The Value of Civility: Pessimism or Optimism for the Class of 2016?
Standing in front of the Class of 2016 last month to present my annual remarks at Washington and Lee's commencement, I was torn between delivering a message of optimism or one of pessimism.
On the one hand, I am optimistic that our graduating seniors left having learned lessons that will serve them and society well.
I believe our graduates have learned that civility matters. It makes possible conversations and debates where the purpose is to understand, not to prevail.
Civility is the mark of those who have something to say, but can respect others who also have something to say. It elevates discourse. It leads to interesting and rewarding engagement with those around you.
When free and equal people with different backgrounds and perspectives come together, disagreement is inevitable. In that contentious swirl of competing views, assertiveness is called for, but so, too, is reticence.
You must develop the courage of your convictions while entertaining the possibility you could be wrong. And you have to resist the temptation to demonize those who disagree with you as morally deficient just because they don't share your views.
I believe, too, that they learned that reason, a close companion of civility, is equally crucial. Never was the volume, intensity, spontaneity, or even the passion of an argument a measure of its quality. Positions supported by reason have greater force than those supported by emotion.
In the civic arena, outbursts of anger, frustration, and personal insults are like empty calories - a satisfying short-term solution to hunger with totally unhealthy long-term effects.
I certainly hope and trust that our students left knowing how to widen the space between thought and speech, so that reflective judgment can fill that space and influence what they say - or what ends up on their Twitter feeds.
There may be a few people for whom the thought that immediately occurs to them is a carefully reasoned, informed, and articulate point of view worth hearing. But I have not met that person. Revealing whatever is on your mind, unfiltered and impulsively, is of little interest to others. It is self-indulgent, narcissistic, and arrogant.
Along with civility and reason, these graduates have developed a sense of a common good. During four years living together in a college community, they have both grown so much as individuals, yet come to feel so much a part of that community.
But a university - and, selfishly, I think especially our university - proves the counter-intuitive proposition that strong individuals make for a strong community.
We are comfortable in who we are as individuals, even as we know that fulfillment in life comes from developing a commitment to something greater than the self.
So as I looked out at those graduates, and past them to their families and friends, I was optimistic that these lessons have equipped them for successful lives. Why, then, the pessimism?
I knew, too, that they were leaving a community that cares a great deal about civility and reason and the common good - and entering a world that increasingly does not care about those things.
This is an age of incivility, an age where emotion matters more than reason. It is an age of divisiveness and constant reminders of our differences instead of what unites us.
It is an age where, astonishingly, the urge to say whatever is on your mind, whenever it is on your mind - whether in social media or in presidential campaigns - has been elevated to a virtue.
We are in the midst of a dismal national political campaign that will only get more divisive, more emotional, less civil, and less rational.
Sadly, the tenor of our politics at the moment, the tone of our public discourse, the fact-free zone in which critical judgments of our future must be made, and the exploitation of our fears rather than a call to raise our sights, virtually ensure that no matter the outcome of this election, the worst may be yet to come.
Here is an ultimate irony: the campaign in which we find ourselves emanates from the citizenry's current frustrations with the ineffectiveness of our leaders and government, but when it ends we are assured of a polarization that will lead to even greater discontent with our leadership and political system. It's a downward spiral. And I don't know how this ends well.
So I asked the graduates to brace themselves against the political and even moral headwinds ahead. I asked them not to succumb to the cynicism and meanness of the age in which we find ourselves, not to seek refuge from a complex world in the safe harbors of simplicity and slogans.
We need men and women who act with dignity, decency, and civility and who offer reasonable and reasoned positions in the midst of chaos. Most of all, we need people who care about others more than themselves.
In the end, I have to let my faith in those graduates prevail over my concern with our politics at the moment, because we're going to need people like them now more than ever.
Kenneth P. Ruscio is president of Washington and Lee University. By custom, W&L's president is the principal speaker at the commencement address, and this piece is adapted from his address on May 26, 2016, on the Lexington campus. Reprinted by permission.