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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Avalonian
1 year ago

Thanks for this, Amy. I think your #12 is crucial but I’d say something stronger: incivility is by definition a speech act designed to hurt or denigrate a person, and as such it is virtually always a move in a social dominance game. Though we philosophers all claim to have learned a crucial lesson from 20th century philosophy of language– that in most cases words are used to *do* things–we conveniently allow ourselves to forget how significant this is when we talk to one another. We would all absolutely blanch at a minor physical assault–a disputant slapping their interlocutor in the face at a conference. But for some reason, in spite having allegedly learned about words and action, we don’t get nearly so worked up about that fact that our political speech has the potential to, say, launch someone into a spiral of depression, debilitating anger or self-loathing, or that it has the potential to set off a damaging social chain reaction like the ones you allude to in #17 and #18. Put the point another way: I can think of several prominent persons on all sides of some recent debates who would probably prefer a quick slap in the face to much of the verbal treatment they’ve received.

I suppose I’ll ask the hard question I’ve raised on this blog before. You are clear that sometimes civility isn’t called for or necessary (this post is basically a qualified defense of civility, not an outright demand that everyone act civilly all the time). So when are we permitted to be uncivil?

The broader concern here is that this line will be drawn in different places by different people, that there is no such thing as a morally neutral stance on what counts as legitimately uncivil behavior. The more I think about this, the more I worry that any attempt to provide the kind of arbitration/intervention you’re offering here isn’t really going to serve any real coordinating function. People on each “side” of seemingly interminable disputes will simply interpret their opponents as having crossed the line that justifies incivility.Report

K
K
Reply to  Avalonian
1 year ago

“incivility is by definition a speech act designed to hurt or denigrate a person, and as such it is virtually always a move in a social dominance game.”

I’m not so sure I agree. There are (to my mind) paradigm cases of uncivil behavior that aren’t motivated by malice or contempt. Distress, agitation, and frustration can result in uncivil behavior without any malicious motive. Perhaps this is a terminological dispute. Raising one’s voice in contexts where doing so is not appropriate strikes me as uncivil, but is not necessarily malicious or contemptuous. I think amicable behavior may even be uncivil, say when it is inappropriately boisterous or disruptive, or fueled by drunkenness.

But perhaps I’m mistaken about the notion of civility…Report

Amy Olberding
Amy Olberding
Reply to  Avalonian
1 year ago

Avalonian,
Thanks. “So when are we permitted to be uncivil?” I have no quick answer. I have a book out (The Wrong of Rudeness, OUP – sorry, shameless plug) that tried to go some way with this, but even there I develop all the reasons I think I have for treating incivility with great caution, basically, reasons to keep it rare and non-fatal. My short explanation of why there can’t be a quick answer is that context matters too much and efforts to formulate abstractly what conditions would tilt toward justified incivility are too hard to apply to be action guiding. Efforts to try to introduce formulaic elements into practical judgment seem to me not to work very well – e.g., ‘it’s ok to “punch up”’ seems used a lot to license incivility, but this conceals

1) how hard it is to tell up from down (surface ways of telling the difference can go really haywire!)

2) how other people’s perceptions of “up” and “down” will have real world implications for whether your incivility improves the world the way you wish (e.g., you think you’re punching up, but others think you’re punching down, and general sympathy for your cause is adversely impacted – these sorts of real world possibilities matter, I think, if my cause matters to me)

3) how bad we might be at assessing our own motivations or even considering how our complex motivations muddy things (sorry, but here’s another(!) shameless plug: I have an article in Aeon on this coming out later this week)

4) how bad we might be at assessing the other person’s suffering and badness (E.g., Kate Norlock has written about online shaming and how systematically we underestimate the negative effects of shaming on the shamed. I likewise think we often make decisions about what others are like based on quick stereotyped judgments, ones that lately tend to conscript others dramatically into boogeymen.)

5) how the prevalence of “punching” in our climate impacts both the social meaning and efficacy of our actions (in the spirit of #2 in the OP)

That’s just one example of one possible factor we might try to incorporate into judgment and the sorts of trouble I see with it. But I think most efforts to formulate even loose conditions are like this. Worse still, all these abstract bits of reasoning do not really get at what I count the rub: the fact that formulating these judgments does not proceed in leisure but on the fly, by the seats of our pants, and in messy often incompletely known contexts.

And that’s not even getting into the complexity of all we can put under the heading of “uncivil” – this category permits great variation in degree. “Uncivil” includes everything from the mild snub of deliberately ignoring a greeting to publicly hurling insults that cut to the quick where another’s humanity or sense of herself is concerned. This makes generality hard, as what would sanction actions from the milder end of the spectrum will not reach to the extreme. In short, it’s not just “can I be uncivil?” – it’s also “HOW uncivil can I be?” This latter question doesn’t get nearly enough attention, I think. Some days I can almost talk myself into thinking that, really, this latter question is the far more urgent one and that it’s one we have dangerously let just slide right by when we speak in ways sympathetic to incivilities.

My own messy bottom line, which I try to use in practice but am unsure I can justify here to anyone’s satisfaction is that I aspire make the call like this: Would I say this uncivil thing in just this uncivil way were I speaking to someone about whom I greatly care and whose moral character and conduct I am invested in? People I care about enormously, whom I generally admire and whose “souls” I want “right with God” (so to speak) say things I think bad, wrong, and mean. When I interact with them about those things, I am not interested in crushing them, triumphing in their shaming, defeating them – making them feel exiled from the company of the morally respectable or humanity writ large. I am interested in trying to help them be better, as well as to understand them better, and I am acutely aware that however badly, wrongly, or meanly they have spoken, they are not just this. They are also people whose complex totality is neither captured in, nor reduced to, the worst they have said. This is less a formula than a sensibility, but it rides on one big general fact I notice about our toleration for others’ errors: When we care about, and count ourselves bonded to, the ones who err, we tread carefully because we are invested in their well-being, both as “well–being” indicates their feelings and humanity, and as it indicates our investment in their being their moral best. The deeper philosophical underpinnings of this are in the book, for what that’s worth. Report

JTD
JTD
Reply to  Amy Olberding
1 year ago

“In short, it’s not just “can I be uncivil?” – it’s also “HOW uncivil can I be?” This latter question doesn’t get nearly enough attention, I think. Some days I can almost talk myself into thinking that, really, this latter question is the far more urgent one and that it’s one we have dangerously let just slide right by when we speak in ways sympathetic to incivilities.”

Amy, I find this point to be the most insightful of all the excellent points you make here. I too feel that in our present age this feature of civility is of crucial importance and yet is widely overlooked. So many (from the left and the right) believe that civility can be dispensed with when responding to the latest “moral outrage” from the other side. Maybe they are often right. For example, maybe it is appropriate to be uncivil to someone who makes a microaggression with racist undertones. However, even if it is there are surely limits on what level of incivility is justified. Yet so many participants in these debates ignore the question of what these limits are and mischaracterize anyone who questions whether the incivility is going too far as rejecting the appropriateness of any incivility in response to the misdeed. Report

FluxSurface
FluxSurface
Reply to  Amy Olberding
1 year ago

Dear Prof. Olberding, Thank you for the great article. In a manner of speaking, it has helped me put some limiting conditions on trying to understand what civility should be. Just to bring to your notice an article on a book review of Keith Thomas’ ” In Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilization in Early Modern England,” which looks into the historical meaning of civility and civilization from the point of view of English history. The article provides some historical light on the development of the idea of civility and the notions of civilization. Link: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2019/08/15/manners-civility-and-its-discontents/

The concluding paragraph is particularly interesting:
” But although informal codes can no longer be relied on, we still need them if we are concerned about “civility” in the everyday sense, as a means of allowing people with different beliefs and attitudes to live in peace side by side. Civility here need not be deferential; it can generously embrace fair-mindedness, readiness to listen, and respect for others. “Not until it is accepted that civility means tolerance of difference,” writes Thomas, “whether ethnic, religious, or sexual, can it be expected to protect humanity from further disasters.” A civilized ideal, hard to achieve but vital to aim for. ”

What seems to me useful point from this is the idea of fair-mindedness/readiness to listen/respect for others/epistemic humility, and whether they are present in civil/uncivil behaviors. It seems to me that questions of whether one should be civil/uncivil occur when one starts to feel that the other group/person doesn’t possess these traits, while feeling that they themselves exhibit these traits. Maybe being able to form a good judgment of whether the other group/person indeed does not possess these traits is the key to finding out whether breaking the code of civility is necessary, if civility is a contract based on those assumptions. Also, uncivility may not be a choice but something quite pre-determined. In some sense, overall displays of uncivility could be a Strawsonian reactive attitude, and could be fostered by larger conditions rather than individual choice. A larger display of uncivility in society could indicate societal problems rather than individual ones. It could be useful to study what is special about conditions in which lack of civility is not an issue. (Sorry for any mistakes. I’m not a philosopher by training or profession, just a interested person.)Report

Amy Olberding
Amy Olberding
Reply to  Avalonian
1 year ago

Avalonian,
Ah, I wrote a long response to your question about when we can be uncivil but it seems to have gotten lost. Maybe Justin can find it, but if not, here’s a shorter, more direct answer. I understand that people can see the list and think it lodges on their “side,” permitting what they do and condemning what their opponents do – failing at the coordinating function you reference. I can only offer that I see no hope for improved dialogue where we have to frame things by issuing judgments on the conduct of others. Practically, doing so will simply be read as side-taking and everything one has to say after will be completely abducted by the dialogue that is, not the dialogue that might be. More basically, if I did have something to say to a colleague or acquaintance about her conduct in some debate, I would say it privately.

My broader point is that I think there is a lot of room here for struggle *within oneself* regarding what civility is and requires of us or, most broadly, the demands of our sociality as human beings. I am just hoping that the more promising approach would be for those of us who do struggle to struggle a bit in public, to just show other people what the struggles are and how we’re trying to navigate them, in hopes that doing so might make “my struggle” and “your struggle” a little closer to “our struggle.”

Even more plainly, I guess, I’m a philosopher who spends her time thinking and writing about civility, and that mostly means that I tie myself up in mental knots about this stuff and so if my knots and my efforts to unsnarl them are helpful to other people, then I’d be pleased. Likewise, I’m sure I’m not as knotted up as I could be, so I assume people can show me where else the thread ought to snarl and that will be helpful, to me and others. Bottom line in all of it, I’m not just an intellectual about this. I’m trying real hard to be a good person in social and professional climates that really disturb me so even though I don’t think I get all this right, I’m trying at least to acknowledge that struggle too in case it’s of some use to others as well.

Sorry – that’s really not short at all…Report

I. Rohl
Reply to  Avalonian
1 year ago

“incivility is by definition a speech act designed to hurt or denigrate a person”

That might be a good basis for an ameliorative analysis of civility, but I don’t see a lot of evidence that it tracks especially well with current observable practices for how a given speech act gets declared to be an instance of “civility” or “incivility”.Report

Daniel Propson
Daniel Propson
1 year ago

An absolutely wonderful list! This is something virtue ethicists (and philosophers in general) need to do more of: simply analyze the contours of a virtue in the real world.

I’m rather disappointed at how muted the response to this post has been, Thank you, Amy, for composing this. More, please!Report

joe
joe
1 year ago

I think part of the problem is that it is unclear what “civility” is supposed to mean. I have to say, I am unsure – it is so conditioned by circumstances it seems to me almost meaningless. I mean – excellent manners of one culture can be regarded as highly uncivil in others – eating etiquette, bathroom use, conversation style. Try shopping in a bazaar in some other countries and compare to shopping in high-end shops in London; or just talking on a street in Hamburg vs even southern Europe. And so on. And these are innocent examples – should slaves hold civil conversations with their “masters” about their rights? Or Native Americans with the settlers (I think they actually tried!). I get it that this is aimed at kind of inter-personal communication in a profession maybe (or in well-functioning country’s politcs) but I think, on larger scale, progress was mostly achieved through protest and force (by which I do not mean violence) rather than civil conversation. So if the advise – be polite as much as possible, sure. But be polite no matter what – I doubt it. In fact, much of the jsutifcations aboves are instrumental and that directly implies that once the instrument proves ineffective, there is little reason to keep it.Report

babygirl
babygirl
Reply to  joe
1 year ago

See #13 and #14.

Also, the fact that something is highly contextual or culturally conditioned doesn’t imply that concept of that thing is meaningless. Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  babygirl
1 year ago

Sure, but the advice “have good manners” can translate to incompatible or contradictory ones, depending on the context. Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Joe
1 year ago

13 and 14 don’t help – what is and what is not mindless? There are historically manynworks of art that explore what counts and does.nkt count as mindless following of rules, when rules can and should be broken and so on. That’s where a lot of philosophy lies, lots of practical problems live too… non-aggression at all costs or do we defend ourselves? And so on…Report

Amy Olberding
Amy Olberding
Reply to  joe
1 year ago

Briefly, the standard division is that civility and manners reference the display of broad pro-social values we judge important to cooperation, community, etc. Etiquette and other systems of rules are how those broad values are symbolically communicated via the shared conventions of place or group. The idea is that even if our conventions differ, the pro-social values will converge or enjoy sufficient overlap that we can still meaningfully think cross-culturally about such things. Likewise, as actors, we can be alert that there are different conventions we’ll follow to do our pro-social signaling depending on where we are, with whom we interact, etc. The distinction also enables critique of practices – e.g., we can find that a convention is poor at enacting values we attest, etc.Report

jj
jj
Reply to  Amy Olberding
1 year ago

Ok, but where does wearing a burka fall? It seems rather clear that it is considered quite essential to good society in some but quite anti-social in other places – and even the laws reflect that. So I can be very civil and “civilly” forbid wearing it. Of course, that’s pretty barbaric and uncivil from another point of view. I think the problem is that there is a little agreement on this standard distinction in practice. When I came first to Western Europe, we eastern Europeans were commonly perceived as pretty “uncivil” and anti-social until immigration from other, more distant places elevated us, so to speak, to more acceptable levels. Report

Dennis Arjo
1 year ago

Really interesting post and discussion. A few thoughts:

That civility serves more basic ‘pro-social values’ is critical–civility is not an end in itself but instead serves higher goods. This means there is space to evaluate the norms of civility that are specific to a given cultural setting and identify those that perpetuate injustice and are in need of reform or elimination.

It is interesting how quickly the matter of when we’re right to be uncivil comes up, as if in our contemporary setting a pervasive and excessive unwillingness to be uncivil when we should is the pressing problem. Suffice to say, no one is suggesting we should be civil in the face of gross injustice, or that maintaining the norms of civility is more important than righting systematic wrongs. Even Confucius and Mencius recognized the limits of civility (see Analects 14.43 and Mencius 4.28 for example.) The question is how often uncivil behavior–especially our own–is actually furthering such lofty goals.

Lastly, I think knowing when to be uncivil is itself tied to the social talents civility cultivates—we can be better or worse at judging who is or is not beyond the pale. Report

NoOneNowhere
1 year ago

21) If a medium has consistently shown itself to encourage uncivil discourse, we should avoid it (Twitter, Facebook in some situations.)

If I had an answer to what the cause is, I would write it (I know many have spilled digital ink thinking about this), but for whatever reason, through some intoxicating sorcery, people just cannot handle themselves on Twitter. “Many people do!” you might reply, and although this is true, it is of no help, because the relevant level of analysis is the discussion thread, and its status as civil or not, and there, the answer is, on any controversial topic, more often than not, a resounding no.

Some further thoughts:

There is some connection between the fact that anyone can comment, the potential for anonymity (although this is no absolute barrier), and that the standard for what is allowable in the discourse is essentially bare approval in terms of likes or not being blocked, and blocking on the grounds of incivility is not an acceptable move in the twitterverse. I don’t think we should care what the cause of that last fact is – it’s plainly become a social norm, and so there really is no answer I can see that would “save” twitter.

An attempt at a deeper analysis: people treat twitter like it’s a playground for whatever thoughts come through their heads – and so they talk to each other like they are acting out a one-sided discourse in their heads where they play out their fantasy of saying all the perfect things – but this is no surprise; the original business model was as an unfiltered medium for whatever thoughts you have, and people treat it that way. But you just can’t talk that way and be civil. It’s got incivility built into it. I therefore put forward the following relegation suggestion: twitter is a fine place for people to yell at each other, but we should never seek anything serious there. We should turn back to blogs, perhaps, or whatever other saner mediums we can find (or to increased personal conversation!) Report

BLS Nelson
1 year ago

Prof. Olberding’s latest remarks on virtue-theoretic aspirations were both helpful and edifying. She writes: “My own messy bottom line, which I try to use in practice but am unsure I can justify here to anyone’s satisfaction is that I aspire make the call like this: Would I say this uncivil thing in just this uncivil way were I speaking to someone about whom I greatly care and whose moral character and conduct I am invested in?” Civility, as I had understood it, was a kind of an attempt at generalizing the ideal of collegiality to a mass audience — the idea that everybody is equal, that we all occupy the universal seminar room, each of us worth the same as the other. That is, I viewed civility as an attempt at fairmindedness, or equity. Now, I’m seeing it is a slightly different concept — not just an attempt at fairmindedness, but at an attempt at cooperative growth, where autonomy is both acknowledged and nourished.

But if that is the bottom line behind the ideal, then here is a worry: given that we live in a society of strangers, how am I to be civil? For, in order to be civil (in the sense of directing ourselves towards mutual growth), it seems to me that we might all have to be radically forthcoming and radically attentive when sharing information related to our essential projects, experiences, and interests. These are all, presumably, important and nuanced aspects of context and content that explain why it is difficult to honor the ideal in question. Yet (to share a perhaps Protestant-spirited rejoinder), in my experience, this sort of information is precisely what social dominance/narcissists in academia tend to exploit when they seek to do harm. I do not trust everyone enough with the resources to be my epistemic friend, and do not expect anyone else to trust me with those resources, either (unless they had sufficient reason to think I was trustworthy). But — and this might be my failing — when I think I am being civil, I do not tend to think with this model in mind. For if I did, I would be interacting presumptuously.

I take it that the idea is that civility can only be *honored* in practice when laid against the background of experiences with attempts at solidarity through friendship. And perhaps: we only understand the higher-order ideal emergently, through successful experiences with honoring those conditions. If that is the case, though, it will follow that the young and inexperienced must be uncivil. Maybe there’s a little truth to that — but perhaps not that much, once you equalize access to resources. (As someone who thematically disliked ‘Lord of the Flies’, I wouldn’t want the possibility to pass without comment!)

Still. Putting aside those honoring-conditions (so to speak), and returning to the ideal itself — if civility is roughly fairmindedness, then we are left in a somewhat puzzling situation with respect to the apparent vice of rudeness (#20). For it would seem that one can be both fairminded and rude; because sometimes listeners are aggressive, hypervigilant, and otherwise epistemically vicious in ways that cause them to attribute viciousness falsely to those who are doing their discursive best. In this sense (to use my favorite example) Cordelia was civil, while Lear was not, though it’s open for discussion whether Cordelia was rude. Cordelia was also, in my view, epistemically virtuous (contrast: #17). If she had poor manners, it was because the manners which gave structure to the discourse in that situation subverted the dignity of all the participants involved (complementing #12-14).

I suppose that, since those sorts of considerations loom relatively large in my experience, I primarily tend to honor the ideal of civility by reference to dignity and fairness, not solidarity. I am sure this must not be me at my best, but I am also not presently sure how to balance the various trade-offs in a satisfying way.

At any rate, I have benefited greatly from the explicit discussion so far.Report

Kitty
Kitty
1 year ago

The existence of the internet is maybe the biggest reason for the downward spiral in how we treat each other and ourselves. If people don’t start taking the negative impact of technology seriously, and do so very soon, we’ll lose any ability we ever had to determine our own future, let alone find any usefulness, if there’s any to be found, in pondering the extent of one’s own civility. Report

Rick
Rick
1 year ago

Great and thoughtful post. A number of your points interact with this idea, I think, but don’t make it explicit. (If I have missed it, I apologize!) In short: incivility, like violence (whether direct or by proxy) and shaming, is highly satisfying in the moment. As such, we should be deeply suspicious of ourselves any time we feel the need to resort to it, and also suspicious of others who insist that now is the time to break the glass and reach for the favorite tool.

I have been trying very hard to be more civil on Twitter and Facebook, which is tough—turning the other cheek usually doesn’t feel great, and people who agree with me tend to reward me for being snarky to people with whom I disagree. I’m still figuring this out, but when successful I find myself walking away from fewer interactions feeling guilty or embarrassed at how I treated someone else. So perhaps this is another reason to be civil: rarely if ever will a frank but civil conversation make one feel guilty or ashamed.Report

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
1 year ago

What a wonderful post! I will definitely buy Prof. Olberding’s book.
I think that the most important point is that we can’t just assume, as so often seems to happen, that incivility is more politically effective than civility. It seems likely to me that support for Trump and company is fueled in part by incivility from the left. Certainly, when conservatives have been uncivil to me, it has never moved me closer to accepting their views and has only made me feel oppositional towards them.Report

Eric Campbell
Eric Campbell
1 year ago

Excellent and valuable post. Thanks Amy! On #17:

“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.”

I think that is a big part of the function of anger in the contemporary world of frightened ideologues (I don’t mean that as the insult it might sound. I mean that we live in a world in which a great many people are captured by ideologies and are unconsciously frightened that they cannot defend their ideology against an intelligent and informed opponent. That is, it is not a bug (or not only a bug), but a feature of anger that it precludes conversations that could result in discovering that one has been profoundly confused, and perhaps also profoundly debasing oneself. I think that this sort of thing is quite common, in and outside of academia).

The most basic understanding of the reward system and self- and social signaling allows us to predict that strategies will organically develop to preclude highly aversive or identity-destabilizing thoughts and beliefs. Given the truth of the quote above (and it is not just unpleasantness that is being avoided, but hostility, which friends and others who are not yet enemies are especially motivated to avoid), angry incivility can often be understood as a strategy for avoiding views and arguments it would serve one well to hear, insofar as being well-served in this way requires short-medium term aversiveness, identity destabilization, or the need to publicly admit profound error. Addicts of all kinds find strategies–including and especially anger–to avoid realizations that would serve them well, for the same basic reasons. But nobody knows they are doing it, or it wouldn’t work very well.
Report

Kris Rhodes
Kris Rhodes
1 year ago

This list is too vague, perfunctory and theoretical to be of any clear use.

I do have an actual question: Am I being uncivil when I make the above remark? (And to be clear: I do make the remark, I don’t just hold it up as an example.) Why or why not?Report

Andrew Sepielli
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
1 year ago

I disagree with this assessment. It seems to me that one of the main purposes of a list like this is to spur discussion, and Prof. Olberding’s list is well-designed to do just that. With that said, I’m disappointed that none of those who’ve taken to trumpeting the revolutionary power of rudeness to their friends/clientele on social media have deigned to participate here.Report

BLS Nelson
Reply to  Andrew Sepielli
1 year ago

Well, I did post an objection above. Call it (1). Briefly, I suggest that confrontation can — and, in some contexts, must — be part of persuasion, especially when distancing for the sake of defending some epistemic ideals (privacy, truth) against toxic, nosy, or otherwise obnoxious listeners. (e.g., Cordelia, Lear) This contrasts with Dr. Olberding’s (#17), but does not contradict it, obviously. But since the maxims in the OP were judged salient, then presumably, so are the contrasting cases. Otherwise, it’s conversational fiat.

I would also add these other considerations, (2-3). (2) The idea that confrontation must be part of persuasion is also part of folk wisdom when it comes to multilateral persuasion (e.g., the ‘good cop, bad cop’ technique). (3) Thoughtful exchanges of ideas are not likely to draw attention unless you signal the stakes for disagreement, which is hard to be subtle about on the internet.

Whether or not we call that a manifesto for ‘rudeness’ depends on the relevant conception of ‘civility’. I would prefer not to be thought rude, personally. I, like many Habermas-inflected types, think that incivility undermines any hope of good politics. But whatever you call (1-3), they at least seem like pretty reasonable sticking points (to me, at the moment).

So, while I almost always gain a great deal from Dr. Olberding’s insights, I confess that this was one occasion where I did not hear enough about the core topic to know how to get by other than I have before.Report

Andrew Sepielli
Reply to  BLS Nelson
1 year ago

BLS Nelson — I hadn’t meant to slight your contribution (with which I agree, for what it’s worth), or that of anyone else in this thread. My intention in expressing my disappointment was rather to highlight a respect in which I believe online discourse among philosophers is pathological.Report

BLS Nelson
Reply to  Andrew Sepielli
1 year ago

Hi Andrew (if I may), No worries, I didn’t take it as a slight! I did, however, mean to point out that the ‘pro-rude’ camp is probably not that at all, at least in principle and when conceived of as a good faith position. It is more likely that they conceive of civility in a different way, motivated by different (vaguely Protestant-shaped) kinds of canonical stories.*

One very nice engagement with the relevant concern comes from Dr. Olufemi Taiwo, at the APA blog. They write (hopefully the html will work): “Though it seems plausible that a critical mass of self-respect is needed to inspire political action, it’s not clear how additional self-respect beyond this threshold would or could help.” The idea of “self-respect-via-rudeness” is a nice encapsulation of what is at issue in (1), and Dr. Taiwo’s worry about overcorrection makes for a plausible rejoinder, by treating self-respect explicitly as a positive good (with a threshold). Though then I wonder if it is really so uncivil for people to be ‘rude’, or have ‘bad manners’, in the relevant sorts of ways. So, for instance, suppose we are forced to say that it counts as rude for to refuse to take off one’s hat in an oppressive (post-colonial) context. If that counts as rude, then (all other things equal) perhaps civility demands rudeness (for a particular conception of civility, if not simpliciter).

(*Probably, reading “The Wrong of Rudeness” would help me understand the OP better, as I am sure that these sort of sticking points are dealt with in one form or other, since they’re pretty low-hanging fruit. Yet I am not in a financial position to buy it.)Report