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From Blight and Tragedy, a New Narrative of Civility

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Tuesday, May 2, 2017


'We can disagree without being disagreeable'

The yearning for better human behavior and a more optimistic narrative sometimes emerges from tragedy, sometimes from relentless struggle with a grim reality.

Gary, Indiana, has suffered years of blight—high unemployment, abandoned buildings, a fading downtown, outward migration of its residents, and crime. In the 1990s it was called the murder capital of America, and in 2013 Gary  made Forbes list of “America’s most miserable cities.”  A Christian Science Monitor story by Jeremy Borden says many in Gary are now trying to foster a new narrative of progress through tackling a history of deep segregation, stagnant politics and a negative public image. The Gary Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with the Times of Northwest Indiana newspaper, last year launched the Community Civility Counts (CCC) initiative to promote civility in society.  

This year, the Monitor reports, a diverse crowd from nine states as well as Canada, Ghana, Haiti, Nigeria, Gambia, and Kenya came to Gary April 13 for World Civility Day, and the CCC has prompted eight local governments and the state legislature to pass resolutions upholding civil discourse.   

The National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD), headquartered at the University of Arizona, was established in May 2011 in response to the tragic shooting at the Congress on Your Corner event in Tucson in which six people were killed and 13 wounded.  One of the seriously injured was former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who before the shooting had begun conversations about setting up a center to study improving the quality of civic conversation. The NICD website says it is building an interdisciplinary community of scholars who are developing an integrated research agenda on civil discourse. NICD leaders hope their research will be integrated into practice and lead toward a stronger democracy capable of tackling tough issues. NICD asserts “We believe we can disagree without being disagreeable, and we can respectfully share different opinions.”

What Is Civility?

Most would agree violence is extreme incivility. But people differ on what civility is, and even whether civility by itself ought to be a goal. Summer Moore, audience engagement editor at The Times of Northwest Indiana, which co-sponsored the civility initiative with Gary, found the word had connotations she hadn’t expected. When she presented the program at a conference, some activists thought a civility initiative looked like white do-gooders telling young black people how to behave. It hadn’t occurred to her that civility would be considered an oppressive term. She describes the experience as humbling. Now when she presents the program, she emphasizes the NICD focus on respect and seeking common ground as a starting point for discussing differences. 

The Monitor reports that civility initiatives in Gary schools helped students discuss difficult issues and gain better understanding of themselves and others.  

Hua Hsu, writing in The New Yorker, observers our political debate has never been all that delicate, and that calls for genteel discourse strike him as nostalgic fantasy. Kindness and good manners are virtues, he writes, but civility as a type of discourse is a “high road that nobody ever actually walks.”

Civility and the Founding Fathers

NECD scholars would beg to differ. Derek A.Webb of Stanford Law School, pored over records of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention looking for insights on the level of civility among the founders as they went through grueling months of often contentious deliberations. He thinks they did pretty well.  In an article in the South Carolina Law Review he argues representatives at the Constitutional Convention maintained a surprising degree of civic friendship across party and sectional lines. He says daily interaction, dinner parties, and parliamentary procedures designed to encourage open-mindedness and reasonable deliberation helped.  This rich, but often overlooked, story of our nation’s founding deserves a telling for lawyers and politicians alike,” Webb wrote, “particularly given the quality and tenor of deliberations in legislative assemblies today.  Read the paper here.

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