Keith Bybee

Can Civility Survive?

Air Date: April 24, 2017

Keith Bybee, author of "How Civility Works," talks about finding common ground in our public discourse.

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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Civility and its Demise, if you watch this broadcast closely, you’ll hear my guests and yours truly invoke, and sometimes romanticize, the aspiration of civil discourse. In fact, recently the Washington Post profiled us as an outlier committed to that perhaps antiquated notion that civility is still achievable. And in their inquiry here, practitioners across all disciplines, envision its application. In facilitating open dialogue, we try to heed the words of RFK, “Some men see things as they are, uncivil and ask why. We [sic] dream of things that never were, and ask, why not?” And why not, civility. With fervent interest, that’s why I asked Keith Bybee to join me today. Author of the essential new volume, “How Civility Works,” Bybee is Judiciary Studies Professor, at the Syracuse University College of Law, and Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Bybee argues, as the New York Times chronicled in it’s review, “How to be Civil in an Uncivil World,” that it’s naïve to imagine we can somehow transcend our clashing sets of values, and miraculously agree on what counts as acceptable behavior, or tolerable opinion. We have for decades endeavored to find common ground. And today we ask how, in fact, does civility work. And can it work in our politics in 2017, and has it ever worked in our politics.

BYBEE: Well, first of all, thanks for having me here. Uh, I think if we define civility as a baseline of respect that we owe one another in public life, really just sort of the bare minimum, many people would agree that the past, uh, two years has really tested that baseline. Many people would say that the presidential election of 2016 and our current politics represent the kind of crisis of civility. Uh, but I think it’s important to place that in context in a couple of ways. One important way is that, many breaches of civility that we observe, particularly in politics, are strategic violations of civility. They’re political tactics. And strategic incivility presupposes that there is some consensus about appropriate behavior, some consensus on this baseline of respect we own one another in public life, violates that consensus, for the sake of generating attention, and then, through a kind of political jujitsu, redirects that outrage towards a, issue or a person who wants the publicity. And that kind of strategic incivility, although it’s clearly a breach of uh, good behavior and decorum, is itself counting on the existence of civility, and so it’s not a threat to civility as a whole.

So, I think one thing that we have to recognize, is that many of the uh, outrages uh, that people observe in public life, uh, are not themselves indicative of a crisis of civility. Uh, rather they’re provocateurs, seeking to advance particular agendas or personal objectives through outrageous behavior, but ultimately are not, globally threatening our understanding of civil behavior, um, which is not to say that there aren’t people who think, with some good reason, that there is a crisis in civility.

HEFFNER: A crisis in civility or a crisis of incivility, depending upon…

BYBEE: That’s…

HEFFNER: How you look at it.

BYBEE: That’s right.

HEFFNER: I mean when you talk about the exploitation of incivility in the political realm, I think that, you know, we emulate or in many cases seek to emulate our parents, monkey see, monkey do…
BYBEE: Yes.

HEFFNER: Our presidents, our popes, our rabbis, our imam’s. When you write, “…instead civility itself is a subject of a political struggle and debate,” I wonder to what extent, when you delineated between public and private…

BYBEE: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: At the outset of your answer…

BYBEE: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: That’s not the case anymore. We have a crisis privately and publicly.

BYBEE: Right. Right. Well, and you know, it is true. If we look outside this election, which seems to have lasted forever, right? [LAUGHTER] And left us with a kind of politics that we’re still grappling with, people have complained broadly about incivility, uh, in American public life. Our politics, even beyond any given election, are devoted towards destruction of one’s opponents. Um, our media sensationalizes conflicts and relentlessly stokes animosities. Um, even in the workplace, people encounter various forms of boorish behavior, and of course on the internet, comment sections on webpages and social media, you see all sorts of insult and invective. And so there seems to be this ubiquity of incivility. Uh, and you might say, well where does that, that come from? Well typically we learn civility at home, right? There’s, the original homeschooling, uh, is in our understanding of appropriate behavior. And historically, civility was a matter, not just of imitating some elite. It was imitating one elite uh, it was in the princely courts of medieval Europe that uh, first gave rise to various forms of civil or polite behavior.

I think one thing that’s happened in our society, although it’s true we all have, may have, a model we’re imitating, there are multiple and conflicting models of behavior to imitate. Uh, we live in a highly diverse and incredibly dynamic society, um, that’s subject to uh, enormous change and growth. Uh, it’s changed tremendously, uh, since the thirteen colonies began and, in, and inherited a rank ordering society from England, um, to what we have today, a country of over 330 million. And even though you learn civility at home, uh, we learn it in different ways. And even if there’s some shared set of principles of decorum, um, that we might ascribe to many or most families in the United States, when it comes to questions of application, we all differ. So I, we live in a society I think, where many of us go out into public life with an understanding of what, you know, behavior is required or appropriate or expected. Uh, but we constantly encounter people who are behaving differently. Now, are those people being rude in some kind of abstract sense? I would argue no. What they’re doing is following their own notion of appropriate behavior. So, the crisis in civility that we experience, um, beyond any given electoral campaign, is the result, not of the absence of civility, but because of its excess. It’s the profusion of civilities.

HEFFNER: Right you, you point out that there is a kind of invisible excess, if you will, in order to operate a society where we’re not, you know, macheteing each other on the street.

BYBEE: [LAUGHTER] Right.

HEFFNER: In order to operate a stock market, to have traders who are alive, not…

BYBEE: You’re right…

HEFFNER: Bludgeoned at the end of the day.

BYBEE: Right right right.

HEFFNER: So there is some functionality here.

BYBEE: Yes.

HEFFNER: That being said, I question whether or not there is a notion to people of civility today, and if you’re not accepting that there is a quality of decorum, and I don’t really view it through the lens of, of decorum, as much as decency, but not even as much decency as the juices, the political capital, or social capital…

BYBEE: Right.

HEFFNER: That have to fuel our, the continuity of humanity.

BYBEE: Right. And, and, and you know, there’s been a, at this point generations of studies that have documented decline in social capital in the United States, right? Uh, Putnam’s’ ‘Bowling Alone’ was probably the, the splashiest example of that. Um, but there are many instances where we can find that people are, are no longer engaging in community activity. Uh, many people now, fully privatize their leisure time. So rather than going out into the community and, whether it’s volunteering, or participating in some kind of fraternal organization, or being in a sports league, they’re at home, um, watching TV, um, or doing some, pursuing some other private activity at home. But I think there’s a difference between social capital and uh, the role that civility plays. Uh, I think civility has a kind of core function, uh, which is, it’s communicative. It’s a means of conveying to other people, your goodness and your decency. Alright, when we lived in a fully face to face community, where everybody knew each other, uh, they know who you are, Alexander. Right?

They know where you come from. They know your parents. They know all about you, right? Uh, but we live in a society of strangers in many respects, uh, but strangers that are dependent upon one another, right, eight million people in the city of New York, and we need to, we’re not gonna get to know all of each other very well, but we need to find means of productively interacting and coordinating our behavior. And one mechanism of that is an easily available, easily administrable means of quickly conveying to another person that you’re a safe, trusted partner for interaction. So that kind of basic communication, communication that, I’m going to respect you and, and reciprocally, I’d like you to respect me, is, I think a little bit different from the kind of social capital of bonding within a community where we gather together to, you know, build a barn for a neighbor, or…

HEFFNER: Keith, I may be extrapolating,

BYBEE: Yes.

HEFFNER: It may be, it may be that there is some definitional agreement at the core, but to me, the prerequisite for any kind of progress, the prerequisite for a civilization, if you look at the origin of the word…

BYBEE: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Is behaving in a way, or practicing civility in some way…

BYBEE: Right.

HEFFNER: I’ve talked about the notion of disagreeably agreeing in our politics as a necessity today, amid the kind of privatized leisure, and increasingly privatized silo information absorption and gathering…

BYBEE: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: Uh, how, how does civility work in discourse, uh not necessarily the President’s discourse…

BYBEE: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: But in say to day discourse, neighborly discourse.

BYBEE: Right so, let me say two things. One is, I think that we have the case between you and I here, of heated agreement…

HEFFNER: [LAUGHTER]

BYBEE: Right so, I, I don’t think that civility is uh, independent of or unrelated to, uh, these other, uh, you know, kind of political solidarity community activities that you described, right? Um, I guess what I would say, uh, secondly, is that um, if we look at civility historically, we can see that civility is compatible with very different kinds of societies. You can have uh, rigid, hierarchical societies, non-democratic societies that have, uh, well-established modes of civility, uh, shared understanding of appropriate behavior. And in the United States, it’s not as if we’ve had a single model of civility that we’ve just sort of lived up to or failed to live up to over time. As you mentioned, my conception of, uh, of civility is fundamentally political. I don’t see civility as an objective standard that’s outside of public life, that we can appeal to uh, in through course of our disputes as a way of retraining and rendering more peaceful our interactions. On the contrary, I think civility is determined through our conflicts, and let me give you a couple of examples of that. Um, if you look at the civil rights movement in the 20th century, uh, we associate the civil rights movement with uh, important legislative outcomes, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

We associate the civil rights movement with important supreme court decisions, um, Brown versus Board of Education, for example, desegregating schools throughout the United States. Um, but the civil rights movement was also a social struggle. The civil rights movement was also uh, a dispute over what would count as civil behavior. Uh, Jim Crow laws, uh, which existed throughout the states of the former confederacy, um, were surrounded and sustained by a well-developed racial etiquette. And this racial etiquette had rules of appropriate behavior, that when complied with, enacted a racial hierarchy. And civil rights activists…

HEFFNER: In other words…

BYBEE: Martin Luther King…

HEFFNER: In other words, civility to the descendants of the confederacy and propriety…

BYBEE: Absolutely.

HEFFNER: As being synonymous with that that’s civil rights, right…

BYBEE: Right, it’s very …

HEFFNER: No, in this, I’m…

BYBEE: [LAUGHTER] Right. Right. Right. and so you have, the dispute is within the family of civility…

HEFFNER: Right.

BYBEE: The entire you know, argument, is not, who’s civil and who’s rude, right? Who’s behaving well, and who’s behaving in outrageous, unacceptable, unacceptably rude behavior? Um, rather, it’s a question of what’s going to count as the rule of civility for our society. And if you read “Letter From Birmingham Jail” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he talks about this racial etiquette, and he talks about his objective, which is to make sure that African Americans are simply given the same degree of respect as uh, white people. Now, um, degrees of respect, often it’s a matter of showing, is very simple, right. It doesn’t require, um, running into a burning building and saving people who are trapped there. It’s a matter of small modifications of speech and behavior. But these small modifications are freighted with meaning. As I said, they communicate something, the way you and I, sitting on either side of this table…

HEFFNER: Right.

BYBEE: Having this conversation, and you haven’t lunged at me, I, yet, [LAUGHTER]

HEFFNER: [LAUGHTER] At all…

BYBEE: But I mean there’s some instances…

HEFFNER: I’m very interested you brought up civil, civil rights. We’re talking about the origin of civility, as in civilization and civil rights. To me that’s important…

BYBEE: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Because civil is not sufficiently distinguished between, civil, what’s civil and what’s civic, and there are a lot of institution for civic education…

BYBEE: Yeah.

HEFFNER: But civic is municipal.

BYBEE: Yes.

HEFFNER: Civil can and should be more normative no, I mean it’s…

BYBEE: Right, you know, and I think that it is true, when you look at civic education, which is undergoing a little bit of a renaissance. Uh, I mean there was a real concern about lack of civil education in K through 12, um, settings, and so there’s more civics education now filtering its way through the school districts than existed before. But much of that is organized around information, right? How does a bill become a law? What are the three branches of government? Right, we just sort of, what, what’s the operators manual, right? Um, but there’s a lot less of it, if any of it, about how to conduct yourself in public life in a way that would communication your respect for others and reciprocally invite respect for yourself. I mean some of the oldest, um, rules of our politics, of course we think about the Constitution, but think about what the House of Representatives did in, as soon as it convened, 1789, it passed rules of order, rules of decorum, which are one of the oldest forms of civility in American public life. It was one of the first actions of, of federal government, right? And those rules, uh, tried to set up a situation that would achieve exactly what you’ve pointed towards, which is in a context of perpetual disagreement, uh, you assume that everybody comes to that argument, um, as actors of good faith, you don’t address them personally. You address them as representatives of the state from which they’re elected. You actually, in the House, don’t speak to each other even. You address the Speaker. And so there, it, it, it seems kind of formal, and maybe in some ways antique and faintly ridiculous. But civility in the sense that you’re describing um, is something that grew up with our civil life and our civic activity. You can’t separate the two in that sense. Uh, I think it’s…

HEFFNER: Unfortunately I think they are being separated…

BYBEE: Well, right.

HEFFNER: And I think, you know, one of the origins of that separation, I think, frankly, is the alienation of people of father in the public square. It would be my contention that we would have more civility right not if civic education hadn’t alienated people of the Book.

BYBEE: Right.

HEFFNER: If, and if, because you, that is a huge share of what did underpin American origins.

BYBEE: Well, and you have to, you know, at the root of civil interaction, if you think of civility, not only as I said, as a baseline of respect, but as a means of communication, um, a presumption that’s imbedded within that uh, set of definitions, is the idea that I care about communicating with you, and you care about communicating with me. If you write off some segment of the community, if you uh, gerrymander, uh, the boundaries of polite society in such a way that groups are cut out, um, then they don’t even warrant uh, civil treatment.

HEFFNER: Right.

BYBEE: Uh, right they’re the kind of outside of this uh, communicative exchange, and uh, that kind of boundary drawing actually happens all the time. Uh, we tend to forget it sometimes because it’s embedded within our history, but we look at the struggle that um, female activists had in the early 19th century. You know, for a woman to appear alone in the early 19th century was to invite opprobrium. This was not something that was considered to be a good idea, and for a woman to be alone in a public space, advocating her interests, uh, speaking about politics, could be seen as positively scandalous. So, we needed to, and we had as a result of political struggle and slow social change, um, an alteration in the rules of civility, and the understanding of civility that would allow us to accept women as advocates, women as having interests that they could advocate independently, and act in politically to advance them. So, there was a way in which women of course are part of the community, right, but, and they had a role in public life, but giving them uh, equal standing was the result of political debate and dispute. The drawing of the lines and relationship of different people to one another within uh, a civil society in the way we’re discussing it, which is one that is characterized by civility, uh, is itself, something that happens as a result of people advocating, people modeling, and advancing the sort of civility that they thought ought to prevail in their own speech and action.

HEFFNER: My point is just that, you’re not going to preserve civil society, or preserve civil rights, if you don’t have institutions devoted not to civic education, but civil…

BYBEE: Right…

HEFFNER: Civility and civil education, but, but, hear me out here…

BYBEE: Yeah.

HEFFNER: I would also contend that the most uncivil condition of contemporary public life is inequity. I view it through that lens…

BYBEE: Mm-hmm.

HEFFNER: And I think that this populist surge is in response to conditions that are uncivil on the ground. Am I wrong?

BYBEE: Uh it,

HEFFNER: It is indecent…

BYBEE: Right.

HEFFNER: To let the kind of wealth be carried by so few, and also not conducive to advancing civilization. I don’t know if you see it through that lens.

BYBEE: I, I, I personally agree. But I would say that um, as a historical and as a contemporary matter, that people don’t necessarily themselves define civility as requiring this foundation of equality. Um, as I mentioned before, civility has been present in, in highly in egalitarian, uh, societies. And, uh, you know I think we, we’ve seen before uh, uh, people arguing against civility. In fact there’s a long tradition of people criticizing civility because of its egalitarian foundation. Uh, there is a tradition of rejecting, um, what I call in my book a repressive civility. Right, and so, it, you know in some ways we can, we often think of, well civility uh, confronts as its opponent, incivility, right? This is the dynamic here and, and the question is which side is going to prevail, and how do we advance civility against those who, um, just don’t know the value of civility or what it is, how do we educate them. That’s almost the, you know, social studies, civic education conversation. But, you know, there’s an alternative to civility, which is uh, often presented as just being against civility of any kind and you might call that free speech society. And John Stuart Mill on his classic essay “On Liberty” was a great critic of civility, because he thought claims about how people ought to behave, were used in ways to marginalize dissenters. He thought what we ought to do instead is allow for, um, you know, robust, uninhibited, wide-open discussion of every conceivable idea. Um, that kind of free speech and open contention would allow us to separate partial truths, um, from outright fabrications, and identify whole truths, even things we already know to be true, to give us a more vital grasp of these truths.

And, you were also allowed more broadly, not just a pursuit of truth in pubic debate, but uh, opportunities for the flourishing of human nature. As Mill said, we are not machines, uh, humans instead are like trees, and they’re meant to grow on all sides, uh, as a result of the inner forces that make them living being. So we have to allow for a wide degree of experimentation and living. So all of this celebration of individual liberty and uh, say what you want, just go out there and be free, uh, has, historically been a raid against civilities of all kind, and they point to civility and say, yes, civility is what protects inequality, because it assigns people certain roles, certain stations, and to attack underlying inequalities, we need to dispense with the sense that there’s some kind of appropriate behavior, and instead we need to just argue, we need to stop treating…

HEFFNER: So is that counterpoint, you think the pervasive wind in this country.

BYBEE: I, I think that there’s, there’s a robust tradition of free speech in the United States. Uh, it’s ebbed [LAUGHTER] and flowed, but I think you find many uh, critics of civility today who would invoke freedom of expression as their preferred mode of public interaction. I think they’re wrong, actually to dispense with, with civility and talk of civility, and the reason why, I think civility actually serves the great goals, and the actual everyday practice of free speech. You know you think about Mill’s conception of free speech, or anybody who talks about, you know, free trade and ideas, marketplace of ideas as leading to competition among competing points of view, ultimately we arrive at the truth. Competition works because there are winners and losers. And in a free marketplace of ideas, we suppose that a lot of people are going to make failed rhetorical sallies. They’re going to argue a point of view, [LAUGHTER] they’re going to be projected. Uh, what civility allows us to do is to still communicate to other people, hey look, I’m a good and decent person. Maybe my ideas you reject. Right, maybe you think I don’t have the right way forward on how to reform health care, or the right way forward on how to uh, you know, deal with the infrastructure problems with the United States. Um, but you don’t attack me personally, right?

Civility I think, can be, and when properly constructed and acted is, um, a foundation for robust exchange, fee exchange of ideas. Um, civility can be constructed in repressive ways…

HEFFNER: Just as speech can be constructed in [LAUGHTER] repressive ways…

BYBEE: Turns out, yes…

HEFFNER: Right? I mean there’s the rub…

BYBEE: Yeah.

HEFFNER: When you don’t have free speech, it goes back to your beginning point about the exploitation of rhetoric in the political theater, in which case, this is not in pursuit of some larger truth. This is not in pursuit of some exchange of ideas.

BYBEE: Right.

HEFFNER: This is in pursuit of the execution and realization of an, of a political agenda.

BYBEE: And I would say, similarly, when people critique civility as being uh, repressive and restrictive, that’s not an argument, uh, to dispense with civility. Rather what we need is more civility, more talk about civility.

HEFFNER: What is the closest way we can capture some consensus around civility today.

BYBEE: Uh, well we can begin today any action or interaction in public is an occasion for civility. I encourage everybody, the next time they sit down to eat, consider that to be an occasion for civil interaction.

HEFFNER: And, privately too.

BYBEE: And privately too. Any time you’re not alone is an opportunity to engage in civil interaction.

HEFFNER: Keith Bybee, “How Civility Works.” We tried to demonstrate today. Hopefully we succeeded.

BYBEE: Thanks for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for a thought and civil excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/Openmind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.