Dr. Paul Beezley, Associate Professor of History at JSU, gave his lecture “Civility and Civil Society” on Thursday, November 19, in room 101 of Merrill Hall.
This was the second Antigone Lecture on campus, part of an ongoing series of lectures focused on the exploration of civil society throughout history. Beezley focused on the question of “What is a civil society?” Much was made of the decline of civil society, particularly over the last century.
“[My goal] is to provoke people to think, maybe to question some of their beliefs. And to challenge, particularly the students here, to take charge of their own lives and of the society that they create,” Beezley said.
“It’s an opinion piece. My thoughts and my opinions on these two questions, rather than being a traditional historical lecture…there will be no dates, and there will be no quiz at the end.”
Beezley explained that civility requires agreement on common principles. “Certainly in my mind, paramount is respect for one’s self and others. We treat each other the way we wish to be treated,” he said. This could be civility on a personal level, but he stated society as a whole requires more than just trust.
“To have a civil society, you must have trust. Trust in your community, in society, before civility may be obtained. Trust and a commitment to core, fundamental beliefs, the few things we can agree upon,” he said.
Beezley mentioned personal accountability as another important function of a civil society; he explained how personal accountability and responsibility are basic tenets.
“When you’re allowed to set your own bedtime, you have to be reasonable and responsible… That was the sign of maturity, self-mastery. That you could control your baser emotions, that you could overcome your instincts to do the right thing,” he said.
Beezley said that today’s society is living backwards. To him, everything has become political, and society is now set upon its own self-gratification. “Indeed the whole idea if it feels good, do it…This is the antithesis to the idea of self-restraint….the danger always is that you go too far, you take things too far.”
According to Beezley, the effort to politicize everything divides us, drives us into separate camps. “Where are we when our political leaders see each other as deep enemies? Can you have a civil society where one part of the society is out to destroy the other?”
So how do we come back? “A focus on optimism, stepping away from the idea that ‘things have always been this way, so why do anything?’ A focus on being something meaningful rather than focusing on seeming to be something. Look for substance and reward substance,” Beezley said. He suggested we should learn to reward those who accomplish something of actual substance, especially if it benefits the community and society at large; learn to fail gracefully and to learn from those failures, and to accept obligations to one’s self and the community. He also emphasized not to focus only on what rights are entitled to us, and through these things to effect change in society.
Beezley is a cultural historian with a focus in late 19th and early 20th century America. Along with being an instructor, he is also a member of the Faculty Senate.