Off the Cuff: Teresa Bejan, Professor of Political Theory

Teresa Bejan, Associate Professor of Political Theory.

Teresa Bejan, Associate Professor of Political Theory.

Melissa Harris, Editor-in-Chief

Teresa Bejan is an Associate Professor of Political Theory at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Oriel College. Before teaching at Oxford, Bejan worked at the University of Toronto and was a Mellon Research Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Columbia University. Bejan’s research brings perspectives from early modern English and American political thought into conversation with contemporary political theory and practice. She has published work in The Journal of Politics, History of Political Thought, Review of Politics and the Oxford Review of Education. Her book, Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration seeks contemporary ways of conveying civility in light of 17th-century debates about religious toleration from ideas developed by Roger Williams, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. She argues that their philosophies behind civility are not superficial calls for politeness, but rather complicated efforts to navigate how people can fundamentally coexist under conditions of conflicting perspectives. Bejan gave a lecture titled “Mere Civility?” at Fairchild Chapel Tuesday evening.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the crisis of civility?

I’m a political theorist and a historian of political thought by training, so one of the things I’m really interested in is when I see strong echoes of early modern political and religious debates in contemporary discourse. e crisis of civility today is the complaint that there’s a kind of war of words afflicting American democracy and that our words are becoming more and more hateful and violent. The practice of disagreement [pushes us] farther and farther apart rather than bringing us together. But construing that as a crisis of civility is interesting to me because civility is a vexed concept in the history of political thought, so one of the things I try to argue in [my] book is that the appeal to civility today is a kind of conversational virtue that’s meant to make disagreement less threatening. There are strong similarities between that usage in the 21st century and [that] being used in the 17th century over debates of religious toleration, so talking about a “crisis of civility” is a way of bringing these historical moments into conversation, pointing out the parallels.

In your book, Mere Civility, you bring early-modern politics around religious toleration into conversation with politics today. How does history inform your analysis of contemporary politics?

For me, it’s absolutely essential, and for me that’s because I just happen to be very interested in history. I always want to understand the concepts and categories that we take for granted in political discussion and where they come from, because words have histories, so I’m interested in that. But then I also have a stronger argument, which is that I think that in addition to the kind of intrinsic interest of knowing the histories of words in political debates, there’s actually a lot that history can offer in terms of coming to an understanding of what the challenges we’re confronting actually are — this kind of work of understanding and the follow-up work of then finding prescriptions and solutions. I think that one of the things that I point to in the book is that a lot of favored solutions to our modern crisis of civility have actually been tried before, so some sense of the history is really important here because then you can say “why?” and “how?” Why did we try, and how did it fail?

Do you see any notable distinctions between the civility of politics between the U.S. and Great Britain, based on your research and experiences in each country?

Well, you can tell from my accent that I’m American, and I actually taught in the U.S. before I taught in Canada, then moved to the U.K. Certainly, my experience of political and academic cultures in all of those three countries have informed my interest in historical trajectories of civility. To me, it’s striking that the terms of debate in all three countries are similar. You hear in public discourse everywhere that liberal democracy as a regime is confronting a crisis of civility — a problem of how we conduct disagreements in these liberal democratic societies that aspire to tolerate lots of kinds of differences. But then how those crises cash out and then what kind of civility is imagined as a solution I think really does differ.

The main difference is that in America, we have this peculiar tradition of what I call in the book “free speech fundamentalism,” where we, uniquely among modern liberal democracies, think it’s essential to a tolerant society to have the freedom to insult each other. The funny thing, though, is that being in the U.K., there’s not [that] tradition. A lot of my colleagues now are appealing to the principle of free speech, but there’s not really a kind of tradition of free speech fundamentalism in the U.K. in the way that there is in the U.S. Nevertheless, in British politics, there is a kind of tradition of a much more indecorous political debate within Parliament than in the American Congress, so actually the relationship between these different spheres of political debate is quite complicated and really interesting. So we might say that there’s quite a lot of incivility in British debate in Parliament, but then that’s compensated by an extreme decorousness in interpersonal disagreements and disputes, whereas in the States, in Congress there’s quite a lot of decorum, but once one leaves, one leaves the chamber and the gloves come off. There are interesting parallels, and it’s something I do want to think about more.

How have ideas of civility in politics changed over the course of this past year, from attitudes around Brexit to the inauguration of Donald Trump?

The funny thing about the book coming out when it did — so, January 2017 — is that everyone has been congratulating me on how timely the book is. But I also have to remind them that timely academic monographs begin as untimely dissertations, so I started working on this eight years ago. One of the things I want to point out is that there’s a sense of a kind of unprecedentedness to the crisis of civility that’s been declared in response to the election and inauguration of President Trump or in debates about Brexit in the U.K. I see these as symptoms rather than causes. I think we heard very similar complaints eight years ago, and even eight years ago people were saying, “Well actually, people have been complaining about a crisis of civility since the ’90s,” then someone else says, “Actually it was in the 1980s.” Pretty soon, you’re back at the founding of the American Republic in the 1780s, and everyone’s complaining about a crisis of civility.

One of the things I try to do historically is say, “No, our crises of civility have not been unprecedented.” Nevertheless, to say an evil is unprecedented is not to say it’s not an evil, so how should we understand what’s going on? But I do think that informs the kind of solutions one might prescribe in response. If the problem isn’t unprecedented, then I do think history has a lot to offer in thinking about constructive solutions.

Oberlin is overwhelmingly liberal, and has a reputation for refusing to engage with people of differing political views. How would you suggest people of such political stances create productive dialogue with people across the aisle, so to speak?

That’s a really good question, and I think it’s the $64,000 question. The advice comes in only once a community decides it actually wants to have those conversations. I think that in a situation of higher learning in the United States of America, Oberlin and colleges and campuses like it have a duty to make sure that students are being prepared for the difficult work of being citizens in vast multiethnic, multicultural and deeply, deeply diverse societies. And so I do think it’s really important for there to be a space for engaging in quite fundamental and heated disagreements on campus, so my advice there just seems too obvious to say.

In the first place, you have to be willing to have the conversation. You have to be willing to be in the same room. But what I think is that a lot of times, what happens is [there is a] lack of exposure to people who have, in good faith, come to very different conclusions on questions that we consider to be fundamental. It becomes very easy to kind of demonize them or dehumanize them and imagine them to be an embodiment of every terrible thing that we imagine of our opponents. They’re not only evil; they’re also insane, stupid — pick your pejorative. So I think that there, it becomes really essential to make sure students are exposed to the best of the arguments that the other side has to offer. Because here I am with John Stuart Mill: “He who only knows his side of an argument knows little of that.”