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civility as equality

Nowadays, the word “civility” is often used to mean politeness or adherence to locally recognized norms that divide appropriate speech from inappropriate speech. You might, for example, be “uncivil” if you are too loud or too angry. Such norms can be helpful, but they risk suppressing authentic and justifiable emotions.

The word has a different origin, closely related to “citizen.” In republican political thought, it it can mean equal standing to participate in politics, rather like the classical Greek word isonomia (roughly: the right to look any fellow citizen in the eye and say what you think). Almost the opposite of etiquette, it connotes a kind of plain, direct, and honest speech.

As Renaissance Florence developed a full-blown ideology of republicanism, the city embraced norms, rules, and customs that were meant to convey the equal standing of all citizen men and to discourage distinctions of caste or power based on military might. Just as one example, no man raised his hat to another Florentine. Professional soldiers were led by paid foreigners, never by Florentines, and these mercenaries had to swear loyalty to the republic’s councilors. The plutocrat banker Cosimo de Medici was wise enough to honor republican norms and manipulated the city’s policies quietly through his networks, without seeking offices or titles or any special personal treatment.

The republic finally ended for good when Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, an heir of Cosimo’s vast fortune, got himself installed as a monarchical ruler and brutally suppressed dissent. A Florentine chronicler, Giovanni Cambi, noted that Lorenzo had been raised in monarchical Rome, where he had learned to expect deference. Lorenzo was surrounded by retainers who called him “padrone” and doffed their hats to him. This was evidence that he knew nothing of “civility”:

Guiliano de Medici, blood brother of Pope Leo X, who had ruled the city of Florence, was living in Rome, and deprived of the city government altogether. He awarded that government to his nephew Lorenzo. Because this Lorenzo had been a child when his father was expelled from Florence, when he returned to Florence he did not know a single citizen, and he was not used to civility (civilta), and instead he aspired to arms and to dominate; and he succeeded in that; for although most citizens were displeased, nevertheless in their ambitiousness and avarice, they pretended to rejoice.

Istorie di Giovanni Cambi cittadino fiorentino, p. 67 (my trans.)

We might assume that doffing hats and using titles exemplifies civility–for better or worse. But the opposite was true in Renaissance Italy. Courtly politeness was a symptom of domination, incompatible with civic virtue and “civility.”

[I am drawing on Richard C. Trexler, Public Life in Renaissance Florence, 1991. See also: civility: not too much, not too little; what to do about the guy behind the desk; civic republicanism in medieval Italy: the Lucignano council frescoes; what does the word civic mean?]

Equity Research Symposium

All are welcome to a webinar symposium presented by the Tufts Research Group on Equity in Health, Wealth, and Civic Engagement on Friday, November 19, 2021 from 10:00 am to noon ET. Register here


(10-11:15) Presentations of current research, moderated by Shikhar Shrestha:

  • Jennifer Allen, ScD, MPH, Parents’ Willingness to Vaccinate Children for COVID-19: Conspiracy Theories, Information Sources, and Perceived Responsibility.
  • Eden Shaveet, BA, Marissa Gallegos, BS, Catie Urquhart, Web-Based Health Information Seeking Methods and Time Since Provider Engagement: Reflections on Access Equity.
  • Wenhui Feng, PhD, Ideology and health behavior.
  • Megan Mueller, PhD, Equity and the “pet effect”: Complexities in understanding how pets support health outcomes.

(11:15-noon) Panel discussion: Examining our Definition of Equity

What is implicit conception of “equity” is represented on the website, with its data-visualization tool? How should people think about equity?

  • Peter Levine, PhD, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, Tufts Johnathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life (moderator)
  • Lionel McPherson, PhD Tufts Department of Philosophy
  • Felipe Dias, PhD, Tufts Department of Sociology
  • Elizabeth Setren, PhD, Tufts Department of Economics 

(The graphic above is a sample result from the tool on the homepage.)

Enjoy the Flight

You can’t track swans across the sky. No trace.
The air they’ve passed as clean as what they breathe.
This is because they never cling nor hoard,
Just stretch their necks and feet and beat their wings.
Or so it was said in a treasured verse:
Words uttered and echoed and inked and taught.
Yes, but what of those other travelers?
The ones who have stowed their treasures aboard?
The carpeted cabin is dimmed and hushed.
The engines that thrum and gently shake them
Churn and burn and scrawl a long vaporous line,
Orbiting the orb where swans swim in breeze.

(Weimar, Germany, Nov. 5-6)

three big questions relating to knowledge

I know that the sky is dark and wet today because of input from my senses to my brain. But I know that the earth moves around the sun and that the earth is warming because people have taught me. My sources didn’t use their own senses to learn these things by themselves; they, too, were taught by people–usually mediated via texts or images. This communication often takes places in organized venues like classrooms, books, and newspaper articles. In short, most knowledge is the output of institutions. In turn, institutions are organized, funded, led, regulated, rewarded, interconnected, and governed or self-governed in various specific ways.

I am interested in the following big questions about the social aspect of knowledge:

  1. Knowledge/Power: Because knowledge comes out of institutions, it is naive to think that we can know important truths without the influence of power. At the same time, it is possible to learn truths that are inconvenient to the powerful. Discoveries sometimes alter the distribution of power. And power is not necessarily bad: a democratic people exercises appropriate power when it decides to pour resources into a particular kind of medical research. We should be glad we have capacity to understand our world, and “capacity” is almost synonymous with power. Yet power is not innocent. How does it structure knowledge, and how should it be configured?
  2. Facts/Values: The Logical Positivists held that there were facts, which could be demonstrated; and there were values, which were mere matters of opinion. This distinction is still widely taught and believed, even though it has been shredded by a century of criticism from various angles. The facts we know result from our choices about what to study, which are based in values. It is very hard even to state a factual claim without also making value-claims, if only because the names we use are often loaded. The domains of fact and value are so interconnected that it may be impossible to distinguish them, yet people mix them up in harmful ways, e.g., by claiming that pro- and anti-vaccination positions are equally valid (because they both reflect values), or that police shootings do not exhibit racism because Blacks are not more likely to be shot. What are good ways to bring facts and values together?
  3. General/Particular: We cannot truly grasp the idea that the earth is warming without understanding abstract ideas like the carbon cycle and the greenhouse effect, not to mention more fundamental abstractions like temperature, change, and the idea that the earth is a sphere in space. At the same time, we cannot develop abstractions like the carbon cycle without lots of concrete data. Especially when we are studying human beings, generalities are problematic because they cover up individuality and particularity. But there are no particular facts without more general frameworks. How can we wisely combine the general and the particular?

See also: the progress of science; vaccination, masking, political polarization, and the authority of science; mixed thoughts about the status of science; what must we believe?; new special issue of The Good Society on reintegrating facts, values, and strategies; etc

Dr. Kenann McKenzie to lead the Generous Listening and Dialogue (GLAD) Center at Tisch College

Happy news, per our official release:

Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life today announced that Dr. Kenann McKenzie, an accomplished educator, researcher and civic leader, will direct the newly created Generous Listening and Dialogue (GLAD) Center.

Designed to be a global center of excellence to promote authentic dialogue and generous listening across differences, the GLAD Center will serve as an educational resource for Tufts and beyond. The Center defines generous listening broadly, encompassing the art of listening to ourselves, to nature, and to others—especially when people disagree or when they confront differences of power and status.

Dr. McKenzie, who will join Tufts on November 1, 2021, has worked for two decades in the higher education sector as an academic counselor, researcher, lecturer, policy analyst and administrator. She currently serves as Director of the Aspire Institute, which supports the preK-12 educational sector with professional development based in a social justice framework and community engagement. In addition, she currently teaches at Wheelock College and serve d as the Educational Leadership & Policy Studies’ faculty representative to the college’s Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Committee.

“Working with Tufts students—the next generation of civic leaders—is a wonderful opportunity, and I’m thrilled to join Tisch College in building and sustaining a community of robust dialogue and truly generous listening,” said Dr. McKenzie. “This work challenges us to hear each other and ourselves, and to commit to considering big questions and big issues together.”

Housed at the Tisch College of Civic Life, the GLAD Center will collaborate with schools and departments across the university and with external partners, building on the expertise of Tufts’ faculty, research centers and civic engagement programs. Its programming, research, and interdisciplinary initiatives will help people at Tufts and beyond to develop skills and awareness, address hard issues, and generate new knowledge. The GLAD Center was launched in the spring of 2021 in collaboration with the Vuslat Foundation. Dr. McKenzie will be joined on the Center’s leadership team by Dr. Deborah Donahue-Keegan, Associate Director, Tisch College Senior Fellow and Lecturer in the Tufts University Department of Education.

“We look forward to welcoming Dr. McKenzie to Tufts and Tisch College,” said Dayna Cunningham, the Pierre and Pamela Omidyar Dean of the Tisch College of Civic Life. “Her leadership of the GLAD Center could not come at a better time. To grapple with the challenges that confront our students, our university and the world—from systemic racial injustice to the existential threat of global climate change—we need to flex every civic muscle we have, including the skills of listening and dialogue.”

Dr. McKenzie has a BA in Africana Studies from Cornell University, M.Ed. from the University of Virginia in Social Foundations of Education, and a Ph.D. in Politics and Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. In her civic life, she serves on the Beverly, Massachusetts School Committee and as VP III and education chair of the North Shore Branch of the NAACP. She is most proud of being a mother to amazing children who inspire her work everyday.