Civility and Free Expression Among Cross-Cultural Perspectives

Civility and Free Expression Among Cross-Cultural Perspectives




Diversity is a strong component of the American story. E pluribus Unum has been one of the historical and cultural foundations of the United States, from the founding of the Republic through the Civil War to twentieth-century efforts to assimilate a nation of immigrants into the body politic. Many scholars and observers now view the United States as a multicultural mosaic that represents racial and ethnic diversity, religions of many faiths and sects, and political views that span the ideological spectrum.

Diversity contributes enormously to the richness of American culture, as our books, films, and other cultural sources amply document. Yet diversity also challenges the political order, makes consensus more difficult to reach, and motivates some to express political and social incivility.

These challenges were particularly evident during World War I (anti-German rhetoric) and World War II (the Japanese-American internment camps), as well as at other times of nationalistic fervor or racial strife. Recently, however, ethnographers such as Elijah Anderson have found new forms of civility in urban America, under the “cosmopolitan canopy” where diverse people meet, interact, and develop mutual understandings across racial, ethnic, and social borders.

This cross-cultural American view parallels, to some extent, the experiences of other countries, particularly democracies. But there are striking global differences, too, both in levels of diversity and in how individual governments respond to religious, ethnic, and racial differences. In many countries, religious diversity may be present but barely tolerated; religious minorities may be unwelcome or even subject to constant harassment. In Western Europe, laws against hate speech and group defamation have been enacted since World War II, reflecting efforts to ensure political civility in the wake of the Holocaust, even at the expense of some limitations on freedom of expression that might not pass constitutional scrutiny in the United States.

Questions for Discussion

These issues of group and personal identity within and across national boundaries touch most communities and can give rise to a robust discussion.

  • Are diversity and civility inherently at odds with one another? What steps can a diverse society, such as the United States, take to promote civility?
  • What are the most important exceptions or limitations to key First Amendment freedoms? Do these exceptions have a disproportionate impact on different racial, ethnic, or religious groups?
  • As our conceptions of racial and ethnic identity change in the United States (to better reflect a multiracial model), what will be the impact on the “Unum,” politics, and government?
  • What lessons about civility, group identity, and freedom of expression can we learn and adopt from other countries?


Civility and Free Expression in a Constitutional Democracy is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities under the Bridging Cultures initiative. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Bar Association, or any of its program partners.