Who Gets to Judge “Civility?”

Comedian Steve Martin had a great line early in his career when he talked about the secret to becoming a millionaire. “First,” he said, “you get a million dollars…”

Isn’t that so true? How many self-help books or gurus are just like that? They skip right to the result but are scant on details of how to actually get there.

I was reminded of this recently when I read a rather heavy-handed work from a veteran public relations professional. The topic was on the need for civility in these current times. Who can argue with that, right?

Please get this straight before we go any further. I love civility and believe it’s a hallmark of professional behavior. When it comes to civility I’m all for it. But I also know two things that complicate this discussion.

First, your definition of civility and mine may not only differ, but they may change according to circumstance. If you’re angry about something that I did or did not do, you may have to express that anger in ways I may deem uncivil, but which you may self-righteously see as the only way to get my attention and get me to see it how you do.

Second, broad definitions of words like “civility” are usually subjective in context, and there is no one authoritative body that is or should be charged with deciding what is civil and who is civil in all situations. In a democracy built on freedom of speech, the expression of thoughts and ideas can be messy, yet that is what has moved the republic forward for 245 years. No great change was accomplished without periods of major upheaval. Remember, it took a not-so-civil war in the mid-19th century to right a fundamental wrong in society.

So, when we have discussions like these, particularly in the context of 2021, you can almost always expect that the people calling for civility really aren’t calling for civility in the purest sense of the word. Rather, they are calling for civility towards their point of view and not yours.

Flawed Logic

With this in mind, what concerned me the deeper I got into the piece from that veteran communicator was the number of assumptions that were made with no explanation on the how, the where, the what and the why.

The running theme was that you create problems if a communication isn’t always rooted in the positive, the sensitive, the sensible, the constructive, the helpful, the empathetic and is designed to benefit the recipient more than the sender. If I were teaching a communications class, I’d encourage my students to take the same approach. But I’d also remind them that these are matters of style, not dictates, primarily because situations vary and often call for different approaches, different tones, and different energies to communication.

A Pattern Emerges

The piece went on to chastise readers not to risk allowing their communications to vilify. I would agree with this, but I still have to wonder how the author defines “vilification.”

Let’s say an organization hires you to take a stance against higher taxes. A special interest group opposes your stance. They want higher taxes. You believe higher taxes will put people out of work. They believe higher taxes directed to certain programs will change the climate. You care about jobs. They care about changing the climate. Both sides accuse the other of not caring enough about their priority. Each side accuses the other of “vilification.” Who’s right? It depends on which side you take.

The author said the solution is simple. If you are engaging in uncivil behaviors, it’s your job to recognize them immediately and stop yourself from doing them. Fine. But, once again, he never provides critical details.

How do you train perpetrators to recognize their own missteps? How do you motivate them to change their behavior or stop it? Are there incentives or punishments? Is there a common moral code we all share that we all innately live by? It would be really helpful to cite the ethical foundation and then lay out the process for convincing those who engage in negative behaviors to stop. The PR guru offered none of this.

Sans the details, we’re talking the Steve Martin approach to communications ethics.  How do you stop uncivil behaviors? Well, first you quit doing them. Then you start doing civil behaviors.

See what I mean?

The Angel is in the Details

The PR veteran’s manifesto for civility also tells us we’re not allowed to express anger or irritation. We’re not allowed to be demanding. We not allowed to insult others. We’re not allowed to speak without empathy. We’re not allowed to be overzealous.  We’re not allowed to propose something that is negative or restrictive of others.

On the surface, it’s hard to argue with these desires. But I can think of countless situations where one person’s persistence is another person’s overzealousness.

In the past year alone, we’ve seen broad communications telling us we can’t leave our homes, go to church, open our businesses, all in the name of public health. If that’s not restrictive, what is?  Keep in mind, anyone who raised a legitimate voice of dissent was silenced on social media and other places. Is that civil?

This is how certain idealistic theories and broad decrees fall apart in practice.

How do you determine what is insulting? Seriously, are we not allowed to express anger or irritation? Some of the most meaningful and thought-provoking communications will come off as insulting to the very people who may irritate or insult you. That’s why you may have to speak up in the first place.

This insistence that you only to speak with empathy would win over the judges if you are a finalist in a Miss America pageant, but to accept that premise is to assume the speaker is always the one in the position of power. What if someone else over whom you have no power is not taking your position seriously? If you call them out, are you lacking empathy?

Who gets to decide?

Perhaps most importantly, who gets to decide when we are the ones guilty of being overzealous? Who gets to define or frame the proposals we make as negative or restrictive of others?

Experts on the U.S. Constitution that I’ve talked to often point to a key guideline. If my exercise of my rights infringes on your ability to exercise your rights, then we have a problem.

In communications, the best work we sometimes do will make people think more seriously about or even rethink their positions. It should stop short of infringing on constitutional rights, but sometimes it will make people angry. Sometimes it will insult them, at least at first, and that may make them think some more.

In the business of communications, the goal is often to take you out of your comfort zone to see things a different way. You don’t get there without sometimes ruffling some feathers in the public arena. Yes, some people may not like you for being the messenger, but sometimes that’s what you have to be.

It’s naïve to presume that there is only one way to communicate for everyone, and that there can be a standing set of practices that supersede situational strategy. We have codes of ethics from our professional associations. Most that I’ve seen work quite well when put into practice. And they tend to be broad enough to allow for all of the scenarios in which we communicate.

The fact is, some of the most important communications will at times involve raised voices, protests, heated social media posts and op-eds you don’t like. There will be bills and legislation that scare you. Your position may scare others.

But if it really matters, we can’t allow communications prudes who always seem to tilt the scales for their own purposes to tell us what words we can and cannot use, what we can and cannot say, and most importantly, how to say it.

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Tim O’Brien, APR, is founder and principal at O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications, crisis and issues management firm in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at: timobrien@timobrienpr.com or by calling 412/854-8845. O’Brien Communications provides C-suite corporate communications services.

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