About The Gazette Search Back Issues Contact Us    
The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University November 1, 2004 | Vol. 34 No. 10
Thinking Out Loud

William R. Brody

By William R. Brody

Choosing Civility

Recently, I met with a major media and public relations icon from New York, who told me he was working with his alma mater on a lecture series focused around civility. I mentioned I knew a great treatise on the subject and afterward sent him a copy of Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct by Pier Massimo Forni, a professor in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. This book is a wonderful short monograph that I recommend highly to anyone interested in the subject.

Not long afterward I received a very nice thank-you note from my New York colleague, who was so delighted with the book that he said he went out and purchased a number of copies to give to others. He reminded me that Professor Forni begins with a wonderful quote from Henry James:

"Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind. The second is to be kind, and the third is to be kind."

I suppose I have been thinking of civility a lot as we reach the end — we hope — of a particularly vituperative presidential election. We have been through weeks of near-constant deafening rhetoric spewed forth by both presidential candidates, their running mates, their spokespersons, political spin artists, pundits and so forth. The shrillness of the political discourse is no accident: Clearly candidate Kerry, who started with a more muted message, rose from has-been to contender by sharpening the edge of his attacks on President Bush. And the other side has met him in kind, every step of the way.

The public apparently responds more readily to uncivil, sometimes brutal, often hyperbolic and occasionally downright false accusations. Thus, the presidential debates eventually degrade to the prime time verbal equivalent of a World Wrestling Entertainment Smack Down. In this atmosphere, is it any surprise that former pro wrestler Jessie Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota in 1999 over his highly qualified, well-educated Republican and Democratic opponents?

Sure, the "sport" of presidential campaigns makes for good television ratings, but is there anything harmful in this high-decibel demagoguery? I think so. In much the same way we are "numbed" by a relentless exposure to violence through the media, our innate sense of decency, fairness and truth subtly accommodates itself to ever-increasing levels of political mendacity. It's not unlike the way our ears are able to reset their sensitivity in the presence of a continuous exposure to loud noise.

Our civility quotient in America has been falling steadily in recent years and has, if anything, begun to plummet during this campaign season. An aggressive, winner-take-all, combative sports mentality now seems to drive behavior in all aspects of our lives — from oversized, overloud boomboxes to road rage, from verbal assault to spousal abuse. And perhaps most relevant of all for the United States at this time is the use of military force as the favored option over diplomacy.

Given the opportunity, I would encourage all political candidates to read and follow Professor Forni's rule No. 13 of civil behavior: "Keep it down (and rediscover silence)." As Les Blomberg memorably put it: "My right to swing my fist ends at your nose. My right to make noise ought to end at your ear."

Already, it's too late to get that message across in 2004. Perhaps we'll find a way to do better in 2008. In the meantime, here is one highly recommended procedure I have discovered that you might want to try during the next presidential campaign season: Turn on the television set, but turn off the volume. It's amazing what you begin to see.


William R. Brody is president of The Johns Hopkins University.


The Gazette | The Johns Hopkins University | Suite 540 | 901 S. Bond St. | Baltimore, MD 21231 | 443-287-9900 | [email protected]