In Pursuit of a More Civil Society

A candid conversation with four SPEA faculty experts

Matthew Baggetta, Jennifer Brass, Jim Hanchett, David Reingold, and Les Lenkowsky

Matthew Baggetta, Jennifer Brass, Jim Hanchett, David Reingold, and Les Lenkowsky

A more civil society –
who wouldn’t want that?

As we look at many aspects of teamwork in this edition of SPEA Magazine, we’re not overlooking the team that includes us all, the human race. To get a sense of how our team is faring, the challenges and the reasons for optimism, we brought together four SPEA faculty members who all share an expertise in civil society. Jennifer Brass, David Reingold, Matthew Baggetta, and Les Lenkowsky offered their really, really big picture analysis and predictions during a conversation at the historic Wells House on the Bloomington campus. If you’d like to see the entire conversation, you can find it on IUB-SPEA’s YouTube channel at Here are a few of the highlights from the transcript:

Is our world increasingly civil, or uncivil, or unchanging?

Les: “I think it’s about the same as it’s always been. There are signs of hope. There are signs of civility. There are also lots of signs of incivility. Just take the Middle East for example. On one hand, what we saw in the last couple of years was a great assertion in various countries of civil society. Why, people wanted to work together, get rid of some of the baggage of the past. But of course we’re now in a period of reaction to that, and in some parts of the Middle East, real violence and there’s nothing more uncivil than a kind of a civil war.”

David: “One distinct pattern globally is the increasing affluence in parts of the world that were not exposed to the kind of affluence that we take for granted in the U.S. The nature of the conflicts around civility is changing to be conflicts that affluent places tend to confront. Let’s take South Korea. Fifty years ago, tensions might have focused on a variety of ethnic and regional conflicts, class conflicts. Today, one of the big issues concerns obesity among young people. Another is whether or not young people are paying enough respect to elders.”

Jennifer, you’re an expert on some of the poorest places on earth (Kenya and other African nations). Is what David asserts square with what you see?

Jennifer: “It does. Let me say something off of what both David and Les said. If you look at civil conflict, and economic change, you do see a growing middle class, even in the countries in Africa, which are my specialty, and that is leading to a growth in civil society and a growth in civil engagement. You also see a significant decline in the number of wars and the number of people killed in wars over the last 20 years. It’s hard to say whether that’s a normal ebb and flow or if it’s a long-term change, but I’m cautiously optimistic.”

Matthew: “We are seeing more people who are more affluent than ever before but we’re also seeing rising inequality, bigger gaps between those who are affluent and those who are not. The separation that’s going on with that and the segregation in terms of where people live and the lack of experiences they have interacting with one another, might not be leading to less civility, but less connection across those divides and less sense of commonality between societies. It certainly sets the stage for what could be greater incivility in the long run by taking groups and isolating them more.”

Les: “We ought not to think of it only in economic terms. Some of the most profound differences that are occurring around the globe these days are rooted in religious belief, ethnic or tribal beliefs, and sometimes just assertions of nationalism, not always well-founded assertions. These are the kinds of conflicts that are exacerbated by physical and social distance. When people live and work with each other across traditional dividing lines, conflicts will happen but they’ll be less severe. When they’re separated, small provocations can blow up.”

Access to computers is one area where there is great separation. Is the computer changing the world in a positive or negative way?

David: “Technological change is probably the most fundamental event that has altered the landscape around how we interact with each other. There’s a desire by the technologists to show it is a panacea, that it is a true revolution. I think that’s way overstated. My sense is that access to the web, cellular technology, and the like is certainly reducing the social distance between people. But in many ways, it is reinforcing the tendency to interact only with people like yourself, but it’s more on a mass scale.”

Jennifer: “In rural Africa, it makes information that wasn’t possible to get or was expensive to get, cheaper. That allows mobile banking or farmers to get crop prices. So it shortens the distance between people. It also makes reporting on things easier. You think about the whole continent, and Egypt and the Arab Spring and the role social media played in that, it was a huge factor in bringing people together. Even in rural villages in very poor countries the same thing is happening. So people are more able to have the information that will allow them to make decisions to improve their lives and that’s really recent.”

Les: “We should also be mindful of the negatives. In one of the more tragic cases, the radio was used effectively in Rwanda to promote genocide. In China, we know there are very sophisticated ways of controlling the media, not just censoring the new technology but putting out messages designed to promote actions the government or some other controlling group would favor. My greatest concern is that the new technology is a factor in countries like the United States in the dumbing down of the population. People spend time watching television instead of reading history, say. One of the things scholars have established about civil society is that it’s related to education, not just in years of schooling, but in whether people have some idea of what’s going on around them and are using that as a basis for getting involved.”

David: “Even though we think we’re more connected to one another, we probably know less about one another. The social relations that undergird any sense of civil society are weakening.”

Will there be a permanent underclass that never has access to these devices?

Matthew: “I don’t think that will be the case. In the early days, there was substantial concern about the digital divide. But the digital divide is shrinking. Mobile devices, especially, have allowed people to get more and cheaper access to the Internet. The real question is how people are going to use it. With any technology, they’re all tools.With the arrival of every new technology, there is a set of people that come out and say this will be the downfall of civil society. There are others who say this will revolutionize civil society. When the telephone hit, the idea you could connect across space and speak to people in real time was a huge innovation that connected people in ways they’d never been connected before, but another set of folks came out and said ‘no, no, no, the telephone is a disaster. Now people are going to stay home and only talk to people they know and they’re not going to get out in their communities.’ Now, many years since the birth of the telephone, we’ve seen neither the death nor the life of civil society. We’ve seen things roll along because the telephone got used for both of those purposes. My guess is as Internet technologies mature, as mobile technologies mature, we’ll see that same balancing out as we go. The tools will be used by organizers to foster social change. But they’re also going to be used by repressive states to thwart social movements. We’re going to see more people at home watching cat videos by themselves. We’re going to see more people who are connecting to communities that they never would have an opportunity to before. In the end we’re going to look back at this technology in the same way we have all the others.”

Let’s end this on a happy note. Tell us one positive story that leads you to be encouraged about the future of our world.

Les: “We are living in an increasingly globalized world. The opportunities to travel and learn, the educational exchanges that are going on, the world is much less parochial than it was when I was growing up.”

David: “The element that I find to be hopeful is that in the past 100 years civil societies were organized around trying to protect and exclude. Civil societies didn’t exist to bind us all together but to make sure what we had remained ours to the exclusion of others. I think there’s a growing pattern in the broad arc of civil society that more and more organizations and the people behind them are driven to bridge divides.”

Jennifer: “One thing you’re seeing over the past 20 or 30 years is a real increase in democratic governance or countries trying to move toward democracy. And at the same time you’re seeing a real growth in the number of civil society organizations. In Kenya, where I’ve done most of my research, you see a growth in nongovernmental organizations from 400 in 1991 to over 8,000 now. That gives me a bit of hope.”

Matthew: “One particularly hopeful pattern has been going on among youth. In the ’90s we saw rising levels of volunteerism among youth, but they were focusing on apolitical volunteering. More recently, we’re seeing a continuation of that volunteering trend but some slight upticks in political activity among young people, and for me, that’s hopeful. This generation has their hands in both service work and political activity and that gives us hope that we’ll see changes. Maybe in 15 to 20 years we’ll see the political elites get things done because this generation will be the political elites.”

Postscript: 15 to 20 years can’t come soon enough. In the days following this conversation, Congress and the president remained deeply divided over the scope and funding of government.