The MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program is a research center dedicated to “thinking about and resolving disputes in the public sector.” The center’s website is filled with business management, state planning advice, blog posts and video clips. Along the gutter of the site is a list of “insights” that read more like gossipy reveals that one might find on the front page of the National Enquirer: “Dealmaking: Secrets of Successful Dealmaking in Business Negotiation,” “Training Women to Be Leaders: Negotiating Skills for Success” and one of my favorites, “International Negotiations: Cross-Cultural Communication Skills for International Business Executives.”
The state of public discourse is bleak. Both in the national political sphere and here at Yale, there is a profound lack of empathy for the people and narratives with which we disagree. This lack of empathy is indicative of a culture in which being convinced by an argument is a sign of weakness, and engaging those with whom we disagree is presumed to be dead on arrival. I’m sure the Public Disputes Program helps groups defuse workplace tension, but it presents the return of civility as a series of life hacks and flashy self-help moves rather than a collective cultural shift.
The deterioration of civil discourse is inextricably linked to the obsession we have with being right. We think it’s respectable to stand for something, that remaining unconvinced of other views is an honorable thing. But civility predisposes us to view each other more humanely. Simply put, civility, we think, makes us more vulnerable to be convinced.
Of course, civility does not mean that one must sacrifice one’s commitments to their beliefs. In fact, civility can often reinforce one’s beliefs. After a 1994 shooting of two abortion-providing clinics, six women, half pro-life and half pro-choice, began a series of meetings in which they tried to diffuse tensions and develop mutual respect for each other over the course of six years. All of them said that they “experienced a paradox” — by treating each other with respect and dignity, they all became more convinced of their own views on abortion.
And so, civility is not a kind of intellectual white flag. In fact, it’s not much of an ideological tool at all. Rather, civility desensitizes us to ideas that we staunchly disagree with and to the proponents of those ideas. The women who met in those abortion discussions said they continued meeting after their originally scheduled meetings because they came to love their opponents, seeing “goodness” and “dignity” in one another. In that sense, civility helps us see our ideological opponents as more than just their ideas. When we forget this human element, our interactions can spiral out of control.
Last week, the News published “Evil is banal,” a column that conveyed the writer’s fear that we are not doing enough to hold one another accountable for our transgressions. The reactions to the column ranged from fiery to vile. “It’s ridiculous,” one person told me, as they shook their head. In the column’s comment thread online, reputed Internet troll, Alphonsus Jr. DEUS VULT was sure to add, “Such a catastrophic mistake to allow the hordes of darks into our country.” One can only imagine what the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program would have done with this. (Do we “sandwich the ‘no’ between two ‘yes’es?” Should we “disarm” our opponent by “asking open-ended questions?”)
Outside the Yale bubble, another right-wing blogger published an article comparing the column to Nazi censorship. Breitbart and Fox News followed suit, plastering their responses to the column on their front pages.
We need to stop the immediate escalation of every opinion and discussion to such high moral heights. Whether you agree with the column or not, a college op-ed is not Hitlerian censorship, and Alphonsus Jr. DEUS VULT should probably shrivel back into his dark corner of Reddit. We can take legitimate issue with someone’s argument without resorting to racist drivel and half-baked personal attacks. If we truly desire to effectively persuade or engage with others, it is our a responsibility to reintroduce civility to our discussions.
My fear, though, is that people are becoming too entrenched in their ideological tribes to meaningfully engage with their opponents. Or perhaps they just don’t care to. Civility must go both ways. To engage in civil discourse demands civil criticism, but it also demands civil responses.
Too many people have an easier time demanding civility from activists than from critics, when it is actually required of both of us. Critics of the same breed as those of “Evil is banal” use schools like Yale as straw men to voice their damaging political agendas. Reintroducing civility to discussions about things we disagree on at Yale is not only necessary for the state of civil discourse here, but also for guarding against the sensationalized narratives of internet hacks lamenting their — as one charming troll put it — “Unbearable Whiteness of Being.”
Sammy Landino is a sophomore in Hopper College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .