‘Civility’ is another vague concept
March 6, 2015 Last updated: Friday, March 6, 2015, 12:31 AM
The Ridgewood News
The limits of civility
To the Editor:
Work obligations prevented me from attending the panel on civility, so I offer my observations here.
“Civility” is like “decency,” or “freedom,” or any number of other vague concepts against which no one could sensibly argue. My college professors called such terms “glittering generalities” and warned us to beware of hiding behind them.
“Civility” can enable the sophist to evade challenge by deflecting the emphasis from what is said to how it is said. “What a rude, mean, tactless thing to say” is not a refutation of an underlying argument, only a deflection. Sometimes harsh criticism is deserved and hard words are unavoidable.
I was particularly uncomfortable with the correspondent in last week’s paper who deplored questioning motives. Motives that cannot stand up to questioning are likely to be questionable. For example, “nonprofit” is simply a form of corporate organization in which any excess is ploughed back into the corporation rather than disbursed as dividends to shareholders; there is nothing especially virtuous about it, and though the corporation is nonprofit, individuals who derive their income from it generally are not. Many a scoundrel has cloaked himself in the robes of righteousness, and over the past few years the chorus of voices demanding more accountability for “nonprofits” has grown in both number and volume..
With regard to anonymity, the Federalist Papers were written under pseudonyms; it is understandable that critics of wealthy and powerful institutions might well want not to risk retaliation.
In sum, critics are well advised to avoid ad hominem arguments, intemperate words, and insults because they undermine your logic and alienate possible allies. But otherwise, as Harry Truman said, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.