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On Monday night, the campus kicked off Civility Week with an appearance by the journalist Steven Petrow. He answered questions from the moderator, and then from the audience.

Civility is a great topic. Although often used as a synonym for courtesy or etiquette, it’s really about the skills of citizenship. To illustrate the difference, Petrow shared an anecdote about a consultant to a board on which Petrow served. Apparently the consultant used all manner of demeaning language in his presentation to the board. When Petrow objected, it was Petrow who was accused of being “uncivil” because he made people feel awkward. In fact, Petrow was demonstrating the skills of citizenship, calling the group to its values.

Sometimes telling the truth is awkward. But it’s the civil thing to do.

Discussion ensued about the goal of civility -- broadly, justice versus comfort -- and the ways in which the powerful sometimes use accusations of incivility to keep people in line.

At Q&A, one youngish student asked the perfect question. Instead of blaming “the system” for incivility, he asked, should we blame the owners of the system, meaning ourselves? Don’t we get the climate we want?

Put differently, it’s easy and appropriate to attack various public figures for playing to the baser instincts of the crowd. But at a basic level, the reason they do it is that it works. The fact that it works is the real issue. If it stopped working, the incentive for that behavior would go away.

There’s a disturbing truth in that.

Petrow acknowledged the weight of the question, and rightly so. I would have preferred to follow with an answer tying shared expectations of civility to a shared reality. In other words, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we see increased mutual disbelief across political camps at the same time that wealth polarization is at historic extremes. The loss of a broad middle class has brought with it the loss of a consensus reality. The sort of epistemic bubbles enabled by the explosion of information sources may be the spark, but a desiccated public square is the kindling. The increased privatization of public education is a symptom of a much larger issue.

But for a newish college student to ask a question like that? Honestly, it gave me hope.

He wasn’t alone. One student who works as an EMT talked about the need to maintain civility when encountering patients for the first time. They’re often at their worst, and sometimes verbally or physically hostile. But she understands the role, and knows that the reason we have EMTs is to help people in their worst moments. That knowledge helps her deal with being treated in ways that nobody should be treated. She offered a view of civility that was less about political debate and more about decency in how people treat each other.

For newish college students to bring up points like those was heartening. These students confronted the authority figure in front of an audience with points that were thoughtful, relevant and challenging. And they did it without either snark or undue deference. They just asked about issues that were bothering them.

Civility is an idea, but it’s also a practice. It was gratifying to see newish students practice it at such a high level. There is hope after all.

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