From cable news shows to the anything-goes blogosphere, our society seems to be awash in uncivil conversation. To help make sense of the vitriol, the St. Edward's Magazine asked Jack Green Musselman, assistant professor of Philosophy and director of the Center of Ethics and Leadership, to contribute an essay on civil — albeit spirited — discourse.
In May 1856, Senator Preston Brooks from South Carolina attacked Massachusetts lawmaker Charles Sumner for a
passionate anti-slavery speech. Beating Sumner unconscious cost Brooks his Senate seat, but he was celebrated back home. During a June 2008 presidential speech to congress, another passionate South Carolinian, Representative Joe Wilson, yelled out “You lie!” though Wilson apologized and was criticized by fellow Republicans, his campaign coffers soon started to fill.
Is civil and passionate debate impossible in our pluralistic society? That depends on the definition and function of “debate.”
First amendment principles protecting much public dialogue reached the courts after many so-called uncivil speakers — from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Wobbly labor activists protesting in public places — spoke out about the injustices of their day. Similar protests recently brought down the autocratic leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, so we should be careful about not turning civility into a weapon for silencing those with whom we passionately disagree.
Universities train people for citizenship, and that means students can politely yet powerfully disagree with one another while respecting their opponents even as they critically disagree about the issues of our day. But as the examples above suggest, they should also examine the broader context in which such debates take place.
Imagine one such model for such civil and passionate debate: a solitary speaker stands in a town-hall meeting as fellow citizens listen intently. In your mind is the speaker Hispanic or African-American? Or is it more likely that he’s white? And in our imagination — or in real life — how often is the speaker a woman?
If civil and passionate debate is important, we must pay attention to what those words mean, what we hope for our speech to accomplish and who gets to speak in the first place. By doing so, such meaningful debate would truly contribute to the university’s mission to “encourage individuals to confront the critical issues of society and to seek justice and peace."
The original piece ran in the Summer 2011 St. Edward's Magazine.