Phi Beta Cons

The Civility Problem is Cultural, Not Legal

Jane Stancill (an excellent reporter who really understands higher education issues) has a story in today’s Raleigh News & Observer that starts out as a predictable tale of leftist outrage but then ends with a sad twist. Duke professor Karla Holloway — a member of the now-notorious “Group of 88” — has resigned from her university committee assignments to protest the school’s decision to readmit two of the three Duke Lacrosse defendants (the third graduated last year). I have little sympathy for this continued posturing (and use of the case as a metaphor for race and class issues) as the accuser’s case disintegrates more every day, but we shouldn’t ignore the fact that members of the Group of 88 are human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
At the end of an article, Jane notes that Professor Holloway has received multiple hateful e-mail messages, including at least one related to her now-deceased son. The message came from the mother of a Lacrosse player:  

In e-mail, Tricia Dowd, mother of a lacrosse player who was not charged in the sexual assault, referred to Holloway’s personal life.
Holloway has written about her own family tragedy before. Her son, whom she adopted at 4 after he was abused in a series of foster homes, had mental illness. He was convicted of the rape and stabbing of a Raleigh schoolteacher and he died in 1999, shot dead when he escaped from a prison work detail.
The e-mail from Dowd questioned Holloway’s motives for speaking out about the lacrosse case in a September article in an online publication.
I wondered, do you attack our sons, because you feel guilt for your own failures as a mother? Do you attack our sons because you are so selfish that you cannot stand the thought of our sons leading successful lives, when your son did not and can not? Do you attack our sons to justify your own short comings?

 This message is so far beyond the pale of civility that words cannot describe its repugnance. In fact, Ms. Dowd now admits that she shouldn’t have sent the message, calling it “not [her] finest moment.” “Balancing free speech and civility” has become such an over-used (and abused) campus phrase that some of us almost roll our eyes every time “civility” is mentioned in an academic context. And there’s no doubt that the concept has been abused a great deal — with even the most politely-stated conservative speech censored as “uncivil” while far-left rhetoric is justified as “provocative” or “challenging.” But that does not mean that there is no such thing as true civility or that true civility does not matter a great deal.
Yet civility cannot be legislated. It is not a legal term susceptible to any kind of precise definition. You know civility when you experience it, and you can feel its absence. But subjective experience is not the stuff of legal structures, and rights of free speech are too precious to place at the mercy of the offended. When it comes to the venom that so often flows on campus, the real problem is not the absence of laws that punish subjectively-perceived rudeness; the problem is a coarse and vitriolic culture that too often celebrates abuse and dismisses the most basic manners as “coddling” your ideological enemies. Manners aren’t merely a matter of quaint tradition. They are a vital aspect of maintaining our democratic society, and once manners are lost no law can bring them back.