Mike the Mad Biologist

Reading the prepared text of Obama’s speech at the Tucson Memorial Thursday night, there was one part I really liked:

And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let’s remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud.

I would prioritize honesty–that is, speaking with words that have meaning and are not simply utterances designed to manipulate–over civility, but it’s good to see someone valuing honesty. But I have to agree with Rotwang about this (who is kicking ass over at Atrios’ pad):

I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness …” I don’t. Go ahead and sue me. The President’s speech was intermittently inspiring. But he said this in the state of Arizona, where as we speak they deny organ transplants to people who subsequently die.

As a second piece of evidence, I would add one word: torture. The nauseating love affair too many Americans developed with torture, based on a crappy TV action drama, does not speak to decency and goodness.

The point is not to be a snarky buzzkill (that’s just a bonus!), but to note that some people aren’t behaving ethically. They hold positions that are abhorrent. When people support the torture people out of misguided fear, or deny life-saving treatment because those who have so much greedily refuse to help the needy, they need to be called out on this. Honesty requires the unlovely recognition that some of us aren’t all that good.

This, too, is honesty. And it is far more important than civility.


  1. #1 dman
    January 17, 2011


    dawkins – got you…

    who’s the WINGNUT?




    an example and warning of the fate of those who try to divide people….


  2. #2 I. Snarlalot
    January 17, 2011

    Honesty? Ethics? What be these strange words of which you speak?

    For lo, as Rush Limbaugh smirks his angry, puffed up prayer of hatred for all of America so snottily:
    “I tell people don’t kill all the liberals. Leave enough so we can have two on every campus – living fossils – so we will never forget what these people stood for.”

    Yeah. What kind of people do you think love listening to that kind of trash?

    I suppose you could include honesty and ethics under the heading of civility, but of course that’s not what people are thinking of when they say ‘civil.’ What they mean is, “Pundits and stenographers are too lame to be expected to do the decent thing or sort out fact from fiction, so we should just focus on minding our ‘pleases and thank yous’, thank you very much.”

  3. #3 Roman
    January 18, 2011

    Civility is important. Without civility in discourse, the honesty and truth are swamped in the deluge of foul language and chest-thumping. A civil (not lucre) discourse takes the attention away from the form and lets it focus on the content. It’s like in computer programming: you mind the syntax rules not to please the compiler gods, but so that the computer knows exactly what you want to do.

  4. #4 Birger Johansson
    January 18, 2011

    Naah. “Civility” is defined as what I am saying. Uncivil discourse is defined as anything teh Gay or Libruls are saying. Besides, if I say barack Obama is a n***er from Kenya, it is just a statement of fact whereas when elitisty professors claim the funnding fathers intended to separate church and state, they are lying as well as offending every True American (TM).

  5. #5 Roman
    January 19, 2011

    Civility is subjective, but so it truth, and we don’t say “truth is not important in a debate”.

    You can try to apply some objective standards to civility by introducing some rules like “ad hominem attacks are uncivil”.

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