Rude Democracy

Colleges can't prevent messy debates on their campuses, and they can't legislate civility, but they can teach it, writes Susan Herbst.

August 5, 2013

 Incivility has been a constant in American life, and at least some of it is inherent in a free society. Our founding fathers fought with each other, for example, and they often played a sort of fierce hardball that sure looks like incivility in 2010 (e.g., duels and threats of duels). We have seen periods of calm, but also many dreadful low points with regard to civility and the tolerance of free speech (the 1850s likely being the nadir).

More recent struggles with nasty partisan fighting in Washington may not be unique in our history, but the incivility that often accompanies political rhetoric is still jarring and depressing for most of us. Regardless of our ideological preferences, we are hardly inspired by presidents being called village idiots or portrayed as Hitler. It is too far gone, it’s unproductive, and while incivility makes good television and YouTube fodder, thinking citizens would rather see real debate and a measure of respect among those who disagree.

We may be in a relatively ugly political culture for a while. Hopefully, it isn’t the "new normal" for American politics, but time will tell, and in the meantime, academic leaders need to give it far more thought than they have. The incivility that we see on television appears on our campuses regularly, and sometimes in extraordinarily worrisome forms, as with the heckling of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California at Irvine on February 8th:


Our reaction to incivility such as this, as administrators and faculty members, is typically horror: We are surprised and distraught when we hear hate speech, meanness, and destructive talk among our students or between students and campus visitors. And as academics, we tend to be particularly troubled by protests that seek to cut off someone's right to be heard – whatever the point of view being expressed.

Occasionally campus leaders have the time or wisdom to get out ahead of a clearly difficult speech event, but often the event occurs with little warning, or the reaction to it is more heated than expected. And sometimes incivility has nothing to do with outsiders at all: Our own students fight each other in ways that we academics simply don’t foresee, no matter how sophisticated we believe we are about the character of our student bodies.

We have moved away from "hate speech" codes because they are difficult to get right; they do have a tendency to trample on forms of free speech that really aren’t dangerous at all. Instead, many campuses have tried to focus more intently on civility and tolerance, developing codes, programs, and pledges for students, faculty and staff to live by. A fine example is the list of Penn State "Principles," an elegant set of aspirations that range from respect and dignity, to academic integrity and students’ responsibilities for their own scholarly success.

These are strong documents that articulate our values and ideals, and they are vital in the way that mission statements always are. We cannot do without them, especially at a university, where holding a mirror up to our community is both a tradition and a passion. All that said, it is indeed high falutin’ rhetoric, and most people – beyond the administration, the lawyers, and some helpful students – rarely look at civility codes or give them much thought at all. Most of us fall right back on what our parents, friends, ministers, rabbis, or other teachers taught us about good behavior, and those are the norms that guide us.

So what is a college or university leader supposed to do, besides wait for the awful, controversial forum to happen and practice both "risk management" and/or “damage control”? Risk management is far more effective, even if student behavior so often defies predictability. One can and should certainly plan for a specific event or type of event, and that is easy enough to do. Yet the fundamental problem of incivility is not about one-time behaviors and events, but about norms and culture, more profound and challenging to solve than drawing up some thoughtful “accountability” or “action” plans. Teaching civility, so that you don’t have to worry so hard on fitful campus events, will minimize the trauma that comes with mean speech. And in doing so, all this will help to produce the citizens we say we make at a university.

Codes for civility, and aspirational statements about political debate are a first step, but a tiny one. Here are some ideas that might take you further:

1. Make the civility code a living document. Work on your code; the process of writing one can be inspirational for the entire campus. But you do best by then debating the code wherever and whenever you can. Most behavioral codes at universities sit in a manual, unexamined, when they should be central to continual self-reflection. Don’t just introduce the code to freshman and hope for the best; force discussion of it through student groups, faculty-run events, or just bring it up spontaneously where you can. Not only will students feel its importance, but you will likely change the code as well, since there are always developments in technology (Facebook has a lot to do with civility), and new campus dynamics.

2. Don’t shove everything into "first year experience programs." These programs for new students are among the most important innovations of the past few decades, helping us to improve retention and enabling students (and parents!) to adjust to college. But we’ve also started to treat the curriculum of the first year experience program as a sort of idea ghetto or storage bin, loading it up with all of the rules and regulations we expect students to understand. Forever. While civility codes should be a part of freshman orientation – whether a brief orientation or a semester-long program --- they need to be integrated into the fabric of student life beyond orientation. Freshman are the least likely to violate (political) civility codes, being a bit more timid than upperclassmen, who are starting to lead campus activities, demonstrations, etc.

3. Show the Irvine event. The Israel ambassador’s visit is not the only tough free speech/civility situation faced by a campus, but it is interesting and important. What about taking the video to campus groups and asking them to react to it? What if a speaker were treated this way on our campus? Would this happen here? Is this what we want our discourse to look like, and how might we avoid it?

4. Work with students on effective communication. Students want to be heard and have an impact, but they are not always versed in the ways of political and social action. I remember when I was a student activist, handing out fliers on campus, and a friendly professor stopped and asked why we were doing this. Well, we wanted people to understand our cause, of course. He engaged us in a dialogue that made us realize just how ineffective the whole exercise was, then gave us some ideas for better use of our time, money, and energy. We just didn’t know any of it. He, on the other hand, knew his Saul Alinsky, I realize 30 years later!

5. Practice outrage and debate. A major challenge in teaching students how to debate and control their emotions is to help them practice. They don’t quite know how they’ll react in a "difficult dialogue" until they’ve been in one. One approach is to organize campus debates on subjects that arouse passion but are not ideological: Get the blood boiling without making the news or hurting feelings. Every campus has its land use issues, so that is always a good topic. There is always something controversial to debate in the area of curriculum. And then there are parking privileges and problems, always good for an argument.

6. Don’t overload student leaders. We have a problematic tendency to put overly heavy burdens on our student leaders. They are absolutely essential to making progress on civility, no doubt, but they are also students with limited time and experience. If you want to create civil campus, and reduce the risk of damaging words and events, you will need to reach well beyond the student government and most vocal student groups. Work on civility will need to be done in dormitories (not just in special "learning communities"), libraries, and cafeterias with the mass of students. I think that many administrators believe the seemingly un-engaged students are not the source of difficulty when they often are.

7. So What: The Bigger Picture. It is difficult to steer people toward civility issues when the campus is peaceful, as it is most days. And except for watching the Washington circus on CNN or the "Daily Show," incivility seems far away from a bucolic campus. In my work with students I have found that they need help with the micro-macro connection: How incivility of our political parties or television commentators might infect our precious local communities. And going in the other direction, how multiple local instances of incivility can infect larger societies and even nations. You can try to explain this, in theoretical terms, but most effective is to bring in as many speakers as you can who have seen the worse cases of authoritarianism and incivility. Our Holocaust survivors are nearly gone, but people who have survived totalitarian regimes are all around us and they make profoundly compelling visitors to campus. There is no need to imagine what incivility – government sanctioned or not – looks like when it envelopes a culture; have your students hear the real thing.  



Susan Herbst is chief academic officer of the University System of Georgia and professor of public policy at Georgia Tech. Her new book, Rude Democracy: Civility and Incivility in American Politics, will be published this month by Temple University Press.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top