This week I want to revisit the subject of civility. Several weeks ago I was being interviewed by a reporter with The Salt Lake Tribune. His questions dealt with the legacy of Jon Huntsman Jr. as our governor. In the course of a rather lengthy conversation I characterized the governor and his family in not so flattering terms. After the story printed and complaints about my comment started to pour in, I could see that I needed to apologize for the comment…and I did.
Of course, just two weeks ago, a congressman from South Carolina interrupted President Obama’s speech before Congress with a shout of “You lie!” He was immediately excoriated in the press and chastised by his congressional colleagues. He, too, apologized for his comment.
In both cases, there were voices cheering on the comments. In my case, the most consistent reaction among folks who don’t care for Jon Huntsman was “you only said what everyone was thinking.” And I’m sure a similar reaction has been offered, times thousands, to the disruptive congressman.
That might be true – “you only said what everyone was thinking” – but, for me anyway, that doesn’t justify what was said.
Civility is an interesting word with many meanings. Yale law professor Stephen Carter has suggested several basic rules of civility. For instance, he writes that “our duty to be civil toward others does not depend on whether we like them or not.” And he believes that “civility requires that we sacrifice for strangers, not just for people we happen to know.”
Here are some other thoughts from Professor Carter,
“Civility requires that we listen to others with the knowledge of the possibility that they are right and we are wrong.”
“Civility requires that we express ourselves in ways that demonstrate our respect for others.”
“Civility allows criticism of others, and sometimes even requires it, but the criticism should always be civil.”
Professor Carter has many more suggestions. Now, here’s the deal: I have studied this book. In many ways it has become a Bible to me. I have made my staff read the book. I have given it out as gifts. And yet, not one part of that book came to my mind when I made a rude public comment about the former governor.
After the congressman blurted out his now infamous comment to President Obama, nationally-syndicated columnist Thomas Sowell, a scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, authored two columns titled “Listening to a Liar,” parts one and two. He, too, called President Obama a liar, twice, and he did it in writing and has offered no apologies. What’s the difference between Sowell’s remarks and the congressman’s? I’m not sure I really know but I can venture two guesses. First, the setting was different. Civility has something to do with timing. It’s one thing to express yourself in a newspaper, after the fact, and another thing to yell the same thing in the person’s face while disrupting an event that’s not yours to disrupt.
Second, the congressman called the President a liar about an issue that maybe the congressman got wrong. In other words, maybe the President wasn’t lying at all. Thomas Sowell was very exact about the terms he was using to call the President a liar – so exact he took two full weekly columns to do it.
Is there ever a time to call-out a liar at a public event? Probably. But I think the rule has some very high standards, not the least of which is that you better be right.
Maybe one good rule of thumb is to not vent in the spur of the moment in public. I’ve sat through too many of my boys’ basketball games and have embarrassed myself, my friends, and my boys not to finally take my own advice.
For the Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero.