to recognize and respect is strength."

Why she thinks disparaging and minimizing another political party is the path to civility is beyond me. But there is one area where the disrespect may be even worse than in the political arena: academia.

For the first time in American colleges and universities there is major consensual disparagement of the ostensible cornerstone values of the academy: “academic freedom” and the “marketplace of ideas.”

The National Communication Association (NCA), of which I am a member, oversees communications departments throughout the United States that typically have negligible numbers of self-identified conservatives, though many are presumably afraid to “come out.”

Furthermore, top programs at NCA’s conventions and major journals in our field rarely support conservative policy or conservative political principles. Our NCA president last year gave a keynote address railing against Donald Trump and exalting globalism to a yelling, appreciative crowd of like-minded, angry left-wingers. It was like being at an anti-Trump rally — in fact, it was an anti-Trump rally.

The situation, to be fair, is not completely uncomplicated: our regional associations are often far more even-handed.

Moreover, I am here as a Towson University professor to tell you that while it is true that civility is gasping for breath, it may not be at death’s door.

(Full disclosure: I am a Howard Baker conservative who gets along with virtually all of Towson’s faculty and most of the administration and staff.)

Earlier this month, 74 students from the political persuasion class I teach, plus about 50 other students and faculty members, jammed into my classroom to hear former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger talk about rhetoric and civility.

Dutch is a liberal, and Rep. Pelosi is a progressive, and they spoke to my class and guests for over an hour in support of “practicing civility, even if you disagree with someone’s views,” as Rep. Ruppersberger put it.

The students asked questions, respectfully, and Rep. Pelosi was sharp and on top of her game, touching on many of her favorite issues — diversity, guns, immigration — and I disagreed with her from time to time, again, respectfully. The former speaker sent me a white orchid following her appearance; that’s civility.

No one interrupted anyone, and positions were not stated insipidly.

Would that Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Maxine Waters could have witnessed that great day at Towson University.

Judge Learned Hand, one of the most revered lower-court judges in American history, stated in his “Spirit of Liberty Speech” in 1944, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women.”

That is a great credo for those of us who realize the need for the breath of life for civility.

Richard E. Vatz, a Towson University professor, is the author of “The Only Authentic Book of Persuasion: the Agenda-Spin Model” (McGraw-Hill, 2017) and co-editor of “Thomas S. Szasz: the Man and His Ideas” (Transaction Publishers, 2017).

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