Today I am so pleased to welcome Leslie A. Hahner to BearTracks. Leslie A. Hahner is an associate professor in the Communication Department at Baylor University. She is the award-winning author of To Become an American: Immigrants and Americanization Campaigns of the Early Twentieth Century and co-author, with Heather Suzanne Woods, of Make America Meme Again: The Rhetoric of the Alt-right. She recently presented in President Linda A. Livingstone’s civility series. This piece developed from that talk.
Today, perhaps more than ever, we long for civility in our classrooms and in our communities. We yearn for basic respect and ways to productively disagree with one another. I see it on the faces of my students, who seem desperate to have a model for interaction with one another—one that doesn’t simply rely on “agreeing to disagree” but allows for real engagement, even collaborative change.
Of course, the possibilities for civility have decreased alongside an increase in political polarization. In a recently released book entitled Uncivil Agreement, author Lillian Mason shows how Americans have retreated into their different political groups. Mason continues to say that our political identity has subsumed all other aspects of our identity. We view ourselves first as members of a political “side,” then as Christians, or parents, or partners. As individuals, we rarely interact with those from a different political party. As a result, we are more entrenched in our beliefs, we often view the so-called “other side” not just as people with whom we disagree but as enemies. And enemyship is no way to run a participatory democracy, let alone an educational community.
As an educator, one of the best gifts we can offer students is to model best practices for civility and to mold the classroom as a space of equitable engagement. One of the things I try to model for students is that they must be willing to listen and to enact humility. That humility must be adopt the radical possibility of “seeing the face of God” in the other. Such radical humility requires that we march steadily toward reconciliation and justice. Historically, the concept of “civility” has been used to silence oppositional or marginalized peoples. “Civility” has been misused as a cudgel to quiet people saying unpopular things, especially those who are denied the privileges of the prevailing order. It has also been misused against advocates of change by telling people they are “too loud,” “too rude,” or want to “convert people to your way of thinking, or advocate in ways that make us uncomfortable.” Too often, students and the general public understand civility as simply politeness. And civility cannot be seen as a synonym for politeness. Instead, students should begin from the baseline of humility, with a willingness to engage with foreign ideas, to listen to others with grace and the understanding that they could be wrong. I explain to students that we all need to engage with one another as though each of you might be radically changed by that encounter. Just as you are asking another to understand your position, you must be willing to embrace the position offered—even if only for that class period.
I also explain that, particularly in a Christian context, everyone needs to possess a reasonably similar seat of the table. That position must be thoughtfully made—especially for historically marginalized peoples. There cannot be ideas or positions that are omitted because they are seen as “dangerous,” save the advocacy of actual violence. Oddly enough, banning certain topics suggests that those ideas are too powerful to consider. Without equal footing, we cannot truly engage in the best forms of civil dialogue as we have presumed up front that certain people are outside the lines of civility. That is especially hurtful if polite messages from extremists are seen as civil, while there is a sharp dividing line against those who are asking for justice. In the classroom, that means arranging debates and conversations on controversial ideas with explicit rules against name-calling, fallacies, and targeting peers but allowing room for rigorous disagreement. These kinds of activities show students that we can have conversations, not just arguments, about what these conflicts mean for Christians. But it also means we perhaps need to reconsider our conception of argument and civility to allow intense disagreement to be understood as an inevitable and necessary component of civil society.
I also remind students that controversial conversations will be uncomfortable. As bell hooks argues, discomfort when it comes to matters of cultural, racial, and ethnic difference is part of how we grow and learn. Learning to be uncomfortable while we pursue these conversations is part of the journey, not something to avoid. Those emotions are natural, but we must also try to experience those feelings such that we don’t use them to punish those with whom we disagree. Showing students that emotions are part of our civic life and must be part of these conversations is crucial to allowing them to be heard.
The classroom is a unique space where we can encourage students to interact kindly with those who disagree. As we do so, we must remind students that our political opponents are not enemies. As community members, I ask students seek out settings—churches, classrooms, group memberships—where they can meaningfully interact with those who don’t share the same points of view. In fact, if students pursue engagement, rather than winning, they gain significant benefits. My colleague, Dr. Scott J. Varda, offers an assignment where he asks students to intentionally lose an online debate. Students have noticed from this assignment that they understand the “other side” much more clearly. The difference is not the location but rather that students have a new goal. That they are not focused on “winning” changes the parameters of engagement.
Civility cannot be considered in the same terms as it has been historically used. Too often the concept of politeness has denied justice and stymied engagement. Yet, at Baylor and as teachers generally, we have an amazing opportunity to promote Christian humility as a new mode of civility. Such radical humility and respect may allow for stronger educational outcomes and even broader social change.