Reiheld presents notions of civility research at FEAST conference

Common phrases such as “don’t rock the boat” and “keep a civil tongue in your head” do nothing to help society better itself.

Philosophy professor Alison Reiheld makes that argument in the paper she presented last month at the Feminist Ethics and Social Theory (FEAST) Conference, which had a theme of pluralism.

Under pluralism, a person can accept that people he or she disagrees with “might still be reasonable people of good will.” However, Reiheld argues that “simple notions of civility… require us to not disagree at all with anyone.” For example, students who raise issues of racism or sexism could be considered uncivil.

“Too simple a notion of what it is to be civil in a diverse society is actually a really bad [thing]… for pluralism,” Reiheld said.

When Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown ran for a Senate seat in Massachusetts last year, Reiheld said they signed a civility pledge, meaning no negative advertising.

“Given how advertising works, it then becomes very difficult to criticize the other without being accused of negative advertising,” Reiheld said. “This is exactly the kind of simple civility I’m talking about. Yes, you don’t want to go nasty if you’re trying to be civil. That doesn’t mean you can’t criticize each other.”

That type of attitude is “not compatible with a good life,” according to Reiheld, and a simple notion of civility leads to relativism rather than pluralism. In relativism, there is “no room to judge anybody ever,” whereas in pluralism, people can disagree but still see that the way another person lives is “compatible with the human good,” according to Reiheld.

“Only a really rich notion of civility where we get to rock the boat, where we get to upset people, in defense of others, is actually going to allow us to have a flourishing, pluralist society that’s good for people,” Reiheld said.

In Reiheld’s main area of study, bioethics –specifically with medical ethics – there are “numerous topics that are extremely fraught in a morally diverse society.” She said debates over embryonic stem cell research and abortion are some examples.

“If you try to handle talking about abortion as an, ‘Oh we don’t want to upset anyone,’ guess what we never talk about?” Reiheld said. “So then students leave college and they go into the workplace and, especially nursing students, they have never had an actual civil discussion of abortion.”

Students, according to Reiheld, have only participated in discussions where “nobody upsets anybody else and we stop as soon as anybody gets upset.”

That being the case, Reiheld said she started thinking about how it is bad for morally diverse societies that want to be pluralist to have shallow notions of civility that do not allow for discussion.

“Because then the first time you have to encounter it is when there’s protesters outside your clinic or when you’re treating a patient whose choices with whom you may disagree with their choices…,” Reiheld said.

This research relates to the classes Reiheld teaches because pluralism is a framework for how she teaches. She asks her students at the beginning of each semester to think about the phrase, “Reasonable people of goodwill can disagree” whenever they approach a controversial unit.

“The idea being that just because somebody disagrees with you does not mean they’re evil,” Reiheld said. “That’s what pluralism is about. And then we also talk about some basic ground rules of civility so that we can be good to each other while we’re talking about this stuff without having to feel like being good to each other means not talking…”

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