Share / Discuss

On civility ...

I was heartened by what Laura Rigell ’16 had to say about civility and justice (not to say civility versus justice) in the civility article in the winter issue of the Bulletin. My Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “civility” as polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior.

This seems fair at first glance, but these characteristics of behavior are, in some telling cases, inimical. Although that which is reasonable and respectful deserves politeness in return, it is sometimes reasonable to be impolite and disrespectful in response to blatant injustice, particularly in a community that values equity above courtliness.

In my experience, a certain amount of civility is important in keeping violence out of the struggle for justice, but too much civility acts as an unguent, greasing the skids on the road to complaisance and thereby postponing the kinds of uncomfortable change necessary to ensure personal dignity and genuine respect for diversity. Civility can in fact work against civil rights, especially when it crosses the line and becomes mincing nuance. Not every action, statement, or position deserves a civil response. In fact, it is sometimes our civic obligation to be actively impolite in making a point, e.g., in calling out persistent bigotry.

Speech must sometimes be blunt to be effective. As Gandhi said, “There is nothing passive about nonviolence.” In that spirit, to the suggestion that it is uncivil to call out injustice plainly and clearly, my response is, “Oh yeah? Says who? You and how many Straussians?”

—Bob DiPrete ’70
Amity, Ore.


I write in regard to the interesting piece on incivility appearing in the recent issue of the Bulletin

Incivility, I believe, is just the tip of the iceberg, just one indication of the absence of culture, a shortfall that is today responsible for an unstable society and for the civil unrest which feeds the political appetite for a totalitarian state. 

Community can only exist where people trust one another. A random mix of self-interested careerists will almost certainly fail to achieve community, although they may learn good manners and come to respect one another. Conflict arises out of mistrust, and although you may engineer a resolution to conflict, you have only dealt with the symptom, not the disease.

An individualist’s freedom is achieved by casting off the common bonds—a shared experience, empathy, human understanding—the ties that bind a community. An ideological commitment to justice, truth, and equality can’t return the isolated and alienated individual to the protection and place offered by the community. Unfortunately the highly prized individual possesses nothing in the way of personal security, only the illusory safety offered by the laws, the handgun, and by police-state mechanisms such as the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security.

The communard can count on the loyalty and protection of fellow human beings. The enemy is the tribe across the river or over the border. Alas, for the individual, the enemy is everywhere.

—Ned Bright ’56
County Cork, Ireland


I didn’t attend Swarthmore because of any perceived civility, and I hope current students aren’t either. Barry Schwartz is right (for once)—maybe Swarthmore and other campuses used to have an edge that has disappeared. Now we hear about “triggers” and “microagressions” and the like. Calls for civility are too often calls for (self) censorship. Comedy, satire, parody, and, yes, ridicule are entirely appropriate and useful tools in political and other debate. Sometimes, the other side is, well, full of it, and there is no reason not to point that out “uncivilly.”

—Dan Garfield ’89


I’d like to praise the Bulletin for printing the hatefully negative letter about Arthur Chu (Jeopardy!? Is this a joke?) in the fall issue. In fact, you could have printed it again in the winter issue, as an example of incivility! Lauren Gilman ’88’s letter in response was excellent. Lastly, I’m always glad to hear about what a wonderful career and life Maurice Eldridge ’61 has made at Swarthmore. I was two classes ahead of him and remember him as a freshman very well. Again, with the idea of civility, as I remember him, he was an example of it. He was his own man in what was an uncomfortable situation. 

—Susan Barker Gutterman ’59
New York