Learning civility through the liberal arts: Lakeland students have a unique opportunity to shape society

Al Fairchild, Staff Reporter

The words “civility” and “incivility” have been bandied about in the media a great deal since the shootings in Tucson—maybe even too much; overuse will render them ineffective.

Civility is a worthwhile concept, and it should not be ignored simply because opinionated people try to turn it into a political football. We need to get our terms straight and then use them correctly to evoke useful change in our interactions with each other.

By definition, incivility falls short of murder and mayhem, but it is still not a good thing—it’s more of a matter of discourteousness and rudeness.

Outrage, on the other hand, is something else.

For years, I’ve listened as political pundits like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity—like drug pushers hawking pills in a schoolyard—peddle outrage to a public that increasingly sees issues in limited, black-and-white terms.

I’ve watched as that outrage was intensified by labeling those who disagreed with them as “communists, traitors, and Nazis.” I’ve seen ambitious politicians like Sarah Palin and Sharron Angle try to cash in on the outrage by placing pictures of gun sights over images representing their opponents and advocating “Second Amendment remedies” to deal with them.

Such actions can escalate outrage to hatred—then hatred turns into something much more serious; unforeseen actions by others, some of whom the original outrage-mongers might not even have been targeting.

The bottom line is this: Demonizing people can beget hatred and tragedy. Claiming that the peddling of outrage doesn’t lead to violence by stirring up hatred is just plain ludicrous—or maybe just naïve.

Civility, by definition, concerns our interactions with one another, and its practice begins with a basic concept: Empathy. We can’t ignore the feelings of others and still call ourselves “civil.” Those who spend their lives thinking only, “What’s in it for me?” become shallow and two-dimensional, regarding life in terms of their own narrow opinions concerning earning power and personal gains while conveniently forgetting the effects those priorities might have on others.

So what does this all have to do with Lakeland College?

Institutions like Lakeland (liberal arts schools) teach us more than to simply perform tasks and make money. While such things are valuable, and preparation to enter the job market is indeed an important part of the institution’s mission, the school offers more eclectic areas of study too, like religious and societal studies, social-science programs and interdisciplinary courses.

As civility in our society declines, such skills seem to be increasingly regarded as useless endeavors that waste potentially profitable time. Much of the current rhetoric seems to be aimed at labeling those who value other peoples’ points of view as “elitists” or “politically correct.”

But there’s value in understanding others and their perspectives. The Core series of classes, especially, encourages us to understand ourselves, then apply that understanding to our social interactions.

The required fine arts and lecture convocations push us further to expand our appreciation of societal ideas we may not understand, or might not even have been exposed to before. Great literature describes examples of civility and incivility, the latter being lessons we might not wish to learn firsthand.

As students at Lakeland College—a school that ranks high in both the diversity of its people and the variety of its academic offerings—we have the opportunity during this short period of our lives to assimilate—and ultimately implement—the foundational values of a truly civil society.


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