How Civility Can Help in Arguments Over Today’s Conflicts

5 min read
cubicroot / Pixabay

Source: cubicroot / Pixabay

Last week, a student of mine here at Columbia University was visibly upset after she attended a pro-Israeli vigil on campus, and a passerby yelled a vicious insult.

That same day, a colleague who grew up in London but whose grandparents emigrated from India was accosted as he crossed campus, mistakenly identified as an Arab and told to go back to where he came from.

Students now walk through campus wearing various pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli shirts or symbols, such as checkered black-and-white Palestinian headscarves, leading to heated discussions. Many students argue, cry, walk out of classes, or fear attending.

Others fear stating their opinion—whether supporting Israel, Palestinians, or a cease-fire—worrying about possible attack from others.

The Psychology of Civility and Protests About the War in Gaza

As a student and professor, I have been affiliated with universities for over 40 years and have never seen such frayed nerves or vociferous verbal attacks. Tensions are high and are affecting everyday interactions in the classroom and beyond.

I believe in freedom of speech and respecting others, especially in difficult times. Importantly, we need civility, but several pressures are now eroding it.

“Civility” derives from the Latin civis, meaning “citizen,” and civilis, meaning,

Relating to a citizen…public life, befitting a citizen…courteous, as in ‘good citizenship,’ and has come to denote the ‘state of being civilized’…’behavior proper to civilized persons,’ ‘the internal affairs of a state,’ ‘civil order,’ and the relationships of the citizen to the community or to fellow citizens, as opposed to being ‘rude’ or ‘barbarous.’

It is the basis of the word “civilization”—and what defines a civilization.

Yet civility receives scant and diminishing attention. According to Google, 300 years ago, the word was used over 16 times more than today—from 16 times per million words in 1770 to less than 1 per million today.

I have not seen the concept mentioned in a recent discussion of protests in Gaza. We need to bring it back.

In 1939, Norbert Elias, a German-Jewish sociologist, wrote The Civilizing Process, tracing the gradual growth and spread of civility in Europe over the past 1,000 years and the threats posed to it by rising fascism, which he witnessed around him.

He described how civility and courtesy are not innate but are learned behaviors that require support from larger political and social structures and are extremely fragile. A few years earlier, he had had to flee Germany due to the Nazis, who later murdered his mother in a concentration camp.

Until now, we have taken civility for granted. But I would never have guessed how much our behaviors in our age would come in many ways to resemble those in Norbert Elias’.

Bioethics, the field in which I work, similarly emphasizes four basic principles: not only individuals’ rights (e.g., to free speech) but also beneficence (doing good), avoidance of harm, and social justice. Free speech has limits, such as yelling fire in a crowded theater and harming others.

Relatedly, while protestors on both sides are driven by deep passions in the name of religion, all Abrahamic faiths preach the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Some observers have recently focused on the dangers of physical attacks on campuses, but these are, fortunately, still very rare. Verbal attacks are far more common and need to be addressed.

Though many of us hope peace will soon reign again in the Middle East and elsewhere, war there may persist for months, if not longer. On campuses and streets, we may not end the resultant deaths but can engage in more civil discourse.

These problems are increasing, too, online. In recent years, I have received hateful mail in response to statements I have made in the media. The senders of such diatribes invariably refuse to include their names. Some sign, “Sincerely, F*** you!” Anonymity permits a lack of accountability, fueling verbal abuse.

Some may argue: Why should we restrain ourselves? Why shouldn’t we say whatever we want?

But hate speech breeds more hate speech and hampers possible resolution of conflicts, impeding society and social discourse as a whole. The need for civility should not be used as an excuse to silence opinions, but free speech should remain respectful.

The problem isn’t necessarily what position individuals express but how they express it—whether they harass or suggest violence.

In 2014, the University of Chicago developed principles supporting free speech on campus but condemning false defamation of an individual, substantial invasion of privacy, or statements interfering with the university’s function. Yet, civil discourse on campuses and society has deteriorated over the past ten years.

Especially now, with the raging war, countless protestors on both sides ignore or do not know about these guidelines.

Universities should teach students critical thinking and moral reasoning skills, but as emotions boil over, they must respect each other more.

To be sure, not all current discourse about the Middle East involves hate speech. This past week, at a mid-afternoon rally at Columbia, protestors stood lined up on either side of the stone plaza in front of Low Library, the campus’s architectural centerpiece, with several yards between them, as if on a battlefield, each group holding up placards and waving their cause’s flag. Many students stood on the sidelines, listening to both groups, each remaining largely courteous of the other.

Yet at various other times, often after dusk, insults and curses have wounded my colleagues and students.

Columbia, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania have recently restricted student organizations voicing antisemitic slogans, but problems extend beyond these large groups to one-on-one student conversations as well. In such small daily settings, enforcement will be hard. Good citizenship is crucial.

I hope that peace will soon reign. But in the meantime, on campus, online, and elsewhere in our daily lives, we must all work hard to preserve, protect, and uphold civility—one of our most essential but fragile and endangered psychological and social possessions.

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