Which Side Are You On?

Is Incivility the New Normal in Public Discourse?

By Thomas J. Roach


The current fascination with incivility is a defining moment for the 100-year-old practice of public relations. Celebrities, scriptwriters, business leaders and now politicians are gaining attention by using crude language.

Should we, the communication experts, shed the constraints of political correctness to help articulate unvarnished sentiments in times of urgency? Or should we be concerned that we are helping the Barbarians overrun Rome?

Professional communicators consider audience, word choice, arrangement and character when composing and delivering messages. Typically we try to craft our language to complement the values and vocabulary of an ideal audience, and sometimes we do the opposite: we deliberately use words and arguments that call attention to themselves by jarring the expectations of an educated, polite society.

In other words, we choose between civility and incivility.


More than options in the dichotomy of rhetorical choices, civility and incivility are orientations. An axiom of incivility is that it is effective in large part because it is the antithesis of the dominant pattern of communication.

If crude and insensitive comments became the norm, they would lose much of their ability to engage us. The political rhetoric of Jesse Ventura and Donald Trump, the antics of Charlie Sheen and most television comedy scripts would be much less interesting and funny if they didn’t violate our expectations.

Provocative language has always had its place in introductions. Every speech, news story or essay has to first gain the attention of an audience before it can make a point or deliver an argument. The easiest way to accomplish this is by defying expectations.

However, balancing a jarring attention-getting step with a persuasive argument is somewhat paradoxical. The effective argument addresses a popular topic, uses words familiar to the audience, capitalizes on common ground and attempts to demonstrate good character.

Almost everyone who isn’t suffering from a neuropsychiatric disorder knows this intuitively. Thus we avoid cursing, we couch our words when we opine about politics and religion, and we don’t tell mom that we hate her mincemeat pie. Good writing may flirt with impropriety but woos its audience with art, intelligence and sensitivity.

Inherent Problem

The inherent problem with violating rhetorical expectation is that it undermines the effectiveness of the argument, and more importantly, it undermines rapport with the audience.

Bob Dylan may not care, but in the 17th century Wentworth Dillon, Earl of Roscommon, wrote:

“Immodest words admit of no defense
For want of decency is want of sense.”

Dillon’s argument is born out by history. The words and sentences that guided us through the American Revolution, the Civil War, two World Wars, the Great Depression and the Civil Rights movement are resonant, thought-provoking and sublime. Try to think of one important historical quote that devalues a race of people, demeans a gender or resorts to the F word to make a point.

Yet if one tracks the texts of broadcast, film and print communication for the last 50 years, we are clearly moving away from the language of decorum. For the philosophers, the issue is, “how do we function as a self-governing society if our ability to reason is stunted by our devaluing of thoughtful, articulate arguments?”

For professional communicators, the question is tactical. Historically we were employed to prep business leaders and politicians for public exposure, to write or polish their speeches, and to mediate when their actions or words offended key publics. But if sophisticated rhetoric is rejected as “political correctness,” then what is our role?

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” One could hardly make that argument for today’s marginalized poets, but public relations practitioners and professionals have their hand on almost every mediated public statement.

More than for any other profession, this is our problem.

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