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Thursday panel parses what 'civility' means on campuses and how hate speech policy fits in

What does "civility" and "tolerance" look like on college campuses? 

On Thursday afternoon, the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Arete Institute and the Duke Program in American Values and Institutions hosted a conversation on civility in the university setting. 

The panel featured two speakers and was moderated by Jed Atkins, associate professor of classical studies. 

The first speaker was Teresa Bejan, who received her doctorate from Yale University in 2013. Her dissertation honed in on the role of civility in colonial-era Rhode Island, whose founder, Roger Williams, advocated for religious freedom, abolition and fair pacts with indigenous people. 

“When I started my dissertation, I hadn’t even heard of Roger Williams,” Bejan said.

Bejan’s work has attracted scholarly attention, as she received the 2015 Leo Strauss Award for best dissertation in political philosophy from the American Political Science Association. Bejan published her research in her first book, "Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration." Now she is a fellow at Oriel College and associate professor of political theory at the University of Oxford.

The other speaker was John Bowlin, Robert L. Stuart professor of philosophy and Christian ethics at Princeton Theological Seminary, who studies the intersection of ethics and politics in Christian theology.

Bowlin said that he received the idea for his work at a cockfighting ring in Oklahoma, which he detested but had decided to attend in an effort to build solidarity with his neighbors. He said that he spoke with individuals from many backgrounds at the event and discovered that each person had a gripe with a certain demographic. 

For instance, conservatives he spoke with lamented the “moral collapse” of American society. He compared this to conversations with Princeton peers, who spoke condescendingly of people living in rural America. Bowlin set out to determine if a universal code of respect could bind people in harmony, particularly at a moment as fractious as today's political climate.

Atkins opened the discussion by clarifying how each panelist viewed the demands of civility.

Bejan identified civility as “a commitment to continue civil conversations and to abide by certain rules.” Bowlin countered that civility thrives on conflict, for only during conflict do the standards of meaningful, effective conversation come into question. He also supported the notion that, provided that expressions of discontent do not harm others, arguments are preferable to physical skirmishes. Bowlin said that civility requires a difference of opinion between coexisting groups.

“When my congregation meets with more conservative or more liberal churches, people ask why we are in partnership with them, but I emphasize that our goal in that moment is the same," Bowlin said.

The audience shifted the conversation to a topic currently pertinent at Duke—campus speech policies.

For the past year, student activists have pushed discussion about formalizing a campus hate speech policy. Sophomore Lizzie Bond, citing the University of Chicago’s rejection of intellectual safe spaces, asked if a hate speech policy proposal would be conducive to the goal of higher education to provide students with a greater appreciation for diversity of thought. 

Bejan spoke out against this idea. She said that while she finds ideas that demean others based on physical traits “abhorrent,” she still sees a place for competing notions of intellectual curiosity, which a ban could curtail, she said. To Bejan, any hate speech policy initiates a “credal test of membership,” in which students are not taught how to think but rather what to think. 

“Nothing could be more dangerous,” she said. 

Bejan asserted that universities are ambassadors for revolutionary pedagogy, so an institution that limits its students’ ability to use discretion is ineffective. She said that nonetheless supports students who wish to protest against a university’s action in other areas. 

Both Bejan and Bowlin encouraged students to engage in meaningful dialogues promoting civility. Bowlin emphasized that hearing a position does not imply a tacit endorsement. Rather, he argued, the capacity to process information and complicate or refute it is essential to a modern education. 

Even if someone is stating questionable data, he contended, intellectuals should hear out the point and then provide a compelling response. 

“False, as well as true, opinions are necessary for the development of knowledge,” he said.


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