Hoping for an outbreak of civility

Communication: Conference organizers seek to improve public discourse.


October 22, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Annapolis, a city where state political leaders sometimes struggle to remain polite to one another, will try something new this weekend: a conference on civility.

Organizers of the city's first conference on civility Sunday at St. John's College invited academics, city officials, media representatives and Annapolis residents to share their ideas on civil discourse in a free and open forum.

Connie Harold, a local writer, organized the event at Mayor Ellen O. Moyer's request because of a shared sense that dialogue among various city factions was becoming more strained and divided.

The forum's goal is to find ways to raise the level of conduct in public conversations.

Moyer said the conference evolved from a series of informal meetings with city residents at a coffeehouse during the last year.

"The first issue we talked about was civility," she said. "Actual dialogue is suffering. We need to listen to each other in a respectful manner."

Harold, who will serve as moderator Sunday, said, "Annapolis is a cliquish town and, as small as it is, it could be a real laboratory for civility. Language and how we address each other does make a difference."

Professor Howard R. Ernst, who teaches at the U.S. Naval Academy, will give a keynote speech emphasizing the cost of lost ground in civil relations.

"When you stop being civil, nobody wins," Ernst said.

As the presidential election approaches, Ernst said, the time is especially ripe for a hard look at civility because the same rules apply in local spheres. "There couldn't be a better time, with passions and tension getting higher," he said.

Civil speech in society does not mean arriving at a consensus, but it can clarify fundamental differences in a fair process, the professor said.

"The rules of debate should unfold in legitimate fashion and the discussions should be peaceful, representative, deliberative and limited," Ernst said. "But there are some things government can't do."

John Verdi, a tutor at St. John's College, plans to suggest specific ways to make public conversations more civil, borrowing from teaching methods practiced in the college's "Great Books" curriculum.

In class, he said, students are addressed as "Ms." or "Mr." - a formality that helps keep the focus less personal and more on the book topic, Verdi said. "Civil discourse requires boundaries," he said, "and a recognition of common purpose."

The tutor said that when civility is at work, parties in a discussion are apt to change their minds or positions. "The heart of civil discourse is that people put themselves at risk of change. They have to be open to that," he said.

Harold said the academic discussion would frame other presentations, on achieving greater civility in media coverage and community policing in Annapolis.

Annapolis' first civility conference will be from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. in the Conversation Room of Mellon Hall on the St. John's College campus. For reservations, call 410-263-7997.

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