Civility and the Steady Retreat from Truth

When I read and hear the emails angry at me for breaking the rules of civility surrounding Limbaugh, I hear first: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” (Hamlet).

Paul Thomas
5 min readFeb 25, 2021


Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

“I hope I live to see the day,” reads the subject line of an email I received a few days ago; the body continues: “That you are dead and rotting in hell along with your grandparents.”

This email arrived two days after another email posed two questions: “Did you really say those vile comments about Rush Limbaugh? Do you like civility or have you been misquoted?”

In the wake of Limbaugh’s death from cancer, conservatives and right-wing media have rushed to confront and chastise the incivility of anyone (especially professors) who expressed everything from glee to stating the facts around Limbaugh’s hate-mongering career, swamped with daily examples of mean-spiritedness, blatant racism, xenophobia, and misogyny.

In my own social media situation concerning Limbaugh, let me return to the two questions above. To whether or not I expressed “those vile comments” or if I have been misquoted, the answer is very complicated.

Of the handful-plus angry emails and voicemails I have received, a couple included my university president and other administrators (those annoying efforts at passive-aggressive intimidation); in one of those I can see the source of outrage at my claimed lack of civility since one email quoted from a right-wing media posting that in effect literally added words to my Tweet (including Limbaugh’s name, which I did not use, so yes to the misquoting) and distorted the purpose of my Tweet.

I did Tweet support for simply stating negative facts about Limbaugh despite his death and the universal tragedy that is cancer (my mother died horribly of stage 4 lung cancer just a few years ago). However, I did not celebrate his death in any way, and, in my view, I was not in the least uncivil; the full text of my offending Tweet reads: “Death and the tragedy of cancer in no way erase the facts of a person being a genuinely horrible entity that made a fortune at the expense of others. With almost no consequences. Death is no excuse for silence around evil.”

I do acknowledge the very worst of Limbaugh’s career (what I would argue is the bulk of that career and certainly not outlier examples), but I made the statement to emphasize that expressing the truth is not an act of incivility.

To be succinct, I do not support a moratorium on truth, and to answer part of one of the questions above, I actually do not “like civility” — or to be more clear, I reject calls for civility and all forms of respectability politics because they are disproportionately tools of those in power who seek silence and inaction against that inequity that supports their status.

When I read and hear the emails angry at me for breaking the rules of civility surrounding Limbaugh, I hear first: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” (Hamlet).

Next, to be blunt, it is impossible to take seriously those who support Limbaugh as arbiters of civility. I find the finger-waving of Limbaugh’s supporters to be at best faux-outrage and at worst the most crass form of hypocrisy that has nothing to do with civility.

Several aspects of my situation — despite the insincerity of the complaints and the misleading framing taken on conservative media — raise important question about civility, truth, and the space (or not) between social media and anyone’s career (notably the careers of academics).

Currently and over the last half-year, a Biden nominee is facing serious challenges due to posts on Twitter (from Republicans who turned a blind eye to Trump’s Tweeting for four-plus years), and L. D. Burnett, a fellow academic, has experienced a very public challenge to that space between social media and our classrooms or roles as representatives of our institutions.

Just as there was never a civil day on any broadcast by Limbaugh or for four years of Trump as president, we must not allow calls for respectability politics to detract from the larger problem — the steady retreat from truth.

Throughout Trump’s administration, we witnessed a white backlash that framed calling out racism as more damning than racism itself. That no one dare call anyone a racist is very much the pinnacle of the problem with calls for civility; “racism” is being framed as uncivil so that the truth of racism cannot be uttered.

Daily, elected officials wearing expensive suits, having meticulous hair-dos, speaking with calming tones, and using words that do not offend even the most delicate ears express deeply offensive ideas and false claims; yet, they are never challenged as uncivil. And they are allowed the bully-pulpit of their status, which is cloaked in the protective shield of everyone being held to standards of civility.

In recent days, we witnessed during the confirmation hearings around Merrick Garland several elected officials, well coifed and suited, use racist tropes, feign ignorance about implicit bias, and utter provably false claims; yet, the proceedings were civil, apparently, by the standards of those who deem me the horrible person.

In many ways the Republican Party and conservatives across the country have devolved into the bully politics that resulted in Trump; bully politics depends on lies and gaslighting — as a sort of dysfunctional abusive relationship between elected officials and the electorate.

But bully politics and the erosion of truth also depend on the two divisions of power having an imbalanced standard of civility. The bully side, conservative America, wallows in hate and incivility while the passive side, progressive America, holds up civility as the ultimate goal (above accountability or equity, for example).

To be brief, bullies expect those being bullied to be passive and civil.

I will concede the value in civility once our moral and ethical standards of truth are established along with a clear assertion that the truth is never uncivil.

Civility, many will discover, is not the path to truth but the consequence of truth.

We must never sacrifice truth on the altar of civility, but on occasion, civility can and should be breached in order to honor truth.



Paul Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education.