A Plea for Civility

“Our intent is not to argue a side in this debate, but to criticize the manner in which it is occurring.” Photo by Grace Mamon

To say we live in a difficult and ugly time is an understatement. The past few months have been filled with anger, tension and uncertainty, both nationally and in the Washington and Lee community. These feelings, while understandable, threaten W&L’s core values, chief among them free speech and civil discourse. We must not abandon our principles in anger, for if we do, we negate the benefits of our liberal arts education.

The national conversation surrounding race has reignited longstanding debates within the W&L community, most notably about whether we should change our school’s name or not. Our intent is not to argue a side in this debate, but to criticize the manner in which it is occurring.

The loudest voices (on both sides) do not represent most members of the W&L community, yet they dominate the discussion surrounding W&L’s name. Far too many community members are afraid to speak publicly or ask for mediated debate because they fear losing friends, being misinterpreted or even being unjustly labelled as racist. While this problem is not limited to one side, it is irrefutable that those who oppose changing the name are more afraid to speak out. To be sure, not everyone engaged in the question is acting at odds with W&L’s values, but it is a sad truth that reigning social pressure inhibits free conversation.

As important as the name is, we believe W&L faces a much greater and more dangerous threat. This threat has been given various labels, including “cancel culture,” “safetyism” and the “Great Awokening.” Whatever term one prefers, our concern lies with this movement’s fundamental hostility towards the liberal arts mission W&L has long embodied.

Indeed, many students choose to attend W&L precisely because it ranks among the best liberal arts schools in the country. We are bound together as a community by our commitments to honor, scholarship, reason, respect and civil discourse. These values underpin the foundation of a liberal arts education, and without them W&L cannot hope to fulfill its mission.

W&L’s mission statement proudly calls for students “to think freely, critically and humanely and to conduct themselves with honor, integrity and civility.” This sets a high standard, one that W&L has not always met. But past failure should serve as a source of motivation to do better going forward, not as an excuse for destructive consternation. We must strive to embody the values of mutual civility, honor and respect.

While almost everyone agrees with the mission statement on paper, it is clear that its values are lacking in the current debate. A petition, titled “Demand Accountability from Washington and Lee University,” recently circulated among the W&L community and has been signed by nearly 4,000 people. This petition illustrates how incongruent this moment is with W&L’s core values.

“A call for civility in the classroom simply upholds the status quo, and the events of recent weeks reflect the violent inadequacy of the sociopolitical circumstances that we see today. Civility will not do.”

This is in direct conflict with W&L’s mission statement. By rejecting civility, the petition preemptively shuts down debate and censures those who seek to engage in honest discourse. This tactic is fundamentally illiberal and must be rejected.

At this time, leaders across campus—including students, faculty, and members of the administration—need to align their actions with the university’s liberal arts principles. Now is the time for our community to reaffirm our dedication to freedom of thought, diversity of opinion, and most importantly, civility. It is not enough to say we support these values—we must promote them by actively fostering a culture of free speech.

The chilling lack of open discourse threatens far more than the discussion about the university’s name. It calls into question our commitment to due process, open inquiry, and freedom of expression. Abandoning civil conversation to the forces of social pressure only serves to silence dissent and breed bitterness. And make no mistake, there will be no progress without conversation.