20 Theses Regarding Civility (guest post by Amy Olberding)


Too many (most?) conversations about civility begin because someone did something perceived to be uncivil. Making civility all about what other people do is in fact part of the problem, as civility is then degraded into a cudgel and its proponents into cops. Conversation about civility would be improved if sorting oneself out was the focus.

The following is a guest post by Amy Olberding, the President’s Associates Presidential Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma. It originally appeared at Department of Deviance.

(Note: do not use the comments section on this post to call out particular individuals’ you believe have engaged in uncivil behavior. Thank you.)


Katsukawa Shunchô, “Women Imitating the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove” (detail)

20 Theses Regarding Civility
by Amy Olberding

If I could just find the door to the discourse, I’d nail these on it.

  1. Dissent does not require incivility.

I would have thought this obvious but have now too often heard people voice the assumption that if you’re civil, you’re not dissenting. Civility does not, under any theoretical construction or system of practical application, require that one not dissent. Dissent can be accomplished civilly or uncivilly.

  1. Dissent is not inevitably or automatically more powerful, more decisive, or more effective when delivered uncivilly.

This is especially so in contexts where incivilities are frequent and commonplace because the emotive force of incivility becomes diluted. Incivility in dissent works in part when it functions to communicate distress, moral alarm, righteous outrage, etc. If it is broadly overused, it loses efficacy in these functions as hearers’ ability to give uptake is dulled through repetition and overexposure.

  1. Civility is not about what individual people deserve and it’s somewhat dangerous to treat it this way.

It is morally hazardous for each to act as moral judge in daily life, using our prosaic interactions (civil and uncivil) to levy judgments about people’s moral standing or character. We will rarely know enough to do this accurately or responsibly. So too, a world where signals of respect and consideration are doled out like seals of approval by individuals is a world that promises radically worsening ideological clustering, homogenized “bubbles,” etc.

  1. Thinking civility is about what people deserve risks exacerbating social hierarchies.

Our quick judgments about desert are unlikely to be morally clean—that is, they’re unlikely to be responsive only to the moral measure we take of someone. Instead, they’re likely to (mostly unconsciously) fuse in systems of measure that are pernicious and involve other sorts of status. The risk here is that using civility as an implicit judgment on others’ moral standing will unconsciously slide right into implicit judgments about their social standing. Call this the “you’ll be civil to your boss, but rude to the janitor” worry.

  1. Talking about civility need not, and probably should not, take other people’s conduct as its focus. 

Too many (most?) conversations about civility begin because someone did something perceived to be uncivil. Making civility all about what other people do is in fact part of the problem, as civility is then degraded into a cudgel and its proponents into cops. Conversation about civility would be improved if sorting oneself out was the focus.

  1. Civility constrains but this does not mean that it bars expression of certain (any?) emotions. 

Anger, for example, is not inherently uncivil. It is possible to express anger in civil ways. This is not to say that the angry ought always be civil. It is just to note that civility has sufficient flex to express emotions that demand expression.

  1. Civility does not equal niceness, bless your heart.

There are myriad forms of civil practice that work to (civilly) signal disapproval, discontent, irritation, etc. Civil rebuke often works in part by employing indirection, irony, or even ambiguity to signal pointed messages while also allowing their target to “save face” and correct course, all without explicitly holding her up to public shame. Allowing people to save face can often be a kindness that doesn’t reduce people to merely the worst thing they happen to do or say. It also makes people less likely to defensively dig in.

  1. Civility requires restraint but part of how it can dissent is by performing restraint.

Where you behave civilly but inflect your speech or conduct to convey that it occurs under exercise of great restraint, you can powerfully communicate dissent or rebuke. Civility is not about stuffing down what you think—it is about calibrating how what you think is delivered to others. And sometimes what we need to communicate is that we are having to restrain darker impulses.

  1. Civility is not prima facie oppressive.

Incivility can also be, and too often is, a way oppression finds expression and gets enacted. E.g., many of what we consider microinequities are forms of incivility or rudeness. More generally, people are freer with their incivilities with those in socially subordinate positions.

  1. Taking a wrecking ball to civility to help the downtrodden or oppressed is not always or automatically helpful.

The oppressed already suffer much more from incivility than you do. Wielding incivility on behalf of the oppressed risks more widely normalizing incivility as a general mode of interaction. And, let’s face it, a world in which people uncivilly say exactly what they think will be a world that may well (and almost certainly will) go harder for the oppressed.

  1. The uniformity of civility can be a handmaiden to fairness.

Because civility does involve adherence to rules, where those rules reflect good, sound practice, they can favor fair interaction. E.g., adhering to a policy of not interrupting people entails that you won’t fall into the pernicious pattern of interrupting women more than men, low status people more than high status people, etc.

  1. Calls for greater civility can be manipulative and disingenuous ways to get people to shut up—i.e., it can be a social dominance strategy. But demonstrations of incivility can also be a manipulative and disingenuous way to get people to shut up—i.e., incivility can also be a social dominance strategy.

Where social dominance and shutting people up is concerned, neither calls for civility nor demonstrations of incivility are a uniquely special evil. Both can be used as ways to cow others into submission.

  1. A commitment to civility does not entail mindless and unvarying following of every etiquette practice.

No one committed to civility thinks the commitment total. Acting like a commitment to civility means never being uncivil is a handy way to license not committing to civility, but it’s also ridiculous. Civility does not suspend or eradicate one’s independent faculties and judgment. It might even improve one’s judgment about when and whether to be uncivil.

  1. A commitment to civility does not entail mindless approval of every etiquette practice or rule associated with civility.

Some conventional practices are surely bad and wrong. Evaluation of our conventional practices is one of the wins we might achieve if we could get past the fiction that people either have to be “all in,” endorsing every practice, or “all out,” calling bullshit on civility entirely.

  1. Incivility is not categorically braver than civility.

Popular rhetoric likes to identify civility with spineless acquiescence and incivility with courageous truth-telling. These associations are farcical. Context matters. Sometimes, civility is the far harder, and braver, approach to interaction in disagreement. There simply is no way to draw a decontextualized straight association between incivility and bravery, between civility and cowardice. (Also: implicitly associating incivility with bravery explains why seemingly everyone being rude nowadays hurls utterly tedious charges of snowflakery at any who don’t like it.)

  1. Incivility can swamp meaning.

If you have a high moral purpose when telling someone to fuck off, that purpose will be utterly lost on some people. Their attention to any purpose you have will be utterly derailed by your bare-knuckled style. Whether people should be so derailed is a separate issue. Since they in fact can be so derailed, if your aim is to communicate your higher moral purpose, incivility risks distracting and losing some of the hearers you might want. Considerations of prudence and efficacy might entail caring about this.

  1. Incivility can foster epistemic vice and hubris.

If you are uncivil, some people who disagree with you and have views it would well serve you to hear will never engage with you because it is so unpleasant to do so. In consequence, your views will be less tested and refined by dialogue than others’. You might thereby achieve higher confidence in your views, but it is not at all clear that you will actually have better views.

  1. Civility can favor epistemic humility.

Because civility keeps channels of interaction open, you stand learn more about those with whom you interact—and almost everyone is far more complicated than you think. By keeping interaction open, civil practice can slow down and inhibit hasty, incomplete, and potentially biased judgments you might develop on quick impression. You might think that woman with a redneck twang wearing seedy overalls and shitkickers isn’t your sort, but it turns out she’s a professor of Confucian ethics—who knew?!? You did, because of instead leading with ill-disposed quick assumptions about her identity, politics, or personality, you engaged civilly and had a real conversation.

  1. Civility and incivility are not just, or even mostly, choices that you make.

Social interaction is too ubiquitous, complex, fast, and unrelenting for us to navigate it with conscious choices—the cognitive load would be crushing and impossible to shoulder. Most of our morally salient civil or uncivil conduct emerges instead from habituation. And our habits are in turn influenced by the social atmospheres we inhabit. This is why easy acceptance of scorn for civility and uncivil atmospheres is perilous. If you’re not cultivating civil habits, your incivility will not be confined to those moments you self-consciously chose it. You risk habituating to patterns of hurtful conduct that will hit a lot more targets than the ones you intend.

  1. You are ruder than you think or know.

So am I. It’s hard.


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