Learning the delicate dance of candor and civility – Mero Moment, 3/18/14

This post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations.

dancersTen years ago this month Sutherland Institute finalized plans for a very unique project in Utah politics. It was 10 years ago that we created our Transcend Series. Hundreds of elected officials and community leaders have spent the better part of a full day, once a month, for nine months to gain context, perspective and introspection about their role as decision-makers.

The highlight of the Transcend Series has been sessions with author Jim Ferrell and educator Quinn McKay. Jim Ferrell permissioned these elected officials and community leaders to see people as people and not as objects in a political arena, and Quinn McKay pushed them uncomfortably to face the realities of honesty and integrity in public service.

At the heart of the Transcend Series has been a desire to highlight the delicate balance between civility and candor. Too much candor at the expense of civility and too much civility at the expense of candor can hurt open dialogue and, ultimately, democratic processes.

Most of us are either very good at one or the other. We’re very good at candor or we’re very good at civility. But few of us have mastered that delicate balance between the two. Undisciplined, candor can often seem offensive and civility passive-aggressive. And it’s no coincidence that community voices often remind us to be civil in our public dialogue – as if to say we rarely lack the ability to express candor. The truth is that achieving candor is just as difficult as achieving civility mostly, I think, because many people don’t believe you can be both candid and civil.

Furthermore, I think most people don’t understand authentic candor and civility. Candor is often viewed as rude and civility as a virtue. Again, the truth is somewhat different. Both candor and civility are virtues. Indeed, candor is a primary source of inspiration in public discourse and civility is a primary source of constructive compromise.

Neither authentic candor nor authentic civility has limits. In their authenticity, neither has an extreme. The key is their authenticity. Using the context of Jim Ferrell’s instruction, authentic civility sees people as people thereby eliminating intentional insults and increasing self-awareness. And using Quinn McKay’s instruction, authentic candor requires honesty and integrity to share true impressions, even regarding some very controversial and sensitive issues.

In addition to Jim Ferrell’s book on Leadership and Self-Deception, along with Quinn McKay’s book regarding The Bottom Line on Integrity, two staples of the Transcend Series were books authored by Yale University Professor Stephen Carter – one titled Civility and the other titled Integrity.

Among the gems in these two books, Professor Carter says this about civility: “Teaching civility, by word and example, is an obligation of the family. The state must not interfere with the family’s effort to create a coherent moral universe for its children. If families are to do this work, they must have room to breathe.” Lecturing citizens about civility often comes across as an exercise in self-righteousness, especially when we understand that authentic civility, like candor, is an internal virtue. Here’s to 10 more years of Sutherland’s Transcend Series.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.

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