Civility Is Never Neutral

[Crossposted from my blog with minor edits, mostly to get rid of culture war stuff.]

There are a lot of people I know who say something like “the free market of ideas is really important and we need to seek truth. It’s important to let everyone have their fair say and share the evidence that they possess. So what we’re going to do is not shame anyone for expressing any belief, as long as they follow a few common-sense guidelines about niceness and civility.” I am very sympathetic to this point of view but I don’t think it will ever work.

I do not mean to say that it won’t work to personally decide to be as nice and civil as you can. I think that’s a good idea and more people should, and certainly I have met many extraordinarily nice people over the course of my life. The problem is when you make niceness and civility a social requirement, the sort of thing you will be punished for not adhering to.

First, it has been a commonplace observation since the day of John Stuart Mill that civility rules are almost always enforced unfairly. If someone is making an ineffectual and stupid argument, you’re unlikely to take much offense at it; in fact, those arguments are usually just funny. But if someone is hitting you at your actual weak points, pushing you hard on exactly the points you find most difficult to answer, then you’re going to get really upset and triggered and you’re probably not going to respond rationally. Incisive questioning of a locally unpopular view is called “being insightful”; the proponent of a locally unpopular view being triggered by it is called “letting your emotions run away with you in a rational discussion” and “blowing up at someone for no reason.” Incisive questioning of a locally popular view is called “uncharitable” and “incredibly rude”; the proponent of a locally popular view being triggered by it is called “a reasonable response to someone else being a jerk.” It all depends on whether the people doing the enforcement find it easier to put themselves in the shoes of the upset person or the person doing the questioning.

There are lots of tactics that are sometimes civil and sometimes not. Sometimes a cutting satire sums up an entire point more eloquently than anything else; sometimes it misrepresents other people’s viewpoints or is just mean. Sometimes anger is an appropriate way to convey exactly how you feel about an injustice; sometimes anger is cruel. In general, people tend to cut more slack to viewpoints they agree with and viewpoints that don’t threaten them or make them feel defensive. If you like someone, it’s righteous indignation; if you dislike someone, it’s being an oversensitive jerk. If you agree with it, it’s witty and biting; if you disagree with it, it’s strawmanning and misrepresenting others.

Civility norms will always be enforced disproportionately against viewpoints that the people in power don’t like. This is why a lot of free speech advocates are cautious about campus speech codes and other attempts to enforce civility on campus, but I think it’s worth considering even in a social setting.

Second, people’s differing opinions often lead them to have different conclusions about what is and is not civil.

Consider the concept of radical honesty. Radical honesty means that you should not say or withhold information to manipulate someone’s opinion of you. For example, proponents of radical honesty hold that if you think someone is being obnoxious, you should say that without even trying to be tactful. The proponents of radical honesty would argue that radical honesty is (to quote the website) “the kind of authentic sharing that creates the possibility of love and intimacy”, and for that reason calling people obnoxious when you think they’re obnoxious is, in fact, the nicest and most civil thing to do. Conversely, the mainstream opinion is that if you are trying to be nice to people you probably shouldn’t insult them at all even a little bit.

Or imagine that your Great-Aunt Gertrude and your Great-Aunt Bertha are trying to work together on Thanksgiving dinner. Great-Aunt Gertrude is a proper Southern lady. She thinks no one should curse in mixed company (in fact, she’s rather suspicious of the word ‘goshdarnit’). She believes it is unconscionably rude for children not to say “sir” and “ma’am” to their elders.

Conversely, Great-Aunt Bertha skipped school in the fifties to go get drunk with sailors and was the first woman in the Hell’s Angels. Great-Aunt Bertha thinks it is very rude that Great-Aunt Gertrude keeps saying “a-HEM” five times a sentence just because she’s talking the way she normally talks. It’s not polite to interrupt what people are saying by getting offended and storming out. And that whole “sir” and “ma’am” business is actually offensive. Children are people and it is wrong to treat them as if they are subservient to adults.

Great-Aunt Bertha and Great-Aunt Gertrude will have some difficulty agreeing about what is polite behavior at the Thanksgiving table.

One could resolve these problems by taking some authority on etiquette, perhaps Miss Manners, and then saying that civility is officially now defined as doing what Miss Manners says to do. On the other hand, many aspects of etiquette have nothing to do with being nice to people but instead are ways of signalling that one is upper-class, or at least a middle-class person with pretensions of same. (Most obviously, anything about what forks one uses; more controversially, rules about greetings, introductions, when to bring gifts, etc.) You wind up excluding poor and less educated people, which people in many spaces don’t want.

So what’s the solution? There isn’t one that works literally 100% of the time. If you just give up on socially enforcing civility at all, then you get 4Chan. Not to bash 4Chan, but I for one am pretty happy about the existence of social spaces that are not 4Chan.

I think it’s important to think carefully about what your space is and is not for. Maybe this is actually just Great-Aunt Bertha’s Thanksgiving, and Great-Aunt Gertrude will have to suck up the curse words or organize her own Thanksgiving.

Sometimes you do want civil dialogue to occur between two groups who disagree a lot about what civility is. If everyone involved has good faith and is willing to compromise, that can happen okay. For example, maybe Great-Aunt Gertrude really cares about not hearing sex jokes, and Great-Aunt Bertha really cares about being allowed to swear, and they can have Thanksgiving together both feeling only a little bit uncomfortable.

If the rules are explicit (for example, in an online group with moderators), it’s a good idea to make sure all sides are equally represented in the group of people who enforce the rules, so everyone has their concerns respected. If the rules are implicit (for example, in a group of friends), it’s a good idea to focus mostly on correcting the behavior of people you agree with and not the behavior of people you disagree with. If you ever feel scared or defensive, take a break from the conversation: online, this might mean stepping away from your computer, while offline you might ask for a change of subject.