Mike Parker: Civility is a key element in self-government
Nat Hentoff was no rabid conservative. He was born in Boston and educated at Northeastern University, Harvard University and the Sorbonne. He served as a member of the governing board of the American Civil Liberties Union and held a professorship at New York University.
Hentoff’s article titled “‘Speech Codes’ on the Campus and Problems of Free Speech” appeared in the Fall 1991 issue of Dissent magazine. This article revealed the assault on the First Amendment right of free speech.
For those whose knowledge of the U.S. Constitution is a little rusty, the First Amendment reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Please notice that only freedom of religion comes before free speech in this amendment.
Genuine self-government demands the free exchange of ideas. For that reason, our nation’s fundamental governing document forbids Congress to make laws curtailing freedom of speech.
Hentoff cites the then-President of Yale University, Benno Schmidt, who said:
“Freedom of thought must be Yale’s central commitment. It is not easy to embrace. … Much expression that is free may deserve our contempt. We may well be moved to exercise our own freedom of speech to counter it or ignore it.”
A society that controls what people can and cannot say ultimately controls what they can and cannot think.
Hentoff published his article 27 years ago, but his point about the dangers facing freedom of speech is truer today than it was in 1991. “Tolerance” has become the justification for intolerant attitudes and behaviors. Today’s attitude among some seems to be, “I will tolerate what you say as long as your words agree with what I think.”
We have drifted a long way from the days of George Orwell, who said:
“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
But how should we exercise our freedom of speech? If we want a free exchange of ideas, then we desperately need “civility” in civil discourse.
Do you have any idea how many times speakers have been shouted down on college campuses? Do you realize events have been cancelled after threats of protests – and even violence? Years ago when I was an undergraduate, we were taught to listen to all sides of an issue – and to be willing to express our ideas, as well.
Today, protests and violence threaten to silence speech that runs contrary to the “party line” both on campuses and in society in general.
The National Institute of Civil Discourse is affiliated with the University of Arizona. This institute defines civility as “showing mutual respect toward one another.” The main principle is “[c]ivil discourse is the free and respectful exchange of different ideas. It entails questioning and disputing, but doing so in a way that respects and affirms all persons, even while critiquing their arguments.”
“Free and respectful exchange of ideas” is at the heart of civil discourse. A diversity trainer I worked with through the North Carolina Teaching Fellows Program once said, “Listening does not imply agreement. Listening implies respect.”
Assaults should not be made on people – but on ideas and arguments. I am using the term "argument" in the classical sense – as in the opening and closing arguments of attorneys give in a trial. If someone makes an argument, listen to that argument. Then, offer your rebuttal and explain your own position.
One of the most deadly logical fallacies is “argumentum ad hominem” – arguing the man or women instead arguing ideas, facts, authorities, and sources. The “ad hominem” argument seems to be at the heart of what little discourse goes on today.
Imagine the progress we could make toward solving common problems if we evaluated positions and examined arguments – and stopped focusing on bashing those who disagree with us.
Civil discourse allows the best ideas to come forth as we seek to solve problems for all of us. Civil discourse is the path toward building an enlightened society.
Mike Parker is a columnist for Neuse News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.