When the South called time on the American uncivil war

University chief aims to tackle partisan bile with a revival of Southern graces. Jon Marcus reports

May 6, 2010

It was in January that Harris Pastides finally decided that he had had enough.

The president of the University of South Carolina watched as Joe Wilson, a Republican congressman for the conservative state, shouted "You lie!" during a speech by President Barack Obama to a joint session of Congress.

The outburst was seen in the US as a major breach of decorum and protocol - indeed, accusations of lying are taboo even in the bear-pit of the UK's House of Commons.

Dr Pastides decided that his public university should assume a challenging new role in response to what he called "the rantings and ravings that have coloured our state". His aim, he said, was to persuade new generations of students to restore civility to a society that, in his view, is growing increasingly divided.

"College is probably the last time an organisation can help to teach or mentor facets of civility or citizenship," he said. "Civil discourse is about listening to opposing views. What it should not be about is ad hominem attacks."

Acknowledging the risk that he may antagonise the politicians who control his budget, Dr Pastides convened a group of university and community leaders, taking care to ensure it was bipartisan, to consider how to change things.

He created an honours course in civility, and next year plans to launch a second course aimed at a broader range of students.

Dr Pastides also recommended that the university emphasise citizenship and leadership among its core educational requirements.

He said he wanted the university's existing honour code, called the Carolinian Creed, to be amended to require civil discourse. He even asked that a gracious welcome be extended to controversial speakers such as Richard Dawkins, the outspoken biologist best known for his atheist views.

Professor Dawkins spoke about evolution before a 4,000-strong audience on the university campus in October.

"We read a principled statement in advance," Dr Pastides recalled in his office, overlooking the university's quadrangle and its colourful beds of azaleas.

It read: "We're not asking you to keep quiet, and we're not asking you to convert. We're asking you to respect the speaker and listen."

In the event, Professor Dawkins was enthusiastically applauded.

Dr Pastides said he hoped his university would be at the vanguard of a wider movement.

Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, also has a civility initiative, and 16 US universities have shared a grant from the Ford Foundation to take part in a programme, Difficult Dialogues, which promotes religious, political and racial pluralism.

In addition, a coalition of conservatives and liberals has launched a Civility Project to return Americans to public politeness.

An angry state

When American politics suffers its rockiest periods of uncivil discourse, South Carolina often seems to be at the epicentre.

Jim DeMint, a South Carolina senator, urged conservatives to "break" President Obama by thwarting any reform legislation.

Before being censured himself for lying about his whereabouts to cover up an extramarital affair, South Carolina's governor, Mark Sanford, compared the president's economic policies to those of the Weimar Republic.

In another age, another senator from South Carolina, Preston Brooks, severely beat a Northern counterpart, Charles Sumner, with a cane on the Senate floor in a heated 1856 debate over slavery.

Other oft-cited splenetic South Carolinians include the former vice-president, John C. Calhoun, a native of the state who helped to hasten the American Civil War, and senator Strom Thurmond, who used filibuster rules to thwart civil-rights initiatives in the 1950s.

Still, the state, with its long-held notions of chivalry and honour, is also a singularly fertile place for discussions of deliberative democracy, said Edward Munn Sanchez, who teaches the university's new honours course on the topic.

"The South at the same time has a very rich history of very civil discourse," Dr Sanchez said. "There is a very distinct sense of politeness, simply to maintain the social structure, which is a rich vein through which to discuss civility."

Dr Sanchez, a native of Spain, added that despite the policy paralysis it can cause, the incivility of American politics may be overstated.

Mr Wilson's outburst, for example, would have been less shocking had it occurred in many other nations' legislative bodies, he suggested.

"I still find American politics in certain ways quite civil," he said. "Especially compared with parliamentary politics."

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