Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Civility Crisis

I walked a tightrope for four years. Shortly after I got my first tenure-track college teaching job, I found myself caught between an administrator and a mostly tenured faculty who despised each other. I understood that when I came up for tenure, it would really not matter how good a teacher I had been or how much I had contributed to my field. Without the support of both my colleagues and the administration, I could not possibly get tenure, because both were absolutely essential. Because of the prevailing climate, though, earning and maintaining both was nearly impossible.

Somehow I succeeded. I did my job with unfeigned dedication and tried to stay out of trouble. Neither did I hide my opinions, and when called on to do so I expressed them. I refused to kiss anybody's you-know-what, but I remained civil and respectful toward all those I had to work with, understanding that the health of the entire college depended on others' and my willingness to do so. As a result, I earned enough respect to survive the tenure gauntlet.

Ever since Henry Kissinger said it, it's become a standard gambit to compare the vicious, feuding world of academia with the comparatively civil one of politics and international diplomacy. Even Kissinger must have to admit, though, that our national political conversation has come to resemble Harvard at its worst. Thus, I want to make my own contribution to the growing debate over what exactly the Occupy Wall St. (hereafter OWS) protestors might be trying to accomplish. I can't speak for anyone else, but I sense a growing frustration that people throughout our entire political culture seem to have stopped talking to each other. Civility—the glue that holds democratic institutions together and allows them to function—has stopped working. Nobody in Congress seems to be acting in good faith, willing to put the well-being of the nation and the survival of democracy ahead of the overriding goal of demolishing the other side.

This culture of dysfunctional name-calling has been building for decades. It would be sorely out of form for me, in an essay with this subject, to point fingers and assign blame for this situation. Let me just say that I don't watch MSNBC and I never have. The few times I tried to listen to Air America I turned it off in sheer boredom. Thus, I feel completely justified in asking people to stop watching Fox News. It was, in fact, my attempt to do exactly that which led to my voluntary withdrawal late last year from Facebook as a vehicle for political discussion. Looking back at what happened, I realize that all I was trying to do was persuade a few people who were clearly getting their talking points from Fox to talk to me as well and hear a different perspective. All refused. Several called me a bully and unfriended me. Incivility gained the upper hand.

So I set up shop here and seized it back. That's why I've been writing this blog and inviting others to join me. I sense a similar type of frustration, and a similar kind of initiative, in the OWS protests. These are people who have tried to work within the established framework, but have found that the framework no longer works because glaring, habitual incivility has completely destroyed it. There is no other place left for them to say what they know needs to be said. What they and I would love more than anything is for the public square to become open again to voices like ours. That, however, would require a commitment from everybody to the process of communication—to doing the hard work of democracy, which inevitably involves swallowing your personal pride and indignation so that the health of the entire country can be maintained and we can continue to function.

If OWS and I have a single message to convey—one that trumps everything else—it's this: you won't get anywhere if you let the conversation be controlled by people who won't talk to each other. This rag-tag coalition of mostly young people are currently the adults in the room. I take my hat off to them.


  1. Robin, you have noted several times with evident pride how you set up this web site as a response to incivility on Facebook. But I can't help noticing that most of your posts here have engendered no comments (and I've been your most frequent commenter).

    I can't think of a single hermit who led by isolation. Incivility has always accompanied the most interesting political ideas. My suggestion is that you develop a thicker skin if you want to make a difference out in the real world.

  2. My pride goes deeper than that, Joel. Believe me, it took a thick skin to weather the situation I described at the beginning of this post. It took a thick skin to testify before a largely hostile Texas legislative committee earlier this year (as I've also documented here) and publicize my views in other ways that led to harsh reactions. (I took a drubbing in the local newspaper after an Op-Ed I published last year on the same topic.) When I look back at my life, the achievements that give me the deepest satisfaction are those that have involved mediating between hostile factions and showing that I can hear both sides and retain my perspective.

    The times I have tried a more aggressive approach—yes, there have been some of those as well—have led to abject failure. I will not go down that road again.

  3. PS - Comments or not, I'm closing in on 6000 page views, which is an average of nearly 100 for each post I've made. I've received plenty of private communications from people—some of which have really surprised me—expressing their appreciation for what I'm doing here.

  4. I enjoy reading Dr. Wallace's blog posts. While I don't always agree on every issue, I respect his opinion and find that he's arrived at his opinion due to research and deep thought. As someone who is trying to do the same, I find his blogs to be an excellent resource.

    The Facebook conversations often seemed to be unproductive due to people resorting to personal attacks instead of saying why they disagreed.

    I usually only comment when I feel I have something to add to the conversation.

    As for the Occupy Wall Street movement, it's interesting that it's often called a liberal movement. I personally know both conservatives and liberals who support the movement because there is such a disconnect between politicians and their constituents.