Wayne State University

Aim Higher

Responsive image

Fall Symposium

Theme: Civility and Incivility

Date: October 13, 2017
Venue: Bernath Auditorium
Time: 9:45 AM to 6:30 PM

Please click here for the schedule


"The word civility summons images of manners and polite discourse but in both public and private spaces, the concept of "civility' is challenged through incidents of name calling, shadowy dealings, sexual harassment, or physical confrontations. Where is the line drawn between heated disagreement and slander? Between calling attention to an injustice and inciting violence? Even as notions of civility are enshrined in Western liberal democracies, critical theorists and indigenous activists (among others) point out that such notions often serve to privilege elite constitutents, and further marginalize or disenfranchise subaltern actors. Accordingly, we have seen how a number of contemporary social movements focused on diversity, social justice, and inclusion harness what is seemingly "incivility" to advocate for social change (e.g., Black Lives Matter, WTO protests, Occupy Wall Street). Research on civility is thus incredibly nuanced, reaches many disciplines, and inspires some intriguing pairings such as civility and democracy, civility in the workplace, civility and gender/sex, civility and social movements, civility and violence and civility and design."


Susan Herbst
President of University of Connecticut

"Rude Democracy: Civility & Incivility in American Politics" 

Incivility has a long history in American politics. Harsh language, personal attack, and even physical altercation were sewn into the fabric of our political culture from the earliest days of our founding. The years leading up to the Civil War were among the most brutal, and led to a conflict more horrendous than any 18th century founder could have possibly imagined. Citizen against citizen; state against state.

Not all incivility is a precursor to war of course, but we need to understand the forms that incivility takes, here in 2017. Is some incivility inherent in American politics? Has the nation changed in a fundamental way these past few years? What is to be done? These are the questions of our historical moment, and those that students, scholars, and indeed every citizen must ponder, if we are to build the kind of democratic nation we wish to inhabit.

Photos - Video

"Speakers Corner at London’s Hyde Park: Civility Still Reigns within Public Debate"

Joshua Azriel
Professor, Journalism and Emerging Media
Kennesaw State University

For more than 140 years, Speakers Corner in London's Hyde Park has served as a free speech forum. Parliament, in 1872, passed the Parks Regulation Act that granted individuals the right to visit Speakers Corner and use the location as a soap box to speak about any issue. Speakers have chosen many subjects to talk about: religion, politics, economics, culture, etc. During the Victorian period, Speakers Corner became the location for individuals and political groups to advocate for civil liberties. George Orwell, Vladimir Lenin, and Marcus Garvey are among the thousands who have spoken there. Speakers Corner is considered by many to be a "venerable" institution of free speech in the U.K.

Utilizing a research grant from Kennesaw State University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences, in March 2016 I visited London to conduct a series of semi-structured interviews with both Speakers Corner activists and BBC journalists. With approval from my university’s IRB, I interviewed nine activists and three journalists asking them questions related to the historic site’s impact on British society and their overall effectiveness of delivering their message. All interviews were transcribed and coded based on five subject areas: censorship, speaker goals, speaker relevancy, effectiveness in communication, and journalists’ perspectives on Speakers Corner’s relevance.

The research questions for this project are:

  1. Is Speakers Corner more of a tourist attraction than a genuine forum for free speech?

  2. What subject issues are discussed at Speakers Corner?

  3. Are there limits to freedom of speech at Speakers Corner?

  4. Do the speakers believe they are effective in advocating their causes?

Initial results:

  1. The activists indicate that censorship by police authorities and the government is not a main concern of theirs. In my two visits, all speakers were men. Women visited Speakers Corner but the activists were male. Most do not worry about any government sponsored actions to censor their messages.

  2. The topics mainly presented fall into three areas: religion, politics and health. Politics and health mainly dominate Speakers Corner during the morning and early afternoon with religion activists speaking in mid and late afternoons.

  3. Most speakers believe this site has become more of a tourist attraction than a place for effective debate about issues but that does not stop them from being active. The journalists interviewed for this project agreed upon this point believing that Speakers Corner’s effectiveness as a serious place to discuss issues was in the past.  

Powerpoint - Photos - Videos: Part 1 - Part 2 (Q&A)

"The Incivility of Student Protest and the Expansion of the Intellectual Purview of the Academy "

Melba J. Boyd, Distinguished Professor, African American Studies
Ollie Johnson III, Chair, African American Studies

Before African American Studies became a discipline in the academy, it existed within the intellectual institutions in the African American community and was taught in some racially segregated schools and Black churches. As African American scholars acquired terminal degrees and entered some facets of higher education by adhering to traditional disciplines and paradigms, many of them simultaneously contributed to the development of the nascent discipline as members of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, founded by Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Books and journals advanced and supported the discourse and scholarship that was, for the most part, ignored by mainstream universities and scholarly organizations. As an extension of the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Student Movement committed acts of incivility, protesting, demonstrating, and making demands on American campuses. Subsequently, Black Studies programs, departments, and centers were created to accommodate a discipline that expanded the canon and advanced principles of academic diversity.

This discussion about the incivility of protest on campuses is critical to understanding how white racial domination has misguided American thought and culture for centuries. The miseducation within higher education has misrepresented the contributions and complexities of people of color. Our presentation will also consider how the opening of the academy promoted other student protests, e.g., the Chicano Student Movement, which resulted in further expansion of the curriculum and promoted the admittance of a multicultural student population. Conversely, university curriculums incorporated, to a limited extent, a more egalitarian representation of people of the United States as well as throughout the rest of the planet.

Powerpoint - Pictures

"Political Deliberation, The Black Panther Party, and the House of Representative Internal Security Committee; Civility or Negative Framing "

Ronald Brown
Associate Professor, Political Science

On April 2, 1969, the House of Representatives voted 305 to 51 replace the Un-American Activities Committee and authorize the House Committee on Internal Security $400,000 to “investigate Communist and other subversive activities affecting the internal security of the United States” (New York Times, April 2, 1969, CRS-1970-GGX-0018). Members of Congress often conduct fire alarm investigative oversight to take highly visible public stands on issues (Mayhew 2005). The fire alarm investigation, 1969-1970 resulted in the framing of the Black Panther Party as a threat to American liberalism, as criminals, and a threat to the internal security of the property rights of law abiding Americans. In contrast, local as well as state police officials were framed as protectors of American liberalism.

In this paper, the focus is a series of subcommittee and full committee hearings held by the House Committee on Internal Security, September 1969 to October 6, 1970. The testimony of newly elected black congressional members, local police officials, and federal undercover agents are closely scrutinized. Indeed, the conclusion drawn is that careful framing of black dissent as un-American led to subsequent proposed legislation to justify the suppression of black militancy. The racialization and demonization of the Black Panther Party has chilling implications for contemporary political groups whose flammable rhetoric Congress wishes to silence.

Photos - Video

"Urban Disadvantaged African American Males, Aggression and Civility in American Society"

Elizabeth Dungee-Anderson
Associate Professor, Social Work

According to Lane (YEAR); McCourt ( YEAR) civil behavior requires that people communicate with respect, restraint, and responsibility. Uncivil communication occurs when people fail to do so. Habermas (1975) argues that human conflict occurs when there is miscommunication, so it may be further argued that communication competence is required for the reduction of miscommunication. What then is communication competence in the context of civility? Herrick (2005) suggests that communication competence involves the ability to communicate so that (1) the claim of truth by the communicator is shared by both speaker and receiver; (2) the receiver is directed to understand and accept the speaker’s intention; and (3), the communicator adapts to the listener’s world view (Herrick). Arguably then, If there is disagreement about the truth claim or appropriateness of the content of the communication, conflict will ensue. Does this perspective of civility/incivility ring true across most human interactions? Or, is civility equally or better defined as contextual?

In a closer examination of civility from the perspective of social justice and a review of the identified requirements for acceptability of civility in societal discourse, it becomes less clear to this writer that the accepted or standard definition of civility rings true. For example, Webster defines social justice as a state or doctrine of egalitarianism or a fair and just relation between the individual and society, measured by the explicit and tacit terms for the distribution of wealth, opportunities for personal activity and social privileges. Therefore, though the concepts of “just” and “equal” appear to be accepted by society at-large as inherent philosophical principles that define democracy, equitability does not appear to have a claim of truth when the variables of difference and social justice are introduced in “civil” societal discourse. The central thesis of this argument, then, is that civility is contextual and inclusive of individual and group truth claims despite the fact that such claims of societal truth may indeed be false in our American democratic society.

In general, African American males and, most decidedly, those from urban and socio-economically disadvantaged circumstances are viewed globally in society as suspect, aggressive, menacing, violent and ultimately “uncivil”. Overall, societal communication and subsequent societal interactions, behaviors, and discourse, emanate from this widely held perspective. For the purpose of this discussion, a related argument then would be that in circumstances of societal incivility against an entire population group in an original societal context not of their making, would aggression as a variable to promote, and capture some measure of egalitarianism seem an appropriate fair response to global societal communicated disrespect, dishonor, mistrust? The argument here is not that aggression in general is a respected intervention in civil discourse, but when societal interactions against an entire population group are uncivil and communication is incompetent, is the use of aggression a fair measure to begin to identify and address social injustice and provide a lens of awareness for those who believe societal discourse is indeed civil?

This paper will explore the use of aggression, deliberate or otherwise, as a respected measure for safety and preservation of civil liberties in a democracy beginning with World War I and II and other types of more recent conflicts that seem to support aggression as a necessary measure in a democracy when circumstances are extraordinary. It is clear that the place of African American males in American society is extraordinary. Can such principles of the use of aggression be applied here?

Photos - Video

"'I Don't Think 'Civility' Means What We Think It Means': Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process, and American resistance to a court of manners"

Kenneth Jackson
Chair, English

The idea of human rights has been used to invade foreign countries, oppress women, and maintain economic inequality. A state claims to protect the universal right to democracy when using military force against another state to secure a natural resource. A religious leader appeals to the right to religious liberty to justify gender inequality in the community. A political official objects to re-distributive taxation on grounds that it violates the right to property. What goes wrong in these appeals to human rights? They reflect an ideology – rather than an ideal – that justifies a structure of power that generates unjust laws, policy, and institutions. An ideology provides self-serving justifications for a status quo distribution of political or economic goods between states, between states and their own members or between members of the same state. The ideology of human rights uses the idea of human rights to promote the interests of duty-bearers (who are generally persons in power or have resources) rather than the rights-holders, who are vulnerable to the abuse of power. On the other hand, the ideal of human rights is a moral aim to correct the imbalance of power that leads to unjust distribution of goods. The ideal provides justifications that serve the interests of the right-holders rather than the duty-bearers. The following are examples of using the idea of human rights to defend the ideal: (1) an appeal to the right against genocide to justify a foreign intervention where it does not promote the self-serving interests of the invaders, (2) an appeal to the right to religious liberty for the protection of a minority religious group from the persecution of a dominant religious group, and (3) an appeal to the right to property against a powerful state that tries to confiscate land within a residential area for re-development. My paper does not provide a set of necessary and sufficient conditions that can distinguish an ideology from the ideal of human rights, but I explore some questions that can identify their differences.  

Photos - Video

"Tolerating Purveyors of Hate Speech: Civility or Complicity?"

Brad Roth
Professor, Political Science & Law

When does civility become complicity? A participant in a public conversation has duties not only to one’s interlocutor, but to other stakeholders, including the targets of the interlocutor’s assertions, characterizations, and proposed policies. Civility communicates the message that the interlocutor belongs in the conversation, but some interlocutors – e.g., white supremacists, Holocaust deniers – do not belong in the conversation; their inclusion may tend to normalize what needs to be identified as a social pathology. The problem is not that the speech at issue offends sensibilities, but that it plausibly exposes vulnerable members of society to enhanced risks of discrimination, harassment, or even violence.

Yet disruption of such speech – exercises of power “from below” – raises questions partially analogous to those arising from governmental regulation. Prevalent free speech doctrine establishes a standard of viewpoint neutrality: “under the First Amendment, there is no such thing as a false idea.” Even if this standard (which does not prevail in many other democracies) is repudiated, considerations of both principle and pragmatism properly constrain the range of uncivil responses that can be countenanced in a democratic political community.

Photos - Video

"Online Mass Surveillance and Political Incivility"

Elizabeth Stoycheff, Assistant Professor, Communication

Kunto A. Wibowo, Doctoral Candidate, Communication

Juan Liu, Doctoral Candidate, Communication

Kai Xu, Doctoral Candidate, Communication

The U.S. National Security Agency argues that its online mass surveillance has played a pivotal role in preventing acts of terrorism on U.S. soil since 9/11. But journalists and academics have decried the practice, arguing that it has the potential to chill online expression and cultivate a sense of societal mistrust and incivility. As the first study to investigate empirically the relationship between online surveillance and political incivility, we find that perceptions of government monitoring reduce individuals’ commitment to protect others’ basic civil liberties, including rights to free speech and a fair trial. This incivility is subsequently associated with greater support for hawkish foreign policy to prevent terrorism. Implications for the privacy-security debate are discussed.

"The Ideology of Ideology"

Stephen L. Winters
Walter S. Gibbs Distinguished Professor of Constitutional Law, Law

In contemporary usage, civility and politics are semantic and practical opposites. Civility connotes courtesy, politeness, and respect. Politics, on the other hand, is the competitive enterprise of getting and keeping power. Civility in the public sphere is vanishing as politicians increasingly demonize opponents (or scapegoat outsiders) in order to mobilize their supporters who, in turn, organize themselves as warring tribes.

Our language has not always been so gauche. Semantically, “civility” and “politics” share a common origin in notions of communal membership. “Civility” is from the Latin civilitas “the art of governing” or “citizenship” while “politics” is from the Greek politis (πολίτης) for “citizen” and politea (πολιτεία) or “the art of citizenship.” As Guilliame de La Perrière observes in his sixteenth century work, Le Miroir Politique: “Policy is derived from the Greek word πολιτεῖα which in our tongue we may term civility. And that which the Greeks called political government, the Latins called the government of a Republic or civil society.”

The modern sense of civility as politeness derives from the understanding that some level of restraint in civil interactions is necessary to public peace. This modern sense, however, is doubly degraded. On one hand, it connotes the minimal level of courtesy necessary for social life as in the phrases “mere civility” or “please be civil.” On the other hand, this narrow sense—shorn, as it is, of its original connotation of citizenship and the equality of respect that entails—often operates to preserve privilege: Under conditions of hierarchy, the demand of decorum is likely to mean that the subordinate are expected to defer to their “betters.”

The semantic shift in the meaning of civility reflects profound social and epistemic changes. Modern, western societies are pluralist and individualist. We are not only diverse in values, beliefs, backgrounds, and ethnicities, but we are deeply skeptical of people’s capacity to persuade one another on matters of profound normative commitments. In our modern context, as Frank Michelman observes, “good politics does not essentially involve the direction of reason and argument towards any common, ideal, or self-transcendent end. For true pluralists, good politics can only be a market-like medium through which variously interested and motivated individuals and groups seek to maximize their own particular preferences.”

But the pluralist’s “good politics” is self-defeating. Power is not self-executing; it can only “open or close hidden fissures in the block of general consent.” Politics is not the realization of power, but the construction of it. As La Perrière continues: “All cities and civil societies are constituted for the purpose and refinement of some good.” Politics is a necessary condition of the intersubjective relation between socially situated individuals who need each other to succeed and, inevitably, are not of a single mind. It requires tolerance, pragmatism, negotiation, compromise, cooperation, and the capacity to seek common ground. When politics is instead played as a zero-sum game, the inevitable results are polarization, stalemate, and oppression. Once people are oriented to politics as just another competitive market for maximizing preferences, the necessary conditions for success—that is, civility—are destroyed.

This, too, is the epistemic condition that underwrites the phenomenon of “fake news.” When politics becomes about preferences rather than ends, reason, fact and argument are beside the point. Everybody is entitled to their opinion, one opinion is as good as another, and pretty soon every opinion is impervious to rational refutation: Evolution is just a theory; the jury is still out on climate change; Obamacare is Socialism. Compromise and consensus become impossible; politics degenerates into a blood sport.

Which is not to suggest that civility requires harmony or the suppression of difference. Where there is already agreement there is—by definition—no need for politics. It is to suggest that civility in its commodious sense requires agonism without antagonism. For politics to succeed, we must engage with one another as protagonists in a comon project of collective self-governance. And that is only possible when we can come together to exercise influence over our fate under conditions of mutual recognition and respect.

Photos - Video

"A Basket Full of Deplorables: Civility as the Policing of Public Affect and Dissensus"

Kelly M. Young
Associate Professor of Communication & Director of Forensics

Debate within a liberal public sphere is considered by many to be the foundation of democracy. For instance, normative democratic theorists contend that citizens having equal access to reasoned civil debate with a public sphere provides legitimacy to democratic institutions and their laws and policies. Further, argumentation and communication studies theory was founded on a consensus model of debate, where decision-making occurs based on considering several opinions and options and majority vote, based on shared agreement after civil discussion. Although our government is not structured on a consensus model, we tend to believe that a civil and well-reasoned debate that considers all perspectives about important matters is the best mode of public deliberation.

However, the rise of various protest groups like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matters and the uncivil nature of the 2016 presidential election call into question some, if not most, of these underlying assumptions. Rather than listen to the concerns and demands of protest groups, we immediately dismiss them after branding the groups as uncivil and violent. During the election, harsh rhetoric, emotional appeals, false news, and inconsistent advocacy dominated the news cycle. Within this political context, what role does evidence, logic, and political passions play within public sphere debate? Has the public sphere transformed or has it always had a certain policing function that produces the very exclusions that led to the rise of uncivil forces?

My presentation will contend that there remains great value in public argument, but it requires critical attention to the forces that are the challenging the public sphere in ways that are often considered antithetical to good governance and civil public debate: affective reasoning and dissensus. Drawing from recent work on affect theory, emotional reasoning, and Jacques Ranciére’s critique of civility, consensus, and politics. Rather than seeking to restore the legitimacy of various institutions of shared truth (e.g., government agencies, news media, the university) or call for an exclusionary mode of public civility, we should better understand how affect and exclusions constantly disrupt our models of civility and consensus. Instead, we should embrace Ranciére’s demand for a politics that calls into question communication and political norms as givens. Recent examples drawn from Black Lives Matters, Occupy Wall Street, the Women’s March, and the 2016 presidential election, particularly disputes within the Democratic Party and criticisms of Trump supporters, will be used to illustrate many of these ideas.

Photos - Video

" Civility and Creativity Constellating Communities: Discovering our Collective Humanity Through the Arts and Design"

Marilyn Zimmerwoman, Associate Professor, Art & Art History

Margi Weir, Associate Professor, Art & Art History

Holly Feen-Calligan, Associate Professor & Coordinator of Art Therapy, Education

Colloquially, ideology is a set of beliefs or value system such as free-market capitalism or Marxism that an autonomous subject subscribes to. In critical theory, ideology is a system of values and beliefs that some subjects promulgate in their self-interest to mystify and mislead other, otherwise autonomous subjects to their detriment. On this view, ideology shapes the perceptions and preferences of the subordinated so they accede to the claims of power. As Foucault observes, theories of power that depend upon notions of hegemony and ideology presuppose problematically strong notions of both truth and subjectivity. Worse, they are self-contradictory and internally incoherent. They assume, on one hand, that the subordinated are so acculturated to the demands of the system that they see it as natural. Yet, they simultaneously presume that those "in power" stand outside and manipulate those very same processes of social construction. This cannot be. The "powerful" too must have been socialized to see their interests and privilege as natural. Once power is recognized in the very formation of the individual subject, it is not possible to skirt the fact that the powerful, too, are subjects produced by the operations of power. Ideology is, rather, a reflexive element whose function is to rationalize complicity in an ongoing social system. In The Power of the Powerless, Václav Havel provides a sophisticated understanding of power as residing in a system of practices and expectations in which everyone participates. Ideology is to a social system what rationalization is to neurosis in psychoanalytic theory: Its manifest content serves as form of misdirection that conceals from the participants the performative content of their actions; its latent psychological function is to allow the participants to comply with the expectations of the system and yet maintain a sense of dignity, integrity, or authenticity. In a consumer society, for example, the neoliberal ideology of freedom, individualism, and choice provide the link that binds the individual to the system. Consumerism understood as a system of power reproduces and maintain itself not by misleading or "brainwashing" consumers, but by providing them with already rationalized excuses for action.

Photos - Video