The Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 16, 1998
Mar. 16 1998
VOL. 27, NO. 26


What In The World Has Become Of Civility?

Symposium: Scholars convene next week at Hopkins to address the effects of changing times

Leslie Rice
News and Information

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

Dennis Rodman kicks a cameraman. Roberto Alomar spits at an umpire. Some guy from Fresno cuts off a car on the LAX and a high-speed chase begins.

What in the world has become of civility?

A 1996 survey in U.S. News & World Report found that 89 percent of Americans feel incivility is a serious problem. Ninety-one percent believe its decline contributes to violence.

It's a subject on the minds of many Americans. And now it is generating scholarly interest as well.

From March 26 though 28, Hopkins will host an international conference at the Homewood campus titled "Reassessing Civility: Forms and Values at the End of the Century." And while the closing speaker is well-known etiquette expert Miss Manners (Judith Martin), the heart of the matter is two days of scholarly talks and panel discussions on topics ranging from civility in ancient times, in the military and in the schools, to rudeness, to a roundtable on civility in American society today.

"In the past several years there has been an increasing discourse in the public arena on a perceived decline of civility," says Pier Massimo Forni, professor of Hispanic and Italian Studies and one of the two co-directors of the conference. "The time seems right for a serious reassessment of civility--one aimed at providing strong intellectual moorings to the current debate."

Says Pier Massimo Forni, "The time seems right for a serious reassessment of civility."

What organizers hope to achieve is not a discussion on which fork to use at the table, but rather a scholarly assessment of the relevance of manners, politeness and civility in society today.

"The conservative view right now is that we've lost something as a society in terms of politeness," says co-director Giulia Sissa, chair of the Department of Classics and an expert on civility and gender roles in antiquity. "To some extent that may be true, but what also begs to be looked at is whether something new is being created. For example, new codes of behavior are being played out in the workplace between the genders. And there is a new politeness being introduced between ethnic groups."

"The conservative view is that we've list something as a society," says Giulia Sissa.

The conference is part of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, an ongoing research effort headed by Forni and Sissa. The project involves the study of civility by a variety of academics, as well as field research in area public high schools, health care arenas and prisons, closed or restricted systems where breaches of civility have serious consequences.

The Civility Project has already received much attention from the national media, and a wide range of attendees is expected for the international conference.

The symposium will be host to speakers ranging from popular syndicated etiquette columnist Miss Manners; to prison life expert Larry Sullivan; to University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill historian John Kasson, author of Rudeness and Civility: Manners in Nineteenth-Century Urban America; to French anthropologist Marc Auge, who will talk about "Identity, Alterity, Civility." There will also be a number of Hopkins participants, among them Sidney Mintz, anthropology professor emeritus, who will talk about table manners; sociologist Carol Burke, who will discuss civility in the military; philosophy professors Susan Wolf and Jerome Schneewind, who will talk about distinguishing norms; and Bayview therapist Daniel Buccino, who will talk about civility and manners in health care.

"There was a very generous response by the Hopkins faculty to this conference," Forni says, "in part because the topic is timely and interesting, and it lends itself to examination from many different perspectives--by the philosopher, the historian, the anthropologists and so on.

"What makes this conference unique is that Giulia and I are working very hard to make this conference inclusive to the public. We've asked the speakers to stay away from academic jargon as much as possible and to remember as they write their essays and talks that many of the people in the audience are from the general public. Many of the participants expressed excitement at this prospect [because] it's a little different from the norm; we are all so used to addressing a very academic, specialized audience."

Admission to "Reassessing Civility: Forms and Values at the End of the Century" is free and open to the public. The schedule and location of events are included in the accompanying program guide. For more information about the conference, call 410-516-7556.

The work of the Civility Project can be found on the project's Web site:


Thursday, March 26

Location TBA, 6:30-7:45 p.m., Sayeed Choudhury and Brenda Knox, presentation of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project Web site

Special session; Shriver Hall, 8 p.m. Jean McGarry, "Manners of Writing, Writing of Manners"

Friday, March 27

Morning session: P.M. Forni, chair, Glass Pavilion

9-9:20 a.m. Greetings from Gary Ostrander and Giulia Sissa

9:20-10:20 a.m. Giulia Sissa, "Graces and Virtues: Timely Questions on Politeness"; respondent, Paolo Fabbri, University of Bologna

10:20-11:20 a.m. Jerome Schneewind, "Distinguishing Norms"; respondent, Susan Wolf

11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Marc Auge, EHESS, Paris, "Identity, Alterity, Civility"; respondent, Anthony Pagden

Afternoon session: Giulia Sissa, chair, Glass Pavilion

1:30-3:30 p.m. Roundtable on "Civility in America Today"; Steven Knapp, Edward McDill, Jim McPartland, Ronald Walters

3:45-4:45 p.m. John F. Kasson, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, "Rudeness and Civility in America"; respondent, Albert J. Matricciani Jr., Circuit Court for Baltimore City

4:45-5:45 p.m. Paolo Fabbri, University of Bologna, "Etiquette and Ethics"; respondent, P.M. Forni

Saturday, March 28

Morning session: Giulia Sissa, chair, Mudd Hall Auditorium

9-10 a.m. Carol Burke, "Civility in the Armed Forces"; respondent, Noel Valis

10-10:40 a.m. Larry E. Sullivan, John Jay College, "The De-Civilizing Process: Manners and Behavior in the Fins-de-Siecles"

10:40-11:20 Brenda Vogel, Maryland Correctional Education Libraries, "The Jessup Workshop," with video

11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Daniel Buccino, "Manners Matter: The Etiquette of Health and Mental Health Care"; respondent, Richard Macksey

Afternoon session; P.M. Forni, chair, Mudd Hall Auditorium

1:30-3:30 pm. Roundtable on "Cultures and Civilities," with Talal Asad, Anthony Pagden, Rolph Trouillot and Raymond Westbrook

3:45-4:45 p.m. Sidney Mintz, " 'Customs None, Manners Beastly': Table Manners and the Idea of Civility"; respondent, Marc Auge, EHESS, Paris

4:45-5:15 p.m. President William R. Brody, closing address

5:15-5:45 p.m. P.M. Forni, conclusions

Special session; Shriver Hall, 8:30 p.m. Judith Martin (Miss Manners)