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    Civility and Suicide

    An 18-year-old Rutgers University student threw himself off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate put up live video of the boy making out with another boy. The suicide coincides with the inauguration “Project Civility,” Rutger’s earnest and well-funded attempt to push a rhetorical rope.

    Respect, Restraint, and Responsibility in Public and Political Life

    Slogan for the Rutgers Project Civility

    Alliteration, beginning consecutive words with the same letter.

    Academia loves alliteration as an inoffensive substitute for wit. “Inoffensive” is the operant word for a “project” that isn’t a project that seeks to tame the savage undergraduate.  In ancient times, civility was something the elite practiced. The reward: an improved ethos, followed by status and money.

    In modern times, civility is the vague cause of milquetoasts—a cause that wouldn’t prevent that poor boy from jumping. Meanwhile, the gay organization at Rutger’s picketed the kickoff Project Civility event, calling for “safety.”

    We don’t need safety or civility. We need argument: the deployment of rhetorical skill to answer, and shame, the uncivil.

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    Reader Comments (11)

    Especially with the lack of privacy of the internet and the 24/7 news cycle, you would think that if anything, taking civility seriously would keep one from becoming the subject of either domain's ridicule. it's a shame, however, that one should be scared into civility by the fear of getting caught being non-civil...and the video of that being propagated on the evening news and youtube. But I guess superficial civility better than nothing.

    Sort of reminds me of people in High School doing activities just to boost their resume, not because they valued the activity itself.
    October 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMary
    Also, I'm sure this roommate who is severely lacking in empathy was one of those students mentioned above.
    October 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMary
    Fig, can you expand on civility as the ancients practiced it? How could it improve one's ethos? And if that was true then, why is it no longer true? (as you imply with "We don’t need safety or civility. We need argument")

    Thanks for the thoughts provoked, though not all of them are pleasant. My sympathy to the boy's poor family, and his date. And even to his roommate, because regret is a hard thing to live with...
    October 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterContent
    A person's ethos is based on whether people like or trust him. In small communities where people stay put, your ethos is a living karma, based on your lifelong behavior. You win respect by being respectable. In large empires, civility tends to be reserved for the elite. The gentry were expected to behave like gentry.

    Americans in the eighteenth century believed that birthright in the New Land mattered less than behavior. If you behaved as a gentleman, then you could pass as a gentleman. So the notion of "honor" became paramount--leading not just to civility but to uncivilized behavior such has dueling and slave ownership.

    Today, we deemphasize ethos altogether, voting for people who represent the most avid among our tribes. We avoid actual confrontation--reasoned argument-- that might challenge our tribal identities.

    Instead of holding a "civility project," Rutgers would have served that boy better by holding intensive argument training in the first week of school. That may not have removed the terrible shame and embarrassment he must have felt, but it would have provided him with one of the most important coping mechanisms for abuse.

    Tragically, his own concern for his ethos appears to have been greater than that of his abusers.
    October 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    Thanks for your comment, Mary. This new social technology lacks the rhetorical skills to use it properly. Before we can get a college freshman to empathize, we have to give him a genuine reason to. "Being nice" isn't sufficient.
    October 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    You make an excellent point, Fig. "Being Nice" doesn't seem to be an encouraged trait. Doing mean things is what seems to get people ahead. I suppose altruism used to be a way to increase ethos, but now there is less of a rhetorical reason to do so. Or perhaps I'm interpreting this wrong and just want an excuse for why people do such things and can still sleep at night.
    October 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMary
    Fig - I'm having a difficult time understanding how argument (rhetoric) might have prevented this student's behavior or benefited the victim as you seem to suggest. Rhetorical training alone is insufficient to ensure good character, despite what Quintillian wrote. Rhetors, and students, will abuse rhetoric and social technologies regardless of their knowledge of rhetoric and ethics.
    October 1, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterrhetor
    It's true that rhetoric doesn't ensure good character. But it can provide the tools to defend yourself from those of bad character. It gives shy people an appropriate way to respond.

    Would it have saved the boy? I wouldn't begin to claim that. But the tools of psychological defense are far stronger than silly "Project Civilities" or the rights-restrictive calls for safety.
    October 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterFigaro
    Thanks for the explanation, Fig. I understand your point better now.

    Mary -

    "Doing mean things is what seems to get people ahead." I disagree. I think doing mean things gets people noticed. The sad thing is people often mistake attention for importance. From toddlers to terrorists, attention-getting schemes usually end up with somebody getting hurt.
    October 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterContent
    I agree, Content. Mean spirits do tend to get ahead in times of anger, though, as extremists become avatars for angry tribes.

    Not sure we know enough to condemn the webcamming roommate as one, though. These are children, with undeveloped pre-frontal cortices. Impetuous, thoughtless behavior doesn't rank with terrorism.

    Official responses to that behavior often worsens things by lauding tribal behavior.
    October 1, 2010 | Registered CommenterFigaro
    Would it have saved the boy? I wouldn't begin to claim that. But the tools of psychological defense are far stronger than silly "Project Civilities" or the rights-restrictive calls for safety. http://www.sunglassescool.com
    November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterReplica watch

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