Civility in public discourse

February 03, 2012 | Shannice Singletary '14, Contributing Writer

Conflict of two men
Conflict of two men

by Shannice Singletary '14, Contributing Writer

Ill-mannered celebrities, games glorifying sex and violence, hazing, and outrageous public displays. Civility, it seems, is under assault. Why?

Robert Hariman, a theorist of political style and chair of the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University, said it’s simple: “Incivility pays.”

Last Thursday, Hariman spoke at Furman about the importance of civility and political ethics in discourse. The speech, sponsored by the Department of Communication Studies, challenged listeners to rethink the way they view and use civility to tackle issues.

The university community is no stranger to the term "civility." Last fall, President Rob Smolla led a panel discussion on “Civility in Public Discourse.” And this year, a 40-member task force chaired by the president is examining public discourse on campus.

In a society where the loudest and most obnoxious voices often rise above others, Hariman says civility in discourse is a topic that needs to be constantly evaluated.

He first gave a brief outline of political discourse and discussed how civility has been reflected in modern events, such as the tense, drama-filled 2012 presidential campaign. Due to the prevalence of mud-slinging, trash-talking and other less than civil speech, a majority of the public has had enough.

“Public speech today has been deregulated and consequently devalued,” he said. “Talk becomes cheap.”

Hariman called for a “reassessment” of civility but cautioned the public not to ask too much. Civility, he said, requires a certain level of self-sacrifice from the speaker, a sacrifice many are unwilling to make.

“Many people are indifferent by nature, [and] we first need a certain level of moral sentiment in order to supplement that indifference. From there, we can begin tackling the issues of how to go about curing society of its more ill-mannered tendencies.”

(illustration by shutterstock)