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Faces of Civility

Instilling students with the skills to conduct themselves civilly is critical to Swarthmore’s mission, many in the community feel

The face is a familiar one—the crown of white hair, wire-rim glasses, a touch of chin hair—a hirsute style he’s recently returned to after a few decades. Last time he sported that look, his hair was black.

Maurice Eldridge ’61 cuts a tall, straight-backed, dignified figure. As vice president for College and community relations and executive assistant to the president, he’s a staple at events on and off campus. He’s that friendly smile, calm voice during tense negotiations, whether between Swarthmore borough residents displeased with College upgrades to roads or with Mountain Justice students urging the College to divest its endowment from fossil fuel funds.

If you ask Eldridge about his student days, he’ll calmly depict his arrival in the 1950s as the only American black. He was a campus leader who encouraged classmates to join a march on Washington to support integration of schools. His convictions prompted a student to send him, he says, “nasty, racist hate mail.” Decades later, as he describes his mother entering his dorm room and seeing the note, Eldridge’s eyes well with tears; his voice chokes up. 

In his Parrish Hall office, Eldridge reflects more on this instance of incivility. To nab the author of the hateful note, Dean William C.H. Prentice ’37 examined the handwriting of every student. Once the dean made the match, he planned to expel the culprit. Eldridge says, “I went to bat for him [the accused student]. We talked. I understood there were pressures in his life. Why not another chance? I didn’t win that, but that’s how I felt about it.”

Reacting civilly to an act of incivility seems engrained in Eldridge, a grandson and nephew of Baptist ministers. A progressive boarding school he attended before Swarthmore “taught a way of being and living that was different from what was in the mainstream, including finding peaceful ways to work things out.”

Deeply wounded by the experience during his sophomore year at Swarthmore, Eldridge sat out a year, then came back “with the strength to be me.”

Since his return to the College in 1989 as an administrator, that “me” has been regarded as an icon of Swarthmore civility. 

“I don’t think civility rules out or eliminates human conflict,” Eldridge says, his features illuminated by the crisp autumn light flooding through his office window. “You’re going to have conflicting views, and I don’t see anything wrong with defending your views passionately, but I do see something wrong with abusing others because you don’t agree with them.”

Sometimes, Eldridge says, his persona as a diplomat, a nice guy, “gives people the impression that I’m weak. But weakness isn’t it at all. I work a little harder to find a solution that is as close to a win-win as it can be, so the person who doesn’t get his way entirely is able to go along with the results. That seems to me to be an outcome worth more effort, even restraint. It’s not that I don’t feel anger, but I don’t necessarily express it at the moment because it will not get us to the solution. I think I was born a pacifist and discovered it more as time went along.”

Lee Smithey, associate professor of sociology and coordinator of peace and conflict studies, often sends students interested in nonviolent activism to confer with Eldridge. “It’s important that I model the behavior that I would like to see coming from them,” says Eldridge. “That’s part of the job as far as I’m concerned. And I do think that the faculty, when not explicating in their teaching [the tenets of civil discourse], are modeling it.” 

If, as a recent survey suggests, uncivil behavior is becoming the “new normal” in U.S. society, developing the skills to deal with incivility is more important than ever, Eldridge believes. 

According to the 2013 survey Civility in America, conducted by the global public relations firm Weber Shandwick and public affairs firm Powell Tate in partnership with KRC Research, 70 percent of Americans feel that incivility has risen to crisis levels. Americans encounter incivility more than twice a day on average, and 43 percent expect to experience incivility in the next 24 hours, the survey contends. The behavior of politicians, the media, America’s youth, and the Internet are assigned most of the responsibility for this purported decline. 

College campuses undoubtedly can be hotbeds of uncivil discourse. Penn State University is one institution that is still struggling mightily to return to its former atmosphere of civility in the wake of its recent sexual-abuse crisis.

Penn State president Eric Barron acknowledged this struggle to regain civility in an email message in September to the university community citing “a lack of civility in discussing these issues [surrounding the Jerry Sandusky scandal]. …

“Some may argue that the lack of civility is a national issue, promoted by a growing community involved in posting anonymous comments on blogs or by acrimonious national politics,” he wrote. “We cannot afford to follow their lead, not if we are to serve our students as role models.”

Hans Oberdiek, the Henry C. and Charlotte Turner Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, also feels that sending students out with the skills to conduct themselves civilly is critical to Swarthmore’s mission.

In 2001, Oberdiek was inspired to write Tolerance: Between Forbearance and Acceptance “because I found students thinking if they criticized a position, that meant they weren’t respecting a person. I try to argue, ‘No, no. Tolerance requires disagreement.’ It shouldn’t be regarded as offensive as long as the way in which you disagree is civil.”

Ronni Sadovsky ’08, a former student of Oberdiek’s, has put his teachings into practice. “Hans’ material on tolerance, about the way you can appreciate difference even when you disagree, was in the forefront of my mind this summer in Jerusalem.”

While working on the dissertation for her dual degree in law and philosophy at Harvard, Sadovsky joined other Israeli graduate students in confronting members of an Israeli anti-miscegenation youth group “who were so uncivil that ‘uncivil’ doesn’t compute.

“Their sort of racism was beyond incivility,” adds Sadovsky, who is Israeli American. “They were shouting, ‘Death to Arabs!’ in the city square.”

Sadovsky’s attempts to intervene through direct action—including erasing racist graffiti in West Jerusalem and verbally expressing counterviews—was met with incivility by onlookers as well as some friends. 

Managing to straddle the line—remaining civil while also maintaining her position—“is something I learned a lot about from Hans, and it’s an area in which my intuitions changed dramatically as a result of my involvement with the Swarthmore ethical/intellectual community,” Sadovsky says. Modeling civility, she believes, is a responsibility of “every student, administrator, and coffee-bar barista as well as the professors.”

Sarah Willie-LeBreton, professor of sociology and chair of the College’s Sexual Misconduct Task Force, also believes everyone associated with the College has a responsibility to practice civil behavior. “Being able to engage in difficult conversations about a range of issues with people who are different from yourself and still treat those people with respect is absolutely one of the things that needs to be highest on our list as an institution,” she says.

Willie-LeBreton acknowledges that Swarthmore is a community that struggles with civility “but not any more than others.” However, she does question whether civility nationally is really in decline.

“We may just be shifting who we treat uncivilly and who we don’t,” she says. “For a long time, it was OK not to meet the eyes or speak to black people or ask anything about the person who cleans your office. Those things are really about social hierarchy and structural inequality. It makes me curious as to whether there is pushback as we treat larger and larger numbers of people civilly.” 

Ben Berger, associate professor of political science, is another faculty member who wonders if incivility is more prevalent now than in the past.

“Certainly you heard comments [about the decline] in books written in the 1920s and ’30s,” says Berger. “It’s possible that there’s just a built-in metric that people always think that incivility is getting worse, because norms change over time. But we shouldn’t confuse politeness with civility. Sometimes, valid dissent may require bad manners.”

A little disruption can be good, agrees Barry Schwartz, the Dorwin P. Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action. He is sometimes frustrated by what he perceives as overly civil discourse, especially in seminar discussions. Over the years, he has seen contentiousness diminish in the seminar setting.

“When I first came here 43 years ago, there was often a hostile edge to things,” he says. “It was never awful, because Swarthmore students are basically nice people. But I could see how it would be off-putting to people who don’t like confrontation. It may partly be that there are more women now willing to take seminars and speak up, and women tend to have a civilizing influence on crowds. So there is enormous civility in classes, and it actually gets in the way sometimes.

“It’s good to disagree,” he adds. “If there aren’t points of contention, there’s no reason to have a seminar. I think you should be able to have a disagreement with somebody and not feel assaulted by it.”

Further, he contends, if professors encourage students to discuss intellectual topics honestly, that honesty can filter into interactions outside class.

“You’re not doing your friend a favor by refusing to directly address a problem that you think your friend has—whether it’s taking too many substances, not getting enough sleep, or getting too thin,” Schwartz says. “Some sort of direct intervention by a friend may be called for, but it’s never easy. Taking a stand is risky.

“I think you see it most clearly on this campus in political matters,” he continues. “I think 95 to 99 percent of students here are liberal, and that really silences conservatives. That does a huge disservice to the students, because if everyone agrees with you, you don’t have to think hard about things. You think hard about things when someone challenges you.”

Challenge was the name of the game for a 2014 honors seminar on democratic theory and practice taught by Berger. “About half the students were conservative, and the other half were progressive liberals,” says the political scientist.

With this unusual (for Swarthmore) balance of political perspectives, he says, “It was the best seminar I ever taught, because people really did express a variety of ideas. Danielle Charette ’14 presented tenets of a more conservative perspective and said, ‘What about this?’ And people would go back and forth, but they liked each other. It was just fabulous.”

Paige Willey ’16 is a self-declared conservative student of Berger’s who relishes the exchange of opposite viewpoints: “When you are surrounded by people who agree with you all the time, you’re going to get contentious when that’s challenged. So it’s healthy for your ideas and opinions to be challenged in an academic environment where you can reaffirm what you stand for or alter what you stand for. Being challenged on what you think is the only way to make people interact more civilly. Getting a perspective on where you are in relation to other people is civility.

 “I think that if you’re teaching at a liberal arts college you have a duty to uphold the value of free, open discourse,” Willey adds.

For Laura Rigell ’16, other matters are more important than the quest for civility. A member of Mountain Justice and the Board of Managers’ social responsibility committee, Rigell says, “Dwelling on civility undermines efforts to stop oppression and work for justice. Liberal arts colleges often talk about civility, but that is a derailment from talking about issues of racism and homophobia. I value justice and anti-oppression over civility.”

Some recent campus initiatives have yielded outcomes that support the values she embraces, Rigell says. One is the Black Liberation 1969 course taught by Allison Dorsey, professor of history. Created in conjunction with the College’s sesquicentennial, the course examines black student activism, 1968–72.

“This is a good example of recognizing, rather than erasing, the racism in Swarthmore’s past,” Rigell says. “The College should prepare us to call out and resist oppression, even within our own institution.”

According to Lili Rodriguez, associate dean of diversity, inclusion, and community development, it is common for students to reject the term civility. “Civility to them implies that you’re asking them to play the game or to dance in a particular way. They see it as condescending, like, ‘Are you assuming I’m uncivilized because I’m disagreeing with you?’ ”

Even though some viewpoints may rub against one’s personal convictions, contrarian voices shouldn’t be silenced, she says. 

“To do so is just doing exactly the same thing that’s been the mechanism of systemic oppression forever,” she says. “You do not fight darkness with anything but light. You adopt the Martin Luther King stance: ‘If you don’t engage in this conversation, you don’t transform people; you just create your own society in a different corner.’ That’s a really hard sort of dissection for our students, to say, ‘I can respect you as an individual even though I think you’re the craziest individual in the world, and I want nothing to do with your way of viewing the world.’ ”

To help students develop tools for civil discourse, Rodriguez says the dean’s office worked with new students this fall in orientation and with the resident advisers “to prime them on the difference between debate and dialogue.

“A truly diverse space is going to be riddled with conflict,” she continues. “It’s about leaning into that challenge. It’s about saying we are not always going to agree. That’s the purpose of this four-year education—to be as uncomfortable as possible so that our values are challenged and we have to define what our worldview is and why we stand for what we stand for. Learn to disagree civilly, learn that challenge makes you stronger, and learn to articulate your own point of view. Education is about the agitation, the discomfort, the challenge.”

As for the College’s attempts to build a more civil community, Willie-LeBreton says, “We’ve made some good hires of people who help everybody engage in greater civility. We’ve certainly addressed some of the most glaring issues around sexual misconduct. But around other issues that have to do with students feeling marginalized or targeted or denigrated for being racial minorities or for coming from a financially challenged background, I don’t think we have really begun to tackle those as a community.”

One way she feels constructive dialogue could be improved is to make Collection a regular feature of the academic year rather than calling a Collection only when there is a crisis. “Collection could be a community coming together for deep listening and checking in.”

Jason Heo ’15, student body co-president and an RA, also is an advocate for regular Collection.

“It’s one of the best platforms for the whole community to come together,” says Heo. “In meetings with various community members during my time at Swarthmore, there has been a theme of people feeling unheard; there is a need for more transparency and open meetings. Collection could help increase civility, allowing us to discuss tough topics in a civil manner—campus student leaders, faculty, administration, staff—all together. It’s also a great platform for institutional leaders, who can be models of civility.”

Joyce Tompkins, religious and spiritual life adviser, also favors reviving Collection. “A healthy community meets regularly to get to know one another not just in times of crisis but in a proactive way. If people come together and listen to one another in ordinary times, when a crisis grows they already have a foundation of connection.

“Let’s reclaim some of our Quaker values in a real way, not just as words we talk about but really explore what they are and what they mean,” she suggests. “How do we practice them in a serious way? We have, as a small, residential college, a real opportunity to work on issues beyond the classroom and work on ideas of community—to explore what that means.”

Lee Smithey, who teaches peace and conflict studies, also thinks more frequent Collections could help to cultivate civil behavior. “I don’t think that’s a silver bullet, but I do think it could make us more aware of one another,” he says. “At minimum it could provide an opportunity for practicing civil conflict in bite-sized pieces. Then we might have a better chance of emerging from particular disputes supporting one another as opposed to finding ourselves caught in traumatic conflict.

“I think the challenge for us is to see conflicts as opportunities,” he says. “There is such a thing as civil conflict that can be transformative and encourages ongoing and more just relationships. Gandhi, for example, used the term in his calls for ‘civil resistance.’ George Lakey [former Lang Center and peace and conflict studies professor] used to say to his students that when you see conflict, move toward it, because the world needs smart, innovative students who know how to do conflict well.” 

According to Berger, part of the liberal arts mission is to teach students to live with discomfort “as you want others to have to live with it, too—living with more civility and compassion for others, even those with unpopular views, because you would want that done to yourself. It is my hope, for civility, that we work on getting the right balance early on as students get here. We want to be known as the school that values that sort of thing.” 


Acceleration of Acrimony

Obnoxiousness online adds to the uptick in American incivility

At first glance, New Orleans-born Tyrone Clay ’18 seems the perfect Southern gentleman. He opens doors for women, and he insists on paying for lunch when out with dates or mere acquaintances. He says, “Bless you!” when he hears a sneeze. Blessing the sneezer is not a religious thing for him. It’s a sign of respect and caring. Yet, put this smiling young man behind a computer late at night, and look out.

“When I’m on the Internet, I’m obnoxious,” he admits. “I don’t temper myself. There’s no reason to care for the feelings of others, because no one can trace [his behavior] back to me,” he says of his online activities with Clash of Clans, an epic combat-strategy game. “If I say something in class, I lose a friend, but I can be as brutal as I want on the Internet. People say I’m such a nice guy, but there’s something attractive about being the jerk for once.”

That online behavior can be uncivil and aggressive is not news. But it seems to be on the rise, at least according to a 2013 study, Civility in America.

For the first time since the survey began in 2010, the Internet/social media rose to the top ranks of perceived causes of incivility. Of those who expect civility to worsen in the next few years, 34 percent blame Twitter—a significant increase from 2012. In fact, 70 percent of Americans think the Internet encourages uncivil behavior, the survey states.

Joyce Tompkins is one Swarthmorean who agrees. “I was at a meeting this morning in Chester, and we were talking about how at meetings, and when working with students and kids, people are somewhere else—texting or on Facebook or whatever,” says the religious and spiritual life adviser. “It’s both symptomatic and causative of the lack of civility—like ‘I’m not even going to give you my full attention.’ That’s really insulting and rude, but we all do it. It’s easier for people to rant [online] and not have to pay the consequences.”

Picking up on that thread, Barry Schwartz, the Dorwin P. Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action, says, “The anonymity of many, many venues online just unleashes horrendous stuff that you wouldn’t think people had in them. Once it starts, it just kind of feeds on itself. I write for LinkedIn and have learned not to read the comments. The first few are about what I write. After that, the comments are about other people’s comments. It’s just so savage and insulting. They assume people are idiots. It’s almost never illuminating and just puts a bad taste in my mouth.”

Lee Smithey, associate professor of sociology and coordinator of peace and conflict studies, agrees that “the anonymity or the disembodied nature of social media may make people feel more free, when they are not in the presence of people, to say things that they might not say in person.” 

In his own Twitter use, he tries to be mindful of how he is coming across. “I don’t find myself called to say many uncivil things on social media, but when I’m feeling passionate about something, I do try to think twice, to let it sit overnight to see if there’s a more constructive way of putting that. In 140 characters it can be difficult. It’s easy to be misunderstood or misinterpreted.”

Amy Fine Collins ’78, a special correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine, also deplores the venom spewed anonymously online. “During the last 20 years there has been an increase in incivility in correspondence—as a result of the relative impersonality of email, text, or social media,” Collins says. “People are unlikely to remark on an article or a blog or a book unless they have something nasty to say. People unleash an angry and vulgar id in a way that was not possible or encouraged when communication was slower and face-to-face.”

While partisan talking heads on TV are often cited as exemplars of incivility, there are a few who buck the bloviating trend, according to Hans Oberdiek, the Henry C. and Charlotte Turner Professor Emeritus of Philosophy. He mentions David Brooks and Mark Shields, who debate the news every Friday on PBS NewsHour. Before Brooks, Shields’ more-conservative sparring partner was David Gergen.

“Gergen served in the Nixon administration and as Clinton’s chief of staff, but [he and Shields] established this friendship,” says Oberdiek. “They disagreed vehemently, but nonetheless, they respected each other as human beings, as people concerned about America. The NewsHour doesn’t get big viewership. It’s much better for ratings if you can make outrageous attacks that are so over the top.”

Oberdiek also mentions the acrimony of politicians from opposing parties as a reason for the decline in American civility. As a counterpoint he invokes President Lyndon B. Johnson and Sen. Everett Dirksen, R-Ill. “These old warhorses had deep political differences, but they regarded each other as men of integrity, were always civil, and came to enjoy each other’s company despite their differences. Without civility, a productive friendship could never have formed.”

Collins feels there are “very few models of civility to follow in popular culture.” In her work, she often finds herself in the company of celebrities, particularly those in the arts and fashion. She is able to find models of civility in those top-drawer circles, despite the general trend toward bad behavior.

“Most ballet dancers are incredibly polite, and that is built into them from their training,” she says. “I went to the opening of the New York City Ballet the other night. At the dinner afterwards I was seated next to one of the young male dancers. He grew up in the Bronx, so it’s not as if he went to finishing school. Yet he was exquisitely well-mannered. It has something to do with the discipline of ballet training.’

Collins also finds many civil icons in the fashion business, including Joseph Altuzarra ’05. “He is completely elegant in his manners and is responsive and kind,” Collins says. “Zac Posen has an old-fashioned sense of how to behave in a way that is generous and gracious, yet he is extremely successful and is plugged into every branch of new media.”

Social media, technology, polarization through politics all play a role in what many perceive to be an uptick in incivility. As Ben Berger, associate professor of political science, notes, “Incivility sells. I’m not sure what we can do about it nationwide, but at a place like Swarthmore we can promote certain kinds of norms and discussion, because we’re an intentional community.” 

Define Civility ...

Swarthmore community members interviewed for this story talk about what civility means to them. 

“Civility is openness, the ability to really listen and by really listening, hear and interpret the words that you’re hearing—being able to say, ‘I never thought of that,’ or ‘Gee, I could be wrong.’ ”

—Maurice Eldridge ’61, vice president for College and community relations and executive assistant to the president


“Civility is an institution that sets up the rules of the game, a set of norms. It’s a modicum of respect that everyone can expect from other people in their discourse and behavior. It’s a norm of reciprocity involving respect. It also means acknowledging the other person’s existence and their right to have a viewpoint, which means listening.”

—Ben Berger, associate professor of political science


“Civility is a kind of humility that one has before another, recognizing that the other is deserving of respect, even if we disagree. It’s acknowledging that we are connected in a fundamental way as parts of a community, not just on campus but of the human race and the planet. It’s humility—a willingness to put one’s ideas, opinions, and thoughts aside temporarily to deeply listen to the experience and opinions of others.”

—Joyce Tompkins, religious and spiritual life adviser


“Civility means being polite and courteous, being able to practice respect and unselfishness.”
—Jason Heo ’15, economics and political science double major


“Civility is self-respect and respect for others, as well as a degree of kindness.”

—Amy Fine Collins ’78, special correspondent, Vanity Fair


“A root of civility is empathy—the ability to get in another person’s shoes, to try to imagine someone else’s perspective. That’s a basic requirement.”

—Lee Smithey, associate professor of sociology and coordinator of peace and conflict studies


“Civility is a standard of social behavior that enables people to stay on good terms. Within the symbolic repertoire of each particular culture, norms of civility offer a way of signaling that what is happening between us is not a threat to our good relations. Are you regarding the other person as they should be regarded and doing the kind of things equals do when exchanging ideas? Are you taking each other seriously?”

—Ronni Sadovsky ’08, Harvard graduate student


“I would define civility as fundamentally believing that all people should be treated with human dignity, regardless of their backgrounds, values, and positions. Civility means that you don’t have to hold every opinion as valid. We actually can go too far and say every opinion is valid.”

—Lili Rodriguez, associate dean of diversity, inclusion, and community development


“Civility is, at a bare minimum, tolerating people whose wishes or goals are contrary to your own or that may butt up against yours. Toleration at the bare minimum is civility. Getting a perspective on where you are in relation to other people is civility.”

—Paige Willey ’15, political science major


“I would define civility as people showing one another both respect and compassion.”

—Sarah Willie-LeBreton, professor of sociology


“Etiquette is one dimension of civility. Simple things like saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, in our society, are what one expects of a person who’s civil. A second aspect of civility is a respect for fellow citizens as fellow citizens. A third element is tolerance. This differs from respect because I can respect fellow citizens, yet, if I have power, not letting them do what they believe they have good reason to do.”

—Hans Oberdiek, the Henry C. and Charlotte Turner Professor Emeritus of Philosophy


“Civility is the absence of gratuitous hostility. It’s fine to be passionate about what you believe, but that need not include active hostility toward people who disagree with you. Make people uncomfortable with the substance of your arguments, not with your tone of voice, not with character assassination, not with being gratuitously rude.”

—Barry Schwartz, Dorwin P. Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action