Campus Theme lecture series wraps up with discussion of civility and democracy

Two Southern Oregon University professors and a local historian examined and discussed the role that civility plays in a functioning democracy and conflict resolution on Thursday, Nov. 17, in the Meese Auditorium of SOU’s Art Building.

As Fall term’s last installment of the 2011-2012 SOU Campus Theme lecture series on civility, the evening included three presentations focusing on civil and uncivil behavior in American politics by SOU Professors Edwin Battistella and Jon Lange, and retired United States Forest Service Historian and Archaeologist Jeffrey M. LaLande.

“Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect for those that are present,” wrote George Washington as one rule of civility, according to Battistella. The English professor, however, quickly pointed out the limits of such civility in early American life.

“Social class as well as gender would play a role in the question of whose tongue was sufficiently civil enough to take part in public affairs,” he said, explaining that Washington presided over a new nation that denied women and slaves the right to vote, the right to have a public voice.

But while the United States progressed, expanded and acted more civilly towards minorities and women, the country never freed itself from political incivility.

“We are about a year away from the national elections. The citizenry braces itself for what is predicted to be the most intense negative campaign year on record,” said Lange, an SOU professor of communication.

“It seems clear that both political parties are gearing up for another less than civil presidential campaign,” he continued, referring to a leaked memo from Obama’s 2012 campaign team, saying they would “go negative” in the upcoming election.

Lange went on to say that in politics there is “a full tilt, win-lose mentality, if not caused by incivility, augmented and reinforced by it.”

“As uncivil behavior in various contexts such as politics, sports and cyberspace worsens, it generalizes into our everyday discourse and the effect expands exponentially as boorishness becomes the norm, not the exception,” he said, noting that it is easier, more dramatic and more exciting to act uncivilly than it is to act civilly.

But before taking questions from the audience, the professor said of civility in America, “We can do better. I’m hoping we will.”

As the evening’s presenters settled into their panelist seats, one audience member asked, “Is there a civil response for six out of eight republican [presidential] candidates who openly advocate torture? How do you be civil to those kinds of people?”

“With as much fine argument and emotion as you can, you argue against that point,” answered Lalande. “Civility is not avoiding disputes. It is how things are worked out and whether it is an argument that is going to be useful, rather than simply insulting and degrading, to our community,” he continued.

The Civility series will continue throughout the year, with the next event scheduled for Jan. 12. Visit sou.edu/ahc/campustheme to stay informed on upcoming 2011-2012 Campus Theme events.

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