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January 14, 2003

Hillel Center hosts inter-faith dialogue on civility

Students and faculty assembled in the third floor of Swift Hall yesterday evening for "Civility: The Resources of Different Religious Traditions," the first forum of a series staged by the Civility Project, a committee of faculty and members of the University's Hillel Center formed to debate secular notions of civility between different faiths.

"It grew out of a conversation I had with Professor [Martha] Nussbaum, to increase dialogue about these issues on campus," said Rabbi David Rosenberg, Hillel's director and the organizer of the event. "It's the first of many."

Daniel Brudney, philosophy professor and moderator, began the forum with a discussion of the secular value of civility. Brudney challenged the panelists to address the question of the necessity of civility in an academic setting. "Why should I have respect for someone who believes my view to be pernicious?" he asked.

Provost Richard Saller presented the official administrative view of the question in citing the University's refusal to adopt a civil code, a set of rules governing behavior in the classroom.

"Though this policy is found throughout many campuses, this campus decided not to do that."

Saller claimed that many breaches of civility might be perceived as methods by which professors challenge students' assumptions, such as making outrageous claims or being overtly hostile toward a student.

"Is there no act or behavior so vile that it should not be allowed?" Saller questioned.

According to Saller, the University has a policy opposing threats of violence, acts of violence, and the prevention of people voicing their opinions, but must retain a long tradition of free speech.

David Tracy, professor of the divinity school, represented the Christian viewpoint of civility. Tracy admitted to the checkered history of Christianity as an institution. "Every great work of civilization is a work of barbarism," he said.

To address the civility dilemma, Tracy borrowed the Christian theory of love from the school of Reinhold Niebuhr, which divides Christian virtue of love into three separate categories: mutuality, self-sacrifice, and equal regard.

"Love is equal regard, but there is another: equal regard before the law," Tracy said.

Umar Faruq Abd-Allah from the Nawari Foundation spoke on behalf of the Muslim viewpoint on civility.

He made the distinction between two types of Islam: the literal, drawn specifically from the Koran, and the interpretive, the aspect he deals with as a scholar.

One central Islamic tenet dealing with civility concerns what the Koran labels "people of the book," or those who come from Judaic or Christian backgrounds. "The Koran says be courteous when you have discourse with 'people of the book,'" Umar said.

Umar added that Islam is supposed to build off of the other monotheistic religions. "Islam is the perfection of the Abrahamian tradition," he said.

Michael Fishbane presented the Jewish perspective, stating that no religion should legislate thoughts, but rather should preserve the spirit of the law. "There is a difference between the right action and right-minded," Fishbane said.

Formal law, in Fishbane's view, can sometimes violate the social order. According to the Talmud, a Jew must offer to sell back property to a person who has become impoverished and therefore go against his self-interest.

Fishbane also alluded to the importance of trustworthiness of speech in legal dealings within the Jewish religion. "The speech of false assertion is considered to be a fracture against the civil order," he said.

The chair of the Civility Project, professor of philosophy Martha Nussbaum, claimed that all of the speakers had accomplished the mission of the forum, which was to provide the internal resources of each religion to illuminate the issue of civility. "This forum was about how traditions treat people from the outside," Nussbaum said.

The forum was organized particularly in response to a group of Jewish students who approached Nussbaum arguing that their pro-Israeli views were being silenced.

These students began the Web site campuswatch.com, which has been an outspoken opponent of many University of Chicago faculty members.

Nussbaum hoped that the forum would bridge misunderstandings between students and faculty.

"We want to involve more students and get them to participate," Nussbaum said. "Any students who have suggestions for ideas for future forums should send me an e-mail."