Sunday, November 12, 2006


On Oct. 21, in his inaugural address as the 26th president of Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va., Kenneth Ruscio said: " precisely the time we need mutual understanding, we are descending inexorably into a public discourse of incivility and mistrust."

A cry has arisen for more civil behavior in everything from political advertising to college campuses, but for Ruscio civility requires more than simply polite behavior. (Here's a link to his complete address: )

Here's my question for you: Is a cry for civil behavior the same thing as a cry for concealment of one's honest feelings? Or are civility and candor compatible?

Send your thoughts to or post them at Please include your name, your hometown and the name of the newspaper in which you read this column. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business" (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 609 Greenwich St., 6th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014-3610.


Anonymous said...

For civil public discourse we could well take a page from the participants in the old "Firing Line" series, where conservative host Wm. F. Buckley and his various liberal guests debated issues in civil, direct, clever and often witty ways...never shouting over each other...certainly the candor and honesty of their feelings were never in doubt...clearly unlike the behavior of today's "talking heads" we so often encounter of late, where politicians and their surrogates profess that there is "nothing personal" in their invective, insisting that they are great friends and can always work together, despite their I recall, there was more illumination on the "Firing Line" than there was heat and noise in that I take that experience as proof that it is possible to argue opposing ideas without descending into the noise and fury of bitterness.

Jude Werra
Brookfield, WI

Anonymous said...

My response to this very important question is to defer to a true expert on the subject - Judith Martin a.k.a. Miss Manners. Not only is she a graceful and witty writer on the subject of polite behavior, she addresses the philosophy behind the importance of manners and civil discourse. She points out that it is a characteristic of children to blurt out whatever comes into their heads, but being an adult in a civilized society means knowing how and when to express an opinion. One can be candid without necessarily being rude, but not every situation requires an immediate candid response. The belief that whatever one thinks at the moment should be blurted out is what has brought us to our present state of incivility. People with no manners toward others seem to have a heightened sense of when they themselves have been "dissed," and people have actually lost their lives because of it. What is "road rage" after all but the escalation of unmannerly behavior between strangers? I would go so far as to say that it isn't issues of sex and money that destroy most marriages, but the lack of common courtesy and consideration toward the very people one should most want to please.

Anonymous said...

In answer to your question regarding the compatibility (or lack thereof) of civil behavior and honesty, I believe that there is no reason we cannot state our honest opinions in a civil fashion. However, it seems to me that in the past two decades, Americans have become more and more strident about protecting their Constitutionally-guaranteed right to free speech while at the same time clamoring for restrictions on the airing of opinions that differ from their own. In other words, this vocal contingent is saying, “It is okay to be honest about your opinion, as long as it is the same as mine.”

The right to “free speech” as granted to us in our Constitution means that all parties to a discussion have an equal right not only to hold their opinions, but to voice them as well without fear of reprisal. While I may feel that the views of my neighbor are contrary to my personal code of ethics, rather than raising my voice against his or her views, I should instead state my disagreement and my own viewpoint in a civilized and controlled manner that opens the door to dialogue, and expect my opinions to be received in a like manner to which they are given.

It is too bad that so many have taken the words of our founding fathers and twisted them to their own ends, so that lately one is almost afraid to voice any opinion that, while ethically or morally supportable, is contrary to the prevailing politically-correct climate.

That being said, I read your most recent column with interest since I, too, have been experiencing an ongoing issue with toll-road manners (or lack thereof) for a number of months. There is a location on a toll road in Southern California where the road is four lanes wide. At the northern end of the toll road, the two left lanes merge onto a west-bound road, and the two right lanes merge onto an east-bound road. The problem is that in the evenings, all but a few cars want to merge onto the east-bound road, causing a back up that can run up to four miles, and take up to an hour to navigate. The majority of drivers sit patiently in the two right lanes, but there are always a few drivers who feel that they should not have to wait, and who stay in the left lanes until the last possible moment, then move over to the right, bypassing all of the cars that have been waiting for so long. Luckily, the CHP likes to patrol this stretch of roadway in the evenings and issues moving violations to those drivers that it catches in the act of making this illegal (not to mention highly dangerous) maneuver. If I am caught in this situation, I feel no obligation to allow a car in the left lanes to cut in front of me. I have been subjected to honked horns and rude (indeed, obscene) gestures, but I still feel that I have no obligation to yield. Am I right in refusing to yield the right of way?

Debbie Rolland Billings
Corona, California

Anonymous said...

My answer to the first question is "no" and to the second question "yes."

I think a person can get his point across honestly without being hurtful. It's called diplomacy, which in Ireland has been defined as the ability to tell a man to go to hell in a way that makes him look forward to the trip. Unfortunately, negative political campaigning works, appealing to our most basic human instincts and forcing prospective voters to choose between the lesser of two evils or to opt out of the process altogether.

Honest outrage in the face of genuine wrongdoing is legitimate. When Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, nobody accused him of incivility. However, when Barry Goldwater said "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue," he was roundly criticized. Maybe Teddy Roosevelt said it best:

"Right here let me make as vigorous a plea as I know how in favor of saying nothing that we do not mean, and of acting without hesitation up to whatever we say. A good many of you are probably acquainted with the old proverb, "Speak softly and carry a big stick - you will go far." If a man continually blusters, if he lacks civility, a big stick will not save him from trouble, and neither will speaking softly avail, if back of the softness there does not lie strength, power. In private life there are few beings more obnoxious than the man who is always loudly boasting, and if the boaster is not prepared to back up his words, his position becomes absolutely contemptible. So it is with the nation. It is both foolish and undignified to indulge in undue self-glorification, and, above all, in loose-tongued denunciation of other peoples. Whenever on any point we come in contact with a foreign power, I hope that we shall always strive to speak courteously and respectfully of that foreign power."

Phil Clutts
Harrisburg, NC
(Charlotte Observer)

Anonymous said...

I believe civility is learned from our parents and other close relations. But somehow it is lost to blatant vulgarity and inappropriate words publicly. We don't know how to disagree politely anymore. We don't know how to use the English language to get a point across without the use of bitter harsh expressions and boistrous behavior. Our young people have been taught to be rude and unsympathetic. Thus, civility is lost! Have you listened to the exchange of langugage in TV shows and movies. We are well pass the time when we spoke graciously like in the story 'Pride and Prejudice'.

Anonymous said...

Candor can be civil: meanspiritness or bullying cannot.

I am an attorney--and we used to be civil to one another. Always. We understood that it was our clients' fight, and we were to be above the fray. Now bullying and lies are considered part of many (younger)lawyers bag of tricks.

But I think of Disraeli and Gladstone: I can't quite remember the question Gladstone supposedly asked,but the the reply sticks:
"That depends, sir, upon whether iI embrace your mistress or your morals."

Who today could use such wit to make a point? No one.

But it's not just the language-- it's the true purpose of the communication we get all wrong.

Anonymous said...

Being candid and civil are not mutually exclusive. There is a lot to be said for civility.

Wendy Hagmaier
Fullerton, CA

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey, there's no doubt a terrible incivility and mistrust are being brought about by pretty much the entire gamut of what we see and hear daily in nearly every facet of everyday life. Things didn't used to be like this, people didn't used to treat one another the way we do now. Just think about the recent election, which featured both political parties, not stating their platforms, but concentrating on telling everything evil possible about opponents, scandel, sex, sometimes not even telling the truth. Think about what we see daily on TV, in the so-called "news", which many times is nothing more than leftist poltical prejudice on a large scale, much of it not even the truth. Even sports commentary has decended to the "attack" mode, wherein the "successful" commentators are those that are not satisfied to report the news, there must be a vicious attack (with a loud voice) whenever possible, many times with little proof or reason, the only important thing is to create doubt and make sports figures seem bad or unacceptable. Ads for car dealers scream at you, as if loudness sells cars more than reason. Think of the "entertainment" on TV and movies, which concentrates on the bizarre and sexual and out of control side of life. Think of the gay movement, which seeks to destroy normal married life, with the backing of a single political party. A lot of this could be described as being "candid", so we see where being candid gets us.

I think back to the world of news & entertainment and how people treated one another from the days during and after WWII, into the 50's. It was a time when the only way you could describe it was "being nice", people didn't try to shock, life was "civil". It was during the awful protest days of the 60's & 70's that we started to lose the civility that had previously been the hallmark of our dealings with one another, when the peace protestors began to color the fabric of what we see now, with "tell all" books, to the point where now it seems that most decent people are totally turned off by newspapers, by magazines, TV, movies, which have decended into things the lowest common denominator allows. Ostensibly, Carole and I moved from Florida up here to South Carolina for financial reasons, but clearly, the peaceful life we experience here, where people treat one another respectfully the way it was 50 years ago, as opposed to what we knew in Florida, turns out to be one of the biggest reasons we love our life here. Therefore, in answer to your question, I believe very strongly that a desire to be candid is not helpful towards making life more civil. Or, to put it another way, the trouble with things now is that we have gone over from a civil type of life towards an uncivil and mistrusting type of life, much because of our desire to be candid. It is not necessary to be candid all the time - maybe in our financial dealings, or in dealings with our loved ones, but in most of life, I think most of the troubles we are experiencing are because of our seeming craze to be candid about everything. I guess I call that a desire for innocence and peacefulness, when what we are seeing more and more is a desire to be spiteful, vile, "tell it like it is", the Howard Cosell syndrome, which is another way of being candid. I say it is time to go back to the old ways and the old days.

Sermon over!

Charlie Seng

Anonymous said...

Jeff- I am very troubled by the hatred of President Bush as was the case of President Nixon before him. Nixon brought it on himself but the emotions were extreme. The reasons for attitudes toward GWB are Iraq based. The attacks are something else.

President Reagan and Clinton were roughed up for different reasons but the emotion was different. There is talk now of trying President Bush in the World courts by some German people who equate Abu Ghraib mistreatments with
the trials in Nuremburg for the Holocaust. Must the American people be subjected to these indignities because of dislike of GWB style?

I'm hoping the current civilized behavior by the powers that be continue in the future.

On the subject, I think you can be critical and candid without personally attacking and vilifying the person. Well chosen words and tone are still effective.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jeffrey,

I answered one of your thoughtful questions some time ago; therefore, I was e-mailed this question.

When I read your e-mail I was very interested. I am the Curriculum Coordinator at Charlotte Latin School, an independent Pre-K to 12 school in Charlotte, NC, and we are undertaking a school-wide initiative towards civility. Many years ago our Headmaster, Dr. Ned Fox, added the word civility to our mission statement.

"Our mission is to encourage individual development and civility in our students by inspiring them to learn, by encouraging them to serve others, and by offering them many growth-promoting opportunities".

With the retirement of Dr. Fox, Latin initiated the Fox Distinguished Lecture Series. Every other year CLS brings a noted speaker on campus to address students and parents. This year, in April, we will host Dr. P.M. Forni, the Cofounder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project and professor of Italian literature at Johns Hopkins. In preparation for his visit, all faculty will read Dr. Forni's book, Choosing Civility. Forni addresses your question in his book.

Are civility and candor compatible? And for the last 20 years, I thought only Southerners had this dilemma! ( That is a joke. I moved here from Philadelphia twenty-one years ago and found many Southerners - mainly women - to be polite to the point of dishonesty.) After much thought I have come to the conclusion that one may only be civil when one is candid. I believe that to be less than honest is the biggest sign of disrespect one can bestow on another. Now, I add to that; in one's candor one must also be kind. I would be interested in reading the other responses you receive. I think I may do this on your website, and I will.

Thank you,

Mary Beth Harris
Curriculum Coordinator
Charlotte Latin School