College Of Arts and Sciences | Civility and Democratic Politics
S104 | 4011 | Isaac, J.

“Civility” is surely one of the buzz words of our time.  Commentators
and political activists across the political spectrum decry a
nastiness and lack of civility in public life.  Political theorists
and philosophers hold forth about the dangers of mean-spirited
argument and adamant political conflict, and celebrate deliberation,
dialogue, and dispassionate, reasoned public discussion as an
antidote to the ills of our time.  Religious leaders, sociologists,
and exemplars of moral rectitude such as William Bennett and Joseph
Lieberman—whether self-appointed or not—cry out for civility
and “decency,” and wax eloquently about the role of “civil society”
in maintaining a healthy democracy.

These national discussions have their analogues at the local level,
here in Bloomington, Indiana, where the mayor has recently
established a new Safe and Civil City Office (disclosure: the
professor of this course is a member of this Office’s Advisory Board)
and where a number of recent issues and controversies have raised the
level of public attention to the question of civility.

As should be clear, the subject of “civility” is a timely and
important one, in the world and in Bloomington (which, after all, is
part of the world!).  The subject broaches legal questions, regarding
the limits of permissible forms of protest and when politically
motivated action crosses the line into criminal conduct.  But it also
raises a series of ethical-political questions.  Is civility and a
certain kind of peaceable, respectful orientation towards others
a “civic virtue” essential to a democratic society?  If civility is
important, is it possible to reconcile it with the possibility of
justifiable dissent or disobedience?  And can anger, hostility, or
antagonism play any politically productive or ethically laudatory
role in a democratic society?  If so, what are the proper limits of
such antagonism?
In this course we will discuss these questions in connection with a
small number of important texts that reflect upon them, and in
connection with certain very real and pressing local issues in which
these questions have been starkly posed.