In Cheshire Calhoun’s “The Virtue of Civility,” she articulates a standard for civil conduct that I think is remarkably useful: We ought be civil to views that social consensus has not yet taken “off the table” – i.e., views that we collectively via consensus have not yet settled. This makes practicing civility quite experientially hard of course – there will be many views I personally think ought to be settled that are not – but its logic resides in recognizing the areas where we need very much to keep talking. Civility is the mechanism that keeps dialogue going and can enable persuasion. Implicit in this is that a social-moral goal is consensus seeking, with a priority on recognizing that none of us are well equipped to sort things out on our own, using only our own moral frameworks. So we display respect and toleration for views we can’t endorse in an effort to maintain humility and engage in the long, arduous persuasive work social-moral progress would require.
In teaching Calhoun in the current political atmosphere, it seems increasingly to me that there is something of a crisis in consensus formation. It isn’t simply that we do not enjoy consensus but that many are foundationally cynical about what consensus means. “Consensus” is perceived by many to belong to them, to some group of people other than me and mine. Because of this, uncivil conduct and speech is not simply protesting views with which I disagree, but protesting the systems by which views get “settled” or “taken off the table.” Here’s a little of what I mean.
The Middlebury protest, in which students shouted down a lecture by Charles Murray, was proximately targeting his racist work in The Bell Curve. But more deeply, the protests can be understood to be targeting the academic system’s treatment of Murray as a speaker who still retains a place at the table. (NB: From what I understand it was more recent work by Murray to be discussed, not the most controversial work for which he is best known.) The students can be understood to be objecting to what academia allows at the table and to be expressing in their incivility a desire to count it off the table. More boldly, they could be understood to be saying: We will not accept academia’s treating Murray as having a place at the table, as being a person whose views belong in the unsettled open space of respectful discourse and disrespect is how we codify and express our judgment on this. That the students did this so disruptively is perhaps a marker of their feeling insufficiently part of the system of social dialogues that dictate what’s on the table and what’s off. Incentives to engage in civil objection to Murray lose force if one thinks consensus-formation happens without you, if you think they are deciding without your input what counts as settled and unsettled.
Something similar seems to be at work in objections to “political correctness,” at least if the students I see invoking this are indication. From what I see, invoking “political correctness” often looks a lot like saying, “A consensus is being asserted without me.” Objections to political correctness suggest that someone is being disallowed from saying things they wish to say, whether it be beliefs they retain or attitudes they would confess, but at bottom, the perception is that the disallowing is somehow unfair, unwarranted, or premature. I think here too, the issue is that insofar as the “politically correct” represents a purported consensus, it is one perceived to develop without sufficiently broad input. Indeed, many objections to political correctness suggest that it is “consensus” by elite fiat. Consequently, here too, the proximate provocation to protest against political correctness may be some idea or claim, but the deeper complaint is that what is passing for consensus is not, that consensus does not include me and those like me.
If something like this is right, with incivilities both right and left emerging from cynicism about consensus formation, it suggests that political problems are not simply an increasingly uncivil war of competing values and ideas, but that exaggerated forms of incivility will be increasingly appealing. The civil system will for some significant number of people look like other people’s system, not mine. It will read as social dominance masquerading as consensus. And so injunctions to civil discourse are going to be less compelling: After all, those setting the terms for “civility” are not people like me, lending greater psychological purchase to claims that “be civil” is a form of silencing.
If I think you’re announcing consensus-by-fiat, I will distrust any of the goods you may promise as outcomes for my good civil behavior. You can rattle on about the value of reasoned discourse, but so long as I think its outcomes – “consensus” – rely on my capitulating to things you’ve decided without me, I won’t see the value. It’s not just that my disagreement with you on issues is discounted, but that my participation at all is premised on my treating as settled something I think isn’t. Civility in search of consensus thus looks like a fool’s game. So people instead maneuver to assert dominance in response – shouting down a speaker to force his views off the table or transgressing “politically correct” speech boundaries to force more onto the table. Such is to say that the content of the views is only part of this picture. Much of it also has to do with who is setting the table and how.
I don’t know how trust in consensus formation can be achieved, but I do think, based on the above, scolding the uncivil will likely amplify cynicism. It will seem but one more iteration of forced “consensus,” taking things off the table or keeping them on absent my input. Hand-wringing about how students today don’t “get it” where university speech norms are concerned misses that students (left and right) are exploding a system in which they don’t feel they have a share. We want them to participate in real and robust consensus formation, but our political culture has made many of them wildly cynical about just what that means so they take our arguments as invitations to just shut up. And then they refuse. That, at least, is how it is increasingly seeming to me, though I offer all this as quite tentative explanation… If it seems plausible to others, I’d love to hear suggestions about how it might be addressed.