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Civility in a fractured society

Speaking on the role of civility in public life, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and former Iowa congressman James Leach delivered the keynote lecture Feb. 25 in Hostetter Chapel during the Spring 2011 Humanities Symposium, sponsored by Messiah College’s Center for Public Humanities. Leach’s lecture “Friendship in the Public Sphere: Civility in a Fractured Society” highlighted the symposium’s theme of friendship.

“Basic civility is how people interrelate in society,” said Leach, who served 30 years in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Regardless of intelligence, says Leach, everyone can learn something from one another because each person has a unique experience and perspective to share. Civility requires the ability to understand the views of others and come to a compromise.

During the lecture, Leach offered the audience 10 “two-minute crash courses in American public life” in which he covered such topics as political science, psychology, journalism, sports and physics. As part of his psychology “crash course,” Leach explained that when one person has a different view than another, each person thinks the other is immoral. In all areas, he said it was crucial to be able to put oneself in another person’s shoes.

Friendship that reaches across ideological and political difference means not just politeness, but an openness to listen, learn from and even collaborate with those with whom one disagrees. In the public life of a democracy, in particular, such friendships–when seen in their public expressions of courtesy, curiosity in the other person’s views and decency in the treatment of one another– builds up the republic and sets an example for the best in citizenship. Civility as a virtue equates to not only “good citizenship” but also a state of mind refined by a liberal education. As a result, Leach’s keynote address about civility as a form of public friendship proved beneficial to the audience both as citizens and as members of a liberal arts community.

Other symposium events held during the week of Feb. 21-25 included the chapel “Spiritual Friendship: Sowing an Ethic of Love,” the film series “The Wooden Camera: Friendship in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” guest lecture series “Literary Friendship: Henry James and Edith Wharton” and many other lectures and faculty-student colloquia.

Story by Sarah Fleischman’13.

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