Yale University Professor Stephen L. Carter, author of this year’s First Year Seminar common book, Civility: Manners, Morals, and the Etiquette of Democracy, reflected on the nature of civility and politics during an address last night in the Curb Event Center. Carter laid the groundwork for his speech with a definition from his book: “Civility is the sum of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together.”
He went on to describe how politics aren’t less civil than in the 19th century, but rather modern citizens are simply exposed to much more political talk and action due to lengthier campaign seasons, round-the-clock media coverage and the radical and uncompromising nature currently seen among political parties.
Carter said, “The reason hot button issues are so divisive is because both sides have a point. We may choose a side, but that doesn’t mean the other side has nothing intelligent to say.”
Carter pointed to noted historian Richard Hofstadter’s views on reactionary politics, noting they had three key aspects: a dismissal of opposing views, an appeal to emotion and blame. The political process that supports that approach leads down a dangerous path, Carter argued, creating a constant reinforcement of similar ideas and an inability to rationally examine complex issues.
“If we spend all our time with those who agree with us, those who disagree with us seem stranger and stranger… Then we don’t exercise our argumentative muscles because why argue with people we believe are stupid or evil? Part of the complexity civility demands of us—because remember that civility is a sacrifice—is realizing the other fellow may have a point.”
Carter closed the First Year Seminar lecture by advocating for civility in daily life. “If we can’t make politics more civil, then we should at least make our interactions with one another more civil. One of the important things in how we look at each other is if we can see the spark of God in one another.”
Stephen L. Carter is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law at Yale, where he has taught for almost 30years. He is the author of seven acclaimed works of nonfiction. At Yale, Carter teaches courses on law and religion, intellectual property, contracts, professional responsibility, lying and secrets, and the ethics of warfare. He has received eight honorary degrees and published five novels, in addition to dozens of articles in law reviews, and many op-ed columns in the nation’s leading newspapers. He appears frequently on radio and television. Born in Washington, D.C., Carter was educated in the public schools of Washington, New York City, and Ithaca, New York. He received his bachelor’s degree in history from Stanford in 1976, graduating with Honors and Distinction. In 1979, he received his law degree from Yale, where he was a Notes Editor of the Yale Law Journal. Following law school, he served as a law clerk for Judge Spottswood W. Robinson, III, of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and then to Justice Thurgood Marshall of the Supreme Court of the United States.