It is commonly agreed that standards of civility are lamentably slipping. In the US and the UK, in particular, bitter sociopolitical divides have opened up, across which people are increasingly inclined to yell obscenities at each other. Who knows how much worse it will get as Brexit day and the next presidential election loom?
But good manners aren’t quite dead yet. Take obituaries, in which even the deceased’s most glaring failings are typically alchemised into virtues. If the Christian God took such a charitable view of the souls queuing up at the pearly gates, the devil would have to rack his brain to find work for his idle hands.
The convention of not speaking ill of the dead is not always observed, of course. As Lincoln Allison points out in one of our features this week, Richard J. Evans’ recent obituary of his fellow historian Norman Stone in The Guardian was very much in Stone’s own vituperative style. It would, Allison says, have been unusual even in the early days of his own career in the 1970s: a time he considers to have been more frank than the current era.
It could be objected that Allison’s analysis neglects the behaviour of 21st-century people on social media. And academics are certainly no angels in that regard. Take University of Glasgow chemist Lee Cronin’s recent tweet that it is “damaging to suggest it’s possible that anyone can do world class science in 38 hrs per week”. Amid the occasionally constructive debate that ensued, there were plenty of comments along the lines of “abject nonsense”, “maybe you are just bad at science” and “I’m pretty sure statements like this are just dog whistle to tell people with caring responsibilities: do not apply”.
Cronin expands on what he was and wasn’t trying to argue in our lead opinion piece this week.
Some academics are even more outspoken in their peer review reports, expressing undisguised contempt not only for the work in question but also the abilities and even the characters of those doing it. The sense that there is little redress for those authors and grant applicants subjected to such rough treatment has fuelled calls for reviewers to be compelled to put their names to their words.
Others object that if reviewers think that a paper or a research programme is hopelessly misconceived, it is their job to communicate that view. The risk of moving to entirely open reviewing is that reviews become so tactful and conciliatory that they offer little in terms of distinguishing the wheat from the chaff.
As our main feature this week underlines, that is a hugely important service to readers given the difficulties that almost everyone has in finding enough time to keep up with the academic literature. It may be that seeking the opinions of a small number of anonymous reviewers is not the perfect way to bring the best papers and books to the widest attention, but readers need all the imperfect mechanisms they can get.
You might make the same point about admissions tutors. The proportion of students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland receiving top grades at A level last week may have fallen, but 25 per cent of exam entries were still awarded an A grade or higher. That quarter is likely to account for most of the applicants to highly selective universities. How are they to be distinguished?
Historically, that is where schools’ references came in, and Allison fondly recalls headteachers’ brutal honesty. “Jeffrey Davies is a very dangerous boy,” one told him (prompting Allison to admit the young man). But by the end of Allison’s career, references had become “extraordinarily dull. Everything conspired to make them so, including league tables, computers, templates, freedom of information regulations and the general blandness of the age.”
You could argue that a rise in compassion also played a role. In a world far more competitive for young people than it was in Allison’s day, what teacher would want to snuff out a latter-day Jeffrey Davies’ hopes of going to his favoured university by mentioning his eccentric sentence structures and his flirtations with pyromania?
But if grade inflation at university is such that outstanding job applicants are becoming increasingly indistinguishable from the rest, then an honest reference from Jeffrey’s university tutor could serve a very useful purpose.
After all, there is surely a meaningful distinction between frankness and rudeness, with only the latter entailing a tendency to heap abuse on top of hard truth.
It is understandable that academics struggling to find reading time don’t welcome the flood of reference requests they often get at this time of year from their recently graduated students. It is understandable that they might be unwilling to hamper their former charges’ chances of success. Reaching for the bland, standard Word template that they use for all such requests is easy to justify.
But would it really be uncivil to pour a hefty bucket of cold water on Jeffrey’s application to write marketing copy in a match factory?
Print headline: Be frank but not unfeeling