I mean conventional politeness, not courtesy. Courtesy is sensitivity to the needs of another person, and to the effect of one’s words or behaviour, which is entirely compatible with speaking the truth as a critical friend. I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing that there were more of it.
Politeness is merely abiding by the social code, and avoiding anything that might cause upset or controversy, which means that issues which deserve to be addressed are fudged. I’ve been made aware of this recently by the thoroughly British (read ‘bland and tentative’) language used by the Financial Services Authority when monitoring the lending policies of the banks. They appear to have said things like ‘this could do with improvement’, when what was needed was a trenchant reminder that the banks were embarked on a course of folly, which would damage themselves and lots of other people.
I had a comparable experience myself when I was a Quality Assessor for the Higher Education Funding Council for England. More than once, I uncovered things which were quite shocking, but we were restricted by the ground-rules to saying, ‘The Department might wish to consider…’ Needless to say, nothing was done to remedy the abuses.