Be Reasonable!
March 13, 2019 12:53 PM   Subscribe

Critique of Pure Niceness: The trouble with the civility fetish [The Baffler] “In a world marked by profound, multifaceted, and still-worsening crisis, there is—or so the story goes—one big thing wrong with people, on both the left and the right alike. They are becoming increasingly hardened in their views, increasingly hostile to those who disagree. Amid all the urgency of our political situation, people are becoming unpleasantly, perhaps unsalvageably, uncivil. [...] And so, increasingly, the demand for civility is becoming a moral prescription—civility is seen as something good to aim at in itself—which means, in turn, that your capacity to practice it is a self-evident sign that you are a good person (even—or perhaps especially—if it’s toward a racist teenager on a pro-life march).”
posted by Fizz (67 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
"Civility" is how Richard Spencer still gets taken seriously by the press even though he spews hate with a smile.

"Civility" is how William Buckley made himself look different from the John Birchers even though there was little ideological daylight between the two.

"Civility" is the excuse used to silence the voices of those who are legitimately angry.

Fuck "civility".
posted by NoxAeternum at 1:00 PM on March 13 [69 favorites]


I disagree with the article but, not because I am "for" civility, but because of my own working through it in having to live in a relatively conservative community.

The problem of civility isn't and shouldn't really about the big cases. It's about civility as a politics in daily and personal life; the people that you personally encounter. So then it becomes, if I experience a microaggression, what is my response? More accurately, what are my responses to a single event: what do I choose to do on the spot and then what do I choose to do in the days and weeks afterwards.

One way of casting the issue is, who are we individually to decide if a given situation is deserving of civility? If we individually take it upon ourselves to judge, we're assuming we have all the information and have exhausted all other possibilities of responding. But here's the radical issue: how do we know, epistemically, that as individuals, we've gotten to the point that we need to use violent language in response to a problem? How did I get to that point? And so the more rigorous argument is that we cannot ever know that. And further, the "wise" argument says that it's when we are being tested that our personal moralities and ethics are at stake. Anyone who attempts to describe and critique civility and has not openly considered this question, I am at a point in my own journey, that I would be skeptical of what they are trying to explain or justify.

So I don't know if any of that has precedent, but I've been doing a lot of independent thinking on this issue as part of my own reflection on what it means to be a progressive, and so on, and that's kind of where I'm at. Looking back, I was definitely in a place where being disagreeable or argumentative served an important, protective function. I can't say I've entirely left it, but more that I can now explore more options in terms of how to engage and relate with people in my life whose values I seem to deeply conflict with.
posted by polymodus at 1:19 PM on March 13 [9 favorites]


It’s clear that the demand for civility—as a piece of flawed ideology—often functions as a way of shutting people up, of shutting argument down. The force of all sorts of grievances can become lost in the demand to treat “even those we profoundly disagree with” with respect. Bigotries are liable to be given air, via the reasonable-sounding demand that we give the bigoted a platform from which we (and, by extension, anyone else) are able to listen to them.

Reminds me of people who say blandly-nice things like "Sunshine is the best disinfectant", not realizing that sunshine is also the things that makes (most) plants grow.
posted by 23skidoo at 1:31 PM on March 13 [11 favorites]


the other other thing totally left out here is the, like, consequences of speech.

the function of terf speech is discouraging trans participation in public life. they don't want me to have healthcare or access to public spaces and at this point it's mutual - I don't want them employed, supported by therapists, or allowed in movie theaters, gyms, restaurants, or grocery stores.
posted by bagel at 1:33 PM on March 13 [38 favorites]


I suspect that civility can only exist between people who acknowledge each other‘s right to exist. The moment one group denies the other that right, the other really doesn’t have any choice outside of resistance, which is inherently uncivil.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:36 PM on March 13 [63 favorites]


Civility is fundamentally conservative. It withholds some friction or challenge and opts for accommodating things as they are.

Activism and intentional social change require withholding civility, declaring that some greater good is more important than maintaining the peace.

To uphold civility for it's own sake is the conservative position.
posted by idiopath at 1:37 PM on March 13 [25 favorites]


If we individually take it upon ourselves to judge, we're assuming we have all the information and have exhausted all other possibilities of responding. But here's the radical issue: how do we know, epistemically, that as individuals, we've gotten to the point that we need to use violent language in response to a problem?

Why do you view violent language as a last resort, rather than viewing civility as a last resort? Crass language that doesn't care about hurting people's feelings seems much more effective as a means of change than civil language. In what ways does civil language produce change?
posted by 23skidoo at 1:41 PM on March 13 [4 favorites]


The truth is not handsome or pretty. The truth is not agreeable, amenable. The truth is not civil but rather the clearest description of a process or a moment, an event. Just like fair is not a law, and it is a highly subjective description of any matter in the universe. Civility is that spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down...right.
posted by Oyéah at 1:42 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


Civility is also just a spoonful of sugar that you get instead of real medicine.
posted by 23skidoo at 1:43 PM on March 13 [6 favorites]


Civility isn’t a virtue, or any kind of moral position IMO. It’s a tactic, a way of communicating that lends itself to helping you build common ground, compromise, or negotiate with someone.

I’m incredibly fucking unlikely to be civil to someone attacking my rights, or the rights of others. I’m often rude to people trying to scam me or waste my time. But of course I’m going to be civil if I’m chatting with friends, negotiating the time for a curling game, or convincing a new acquaintance that I’m a good person.

Or, to be more baldly self-interested about it, civility is a tool to get something you want, especially if you want the person who has it right now to give it up voluntarily.

I try to keep this in mind when dealing with people I disagree with, because choosing one style and sticking to it is counterproductive. You need anger and profanity sometimes to get people to back off or leave you alone, and you need civil communication to compromise. What the younger me had trouble with is realizing that eventually you always need to compromise with someone. You just have to be intentional about who that is.
posted by a device for making your enemy change his mind at 1:45 PM on March 13 [61 favorites]


posted by a device for making your enemy change his mind

Do I even need to say it?
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:48 PM on March 13 [26 favorites]


How about we agree on human rights and equality across the board, implement legal frameworks to ensure these along with basic social support (food, shelter, healthcare, educational and economic opportunity) for everyone, and then get back to talking about civility in that context?
posted by allium cepa at 1:50 PM on March 13 [12 favorites]


Counterpoint: outrage does all of the PR leg work for fascists like Richard Spencer. He wouldn't be a thing unless people wanted to read hot takes about him. I don't give a fuck about his feelings, but I do give a fuck about him getting a free ride to notoriety on the back of well-meaning people's righteous anger.

Fascists operate the same way as any other insurgent: they leverage their adversary's response to spectacle to gain ground.
posted by cirgue at 1:55 PM on March 13 [7 favorites]


Civility isn’t a virtue, or any kind of moral position IMO. It’s a tactic, a way of communicating that lends itself to helping you build common ground, compromise, or negotiate with someone.

This. Civility is a tool that may or may not be appropriate to a given situation depending on the stakes, participants and other terms of engagement. It behooves me to be civil in many sorts of encounters, both because it can be effective and because the people I'm talking to deserve some baseline of respect. It's especially important to me if I'm dealing with someone who is vulnerable compared to myself.

It's important to drop the fucking civility if someone is not operating in good faith, if they deny my basic rights, etc. If someone doesn't even think I'm a person, manners are just me ceding ground to them.
posted by mordax at 1:57 PM on March 13 [15 favorites]


Do I even need to say it?

Ha. In the novel I took that quote from, “a device for making your enemy change his mind” is the definition of a weapon. Feels somehow appropriate for this post.
posted by a device for making your enemy change his mind at 2:14 PM on March 13 [12 favorites]


In what ways does civil language produce change?

I don’t know. “I have a dream...” was a civil speech.

“Civil” doesn’t mean you don’t punch the Nazis.
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:17 PM on March 13 [11 favorites]


I feel myself losing my civility every time somebody suggests that there's some kind of equivalence in "polarization" as if progressives are somehow to blame for being "polarized" in demanding rights for everybody, wanting health care, etc. There's no middle ground for a lot of these issues, there's either a willingness/desire to tolerate treating some people as second class (or worse) citizens, or not.

Ignoring it or taking the position that, by gosh, should be more patient in realizing full rights. Why, it took forever for to get the right to vote, etc. and why can't people be more patient?

In those instances, civility can just piss off. If you can tolerate other people being treated less than, then you don't deserve me making the effort of being civil to you.

posted by jzb at 2:24 PM on March 13 [21 favorites]


I suspect that civility can only exist between people who acknowledge each other‘s right to exist.

I agree with this; all those yummy liberal values pre-suppose that we assume that everyone we're talking to agrees with certain baseline cultural values, and I've grown to understand they largely don't work if some in the conversation don't agree with those values. Moreover, your discussion is limited if you have to spend time negotiating your priors - you can't have a productive conversation about representation with someone who doesn't fundamentally agree that women are people.

Crass language that doesn't care about hurting people's feelings seems much more effective as a means of change than civil language.

Tell that to the angry men trying to boycott movies, their uncivil language isn't doing shit.

Which is of course the problem: uncivil language only makes the person saying it feel good, but it isn't persuasive (the whole point of it is to make the target defensive) and it's a distraction from the kind of effective action that works when persuasion fails.

On the gripping hand, I have the privilege to be civil. I cannot chide a transgender person for being uncivil to someone wanting to negotiate their right to exist any more than I could chide a parent for being angry at the person who murdered their child. If they're not going to respect you anyway, why not get angry? At least you'll get some self-care out of it.
posted by Merus at 2:24 PM on March 13 [4 favorites]


“God made the world, but nice people feel that they could have done the job better.”
 — Russell, Bertrand. "Nice People." Why I am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (1957): 148-156.
posted by scruss at 2:25 PM on March 13 [3 favorites]


I stopped reading the article, so this will be largely uninformed, but hopefully on topic:

I've had plenty of "conversations" in which civility is called for, mainly because I disagreed and did so logically. There are a few layers to it, but it all boils down to the old adage, "Don't read the comments." When people were emboldened to comment or post anonymously, they developed an entirely different form of communication. Savage, even. As social media took off, this culture remained, and now it's emerging IRL.

I imagine this phenomenon is unique to Western democracies, where a modicum of free speech is allowed. If we don't police ourselves, we wind up in a bit of chaos...it's only a matter of time before all of the ugliness of freedom and deviating from traditional, social norms becomes the way things are...

If we behave civilly to someone who, just a couple of decades ago, would be relegated to their hate-filled corner of the woods, then we not only normalize that behavior, we de facto accept it (even if we disagree). I'm not interested in being civil to Nazis, for instance, but hey, both sides?

I've also found that the people who demand civility are often projecting - their behavior has been horrible for so long, or they've lived in their echo chambers where nobody disagrees with them, that they don't understand how anyone can be so rude as to outright say they're full of shit, or horrible or wrong.

I read a quote from Roy Cohn, notorious dirty trickster and luminary of the conservative ratfucker crowd:

"Never back down, never say you’re sorry, never acknowledge any mistakes, if something goes wrong it’s somebody else’s fault, double down, triple down, throw anything back in the opposition’s face..."

It all started to make sense to me after a while...this is a mantra. It has been passed down and socialized from the top and is now SOP for millions of people.

Kind of hard to be civil when those are the rules...
posted by Chuffy at 2:30 PM on March 13 [8 favorites]


And of course if you're female, or not white (god forbid, both), you can be perfectly civil and still be viewed as threatening for the simple fact that you chose to speak up.
posted by dinty_moore at 2:30 PM on March 13 [37 favorites]


“I have a dream...” was a civil speech.

Agreed, but I don't think we got much change from that speech. So much of the things that MLK was fighting for are the exact same things that people are fighting for today.

Tell that to the angry men trying to boycott movies, their uncivil language isn't doing shit.

The next Ghostbusters is back to an all male cast, so I kind of disagree.
posted by 23skidoo at 2:32 PM on March 13 [7 favorites]


Are you going to then claim that MLK’s approach didn’t have “much success”? Because protesting with civility was kind of his thing.

To be clear, I’m not arguing a civil approach is the only model, not the best one for any given situation. But to claim outright that protest with civility is ineffectual is just bonkers.
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:41 PM on March 13 [3 favorites]


I mean, yeah, that's what I'm arguing. The problems in the black community that MLK was fighting for are like some of the same problems that are still going on today. I don't see how one could say different.

I think that one of the reasons that people like civility is it makes them feel good. That's the reason why, like, almost every American can quote part of the "I Have a Dream" speech, but faaaar fewer can recognize that he also said that white moderates are worse than the KKK.
posted by 23skidoo at 2:50 PM on March 13 [11 favorites]


"Fuck civility. Be humane."
posted by ChuraChura at 3:00 PM on March 13 [9 favorites]


I don’t know. “I have a dream...” was a civil speech.

"I have a dream" was not civil speech, if we look at polls from that time.

Given MLK's own Letter from Birmingham Jail and how he excoriated white moderates who cared more about civility than people's lives, the nonviolent civil rights movement was anything but civil.
posted by Ouverture at 3:09 PM on March 13 [37 favorites]


Which is of course the problem: uncivil language only makes the person saying it feel good, but it isn't persuasive (the whole point of it is to make the target defensive) and it's a distraction from the kind of effective action that works when persuasion fails.

Nope.

Anger's often very persuasive for two reasons: the first is that civility often codes as a lack of commitment or passion. If someone is rude to me and my response is 'please don't do that,' I don't sound very committed to self-defense. Bullies are going to pounce on that. Indeed, it's been my experience that mirroring is a lot more important than idealized good manners: using the same kind of communication style as someone else often bridges communication gaps fairly well, and sometimes that involves being rude as fuck.

The second is simply that uncivil language makes out-group members uncomfortable and less inclined to contribute because it signals potentially worse consequences for disagreement. Not all persuasion is about producing buy-in and agreement. Plenty of it is simply about convincing the other side to back down. Part of why conservatives are so on about free speech is that their culture is all about this: being cruel when anybody but the right people talk, because that strategy is very effective.
posted by mordax at 3:18 PM on March 13 [17 favorites]




These days, I often find myself thinking of a line that Stephen Sondheim wrote in Into the Woods:

"Nice is not the same as good."
posted by Ragged Richard at 3:53 PM on March 13 [14 favorites]


Plenty of it is simply about convincing the other side to back down.


I wish I had a dollar for every time a not-liberal felt like I was "shouting them down" or "trying to silence them" whenever I threw their own tactics back at them. People who have modeled their argumentative behavior after Bill O'Reilly, for instance, simply cannot tolerate having that behavior directed at them. It often winds up deteriorating into an argument about rhetorical style, semantics, logical fallacy or vanilla victimhood (as opposed to, you know, the actual point they are trying to make...argue about how we argue vs. on the merits of what you have to say).

"Christians" often fall into this category - whining about how they are being silenced or victimized by uncivil and intolerant people...mainly because their belief system has led them to evangelize intolerance towards other people. It is a trip.
posted by Chuffy at 3:54 PM on March 13 [14 favorites]


Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, if I'm uncivil to someone, I don't expect this to change their mind.

"This doesn't align with my understanding of the regulatory environment, and exposes you to significant legal liability" is a threat. "Wow, if you were that racist on social media, I would block you" is insulting and threatening.

I don't want the person I'm criticizing to agree with me, because that ship has clearly sailed. I want that person to cease the objectionable behavior, and I want bystanders/observers to think: a) objecting to bigotry is not too difficult and b) if they say similar things, they will also be called on it.
posted by bagel at 4:26 PM on March 13 [16 favorites]


"Nice is not the same as good."

I like to say that being polite is not the same as being kind.
posted by flaterik at 4:28 PM on March 13 [9 favorites]


I don’t know. “I have a dream...” was a civil speech.

It's remembered now as a "civil speech." At the time, it was viewed as rabble-rousing a mob. As were the nonviolent civil rights protests, which were themselves characterized as acts of aggression (thus needing militant opposition). Civility in the US is a tool of white supremacy.
Misremembering 'I Have a Dream. Back in the Day: What Critics Said About King.
posted by TwoStride at 5:15 PM on March 13 [19 favorites]


Why do you view violent language as a last resort, rather than viewing civility as a last resort? Crass language that doesn't care about hurting people's feelings seems much more effective as a means of change than civil language. In what ways does civil language produce change?

Well, it's not an either-or proposition. There's a place for both, which is the conclusion of the article. I read the piece to the end and I liked the issues it raised.

Ignoring people's feelings may work. But it's easy to forget that that method is what oppressors use. It is authoritarian in form. So what's going on there, is a question worth reflecting on. In my personal experience.
posted by polymodus at 6:26 PM on March 13 [3 favorites]


Oh, I didn't say it was an either-or, but your earlier comments seem like you really try to avoid being uncivil, which made it seem like you prioritize civility over uncivility.
posted by 23skidoo at 7:08 PM on March 13


Civility should be prioritized over incivility. There is a time being rude and angry and passionate and expressing that is the correct thing to do but there's a necessary cost to that behavior, which civility doesn't have.

In some ways the last few years would make more sense if they were a ridiculous thought experiment come to life, in which an undergrad philosophy class to tries and sort out when immediate dismissal makes more sense than rational discussion.
posted by mark k at 8:19 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


Not all persuasion is about producing buy-in and agreement. Plenty of it is simply about convincing the other side to back down.

I had a feeling that I needed to expand the other half of the sentence you were responding to, about how other forms of action than being angry are more effective than just anger when persuasion fails. The things you're thinking of? Things like protests and civil disobedience are how you do that, and when you're doing it, it doesn't matter whether you're angry or calculating, it works just the same. Anger on its own does nothing. Anger that spurs action is productive - but I'm not going to credit the anger for that necessary action.

I'm not comforted by the idea that getting other people to shut up and go away is productive, because they didn't actually go away - they held Obama back, and then voted for Trump to take their country back. They don't care about your anger any more.
posted by Merus at 9:46 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


I've posted long quotations in various threads about "civility" from people as diverse as MLK to Richard Morgan so I won't repeat those here. It's obvious exactly what I think about the calls for civility. I agree with MLK which puts me, I think, in good stead.

Civility is not a goal. Never a goal. The goal is justice. If civility furthers that end, be civil. If civility functions to prevent that end, be uncivil and rage against the injustice.
posted by Justinian at 12:27 AM on March 14 [9 favorites]


Civility should be prioritized over incivility.

Nah.
posted by 23skidoo at 1:26 AM on March 14 [4 favorites]


Plus, there's some fuzzy logic going on here: not everything that isn't civil is incivil, and not everything that isn't incivil is civil. There's plenty of middle ground or gray area.
posted by 23skidoo at 1:27 AM on March 14 [2 favorites]


but your earlier comments seem like you really try to avoid being uncivil,

Oh did they? I thought I was saying this was a thing I was personally working on, without getting into too much personal detail.

Though I'd say its not that I try to avoid it. It is a mode that is close to me. What happened for me was that expressing anger and witholding empathy started to not help me. There was a time where I was very confrontational about injustice. It started to affect my health. Hence the motivation to undergo changes in my own life before trying to change or persuade or fight others. In a sense.
posted by polymodus at 4:09 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]


I'm not comforted by the idea that getting other people to shut up and go away is productive, because they didn't actually go away - they held Obama back, and then voted for Trump to take their country back. They don't care about your anger any more.

But they do care about that anger - that's why they did what they did, because they fear that anger. They look at that anger, and think about what they would do if they were that angry, and the thought terrifies them.
posted by NoxAeternum at 6:28 AM on March 14 [3 favorites]


Do you know, the moment that I remember as the moment I found my feet here on Metafilter was a moment in which I found myself advocating, uncertainly but furiously calm, that we cease to tolerate civil contempt?

I think about that moment a lot when we talk about civility. I certainly fall into the group of people who think about civility as a tool, not an unalloyed good, but more than that I think of civility as something that is a judgement made by social consensus. As with all social judgements, people with more rather than less power play the greatest role in deciding the direction of that consensus. And oh, we are touchiest about slights that are directed at ourselves rather than others!

At the same time, civility can be weaponized, and this is the tactic that MLK and Gandhi both favored: by being aggressively and unimpeachably civil, you can force the social consensus to reckon with itself: are we the sort of people who breach civility first, particularly against others who take pains to demonstrate that they are weak and not a threat? Do we want to view ourselves as the sort of people who would pelt rotting vegetables at a suffragette, or turn police dogs on a child who wants to go to school, or runs down a young white woman with a car?

That tactic makes a weapon out of weakness and suffering, out of exposing to the sheltered the reality that the polite fiction of dignity does not exist. It is, to be sure, effective, and it comes with the possibility of canonization if you succeed. But it is as cold blooded a tactic as any, and it requires a certain toleration of suffering and humiliation and pain on behalf of the people who are asked to take it up: and forever after people who do not want to grapple with the possibility of being elevated will ask you to take part in that humiliation theater before they take you seriously. It is a weapon of the desperate and the powerless. Using it means throwing yourself into the rhetoric of powerlessness in the hopes of finding shame in the powerful and the knowledge that in the very short term you will not find it.

It is not always the best weapon. When I use it--and I do, in small ways--I try to be careful to weigh its costs explicitly against the gains I hope to make in collective opinion. I can weaponize my vulnerability, but it is a sword made of frozen, sharpened blood: I must bleed truly to make it cut my enemies, and victory melts away the sharpness of my weapon and erodes my edge.
posted by sciatrix at 6:33 AM on March 14 [10 favorites]


Well - when "civility" has been redefined as a tactic to win an argument- yes, it can be gut churning. ("...very fine people on both sides..." - but then again, I guess that depends on the side you favour - because as was pointed out above, MLK used civility as well)

But, when it's earnest (as in day-to-day living), IMO - it's mandatory - otherwise it's an escalation of microaggressions to actual aggression - to far far worse.

After all, you cannot have a "civilization" without "civility".
posted by jkaczor at 7:31 AM on March 14 [1 favorite]


I mean, I'm defining civility as the equivalent of tolerance for conversations: a thinly veiled agreement to remain in the territory of ostensible politeness laid over a churning morass of discomfort and distrust.

If two parties disagree but still respect one another, and more to the point trust that each of them really does respect the other underneath, is that the sort of thing that drives onlookers to call for civility?

Personally I would rather call for genuine respect, but when one or both parties make clear that true respect is not on the table (which in the end can only lead to both parties spurning it), what do we do? That is the place in which we find ourselves. Respect and trust have died in many places. How do you resolve conflicts in which two parties are not equally at fault?
posted by sciatrix at 7:39 AM on March 14 [4 favorites]


I'm not going to credit the anger for that necessary action.

Comfortable people don't take it to the streets. Not in any kind of useful numbers. Comfortable, not-angry people are the sorts that MLK wrote about in a pretty scathing way, based on his lived experience. I will continue not to expect much help from people who aren't angry yet.

But they do care about that anger - that's why they did what they did, because they fear that anger.

Precisely. Right wing authoritarians are not subtle people. Everything is projection: they don't want us angry because they know how effective it is. That's a good bit of how we got into this mess during Obama's administration, responding to the comment you were responding to: no bankers or war criminals went to jail because the focus was on moving forward instead of seeking justice.

There's more than one solution to that, but I'm fairly certain none of them involve being less angry.

I certainly fall into the group of people who think about civility as a tool, not an unalloyed good, but more than that I think of civility as something that is a judgement made by social consensus. As with all social judgements, people with more rather than less power play the greatest role in deciding the direction of that consensus. And oh, we are touchiest about slights that are directed at ourselves rather than others!

This is a very good point, yes. It's also part of how this system breaks down: when one group's power is sufficiently disproportionate, they can make acknowledgment of the very existence of other classes of people 'rude.' A lot of marginalized people are experiencing that right now, and it's been a go-to move for authoritarians for as long as I'm aware.

But, when it's earnest (as in day-to-day living), IMO - it's mandatory - otherwise it's an escalation of microaggressions to actual aggression - to far far worse.

That only works with opponents who recognize your right to be alive in the first place. Social contracts require a certain amount of reciprocity to function that - as sciatrix already pointed out - is simply not present in a distressing number of situations right now.
posted by mordax at 8:57 AM on March 14 [7 favorites]


People continually misunderstand civility as a tactic in the historical setting.

MLK Jr. and Gandhi's "civility" worked only as a contrast to other "uncivil" tactics. They were working hand-in-hand with others; they played "good cop" as an appealing reasonable alternative to unrest.

And by the way, they both were assassinated, so it's not like their opposition really respected them for their civility.
posted by explosion at 9:10 AM on March 14 [15 favorites]


Are you going to then claim that MLK’s approach didn’t have “much success”? Because protesting with civility was kind of his thing.

Both Gandhi's and MLK's civility would have failed if it hadn't been for the decidedly uncivil alternatives they were upheld to quell. India had massively popular and charismatic fascists like Bhagat Singh (who martyred himself to spawn a populist revolt) and Subhash Chandra Bose (who raised a literal fucking army and was running around the world meeting with the literal fucking Hitler and the literal fucking emperor of Japan to ally with). The American civil rights movement had the BPP protesting at California statehouses and street corners in large, armed groups.

Civility was a strategic way to leverage the fearsome power of the uncivil others to force the powers that be to the negotiating table. Civility was only ever half the story.
posted by Aarti_Faarti at 9:21 AM on March 14 [7 favorites]


Ahh explosion beat me to it!
posted by Aarti_Faarti at 9:22 AM on March 14


What happened for me was that expressing anger and witholding empathy started to not help me. There was a time where I was very confrontational about injustice. It started to affect my health. Hence the motivation to undergo changes in my own life before trying to change or persuade or fight others. In a sense.

Fascinating. I'm kind of the flip-side: I found that my health was being negatively affected by trying to be civil too much or as a default, and I've been able to reduce my stress (and it's related negative medical effects on my body) by caring waaaaay less about civility. (Not trying to persuade or fight you, just offering up my own experiences.)
posted by 23skidoo at 9:23 AM on March 14 [4 favorites]


Civility should be prioritized over incivility. There is a time being rude and angry and passionate and expressing that is the correct thing to do but there's a necessary cost to that behavior, which civility doesn't have.

i disagree.

1. civility is a moving, vague, impossible to define goal. if one is upset about moving goalposts, calls to civility should be infuriating. what is it? not being rude? not being passionate? does 23skidoo's concise retort, "nah", qualify as being civil? would calling your argument "a blitheringly asinine notion that only enables bad faith actors and aids those in power who wish to ignore legitimate arguments, and thus is parroted mostly by the unthinking and toadies" qualify as being uncivil, given the language? would my posing it as a hypothetical be civil? because, after all, i'm only supposing someone could say it, not that i necessarily believe it or would ever say such a thing, since i am of course very civil. civility as a target is so nebulous that it would be easier to point to the exact center of the universe; a line so vague that it makes the supreme court's definition of vulgarity look as rigid as the korean dmz.

2. "civility", as it were, encompasses a lot of things. maybe "civility" is to respect people's terms for themselves. so i would be a "trans woman". those who seek to legislate me out of existence are not transphobes and terfs then, but "gender critical". i am a "person of color"; those who hate me are not racists and bigots but "race realists". maybe this is a bad way to define it, because it allows such toxicity the cover to be accepted in polite society.

3. maybe "civility", as it were, is to argue calmly using polite rhetoric? of course, that means terms, as long as they're not obviously slurs, are okay. so i am no longer a woman, but a trans-identified male, per "civil" discussion in many circles in the uk. suddenly it's "civil" to discuss how much merit the bell curve has when it comes to race and iq. and what about how all lives matter, even black lives? how about discussions on forced busing and state's rights? maybe this is a bad way to think of "civility".

4. it seems like trying to figure out what "civility", as it were, is just be a fool's errand. so what of the cost? the blithe way you imply that there's no cost to civility suggests to me that you might not have spent much of your life as a visible minority, because i assure you, there is definitely a cost. i am in person generally very "civil" and "polite" and have been described as "gracious" because of that "civility", even in the face of misgendering, sexism, and racism. after all, it is very civil for me to smile and overlook someone who calls me "sir". i don't, after all, want to cause a scene or become a meme by trying to correct them at all; far too many of us have seen the "it's ma'am" gamestop video. it is very civil for me to smile and not make a scene when someone says i don't look like a man in a dress, or calls me "oriental", or, when introducing me to a new client, demotes me to being a mid-level developer and not the senior one i am because i don't look like a man in a dress. conversely, it's "uncivil" of me to be "angry" or "shrill" or "strident" as a trans woman because suddenly i'm displaying "masculine aggression"; it's "uncivil" of me to point out quietly that maybe it is kinda of obnoxious and terrible that the same people who shat on my family's cuisine now suddenly think it's some "superfood" because now i'm "angry" over "identity politics". maybe for you, not being visibly a minority, there's no cost to being civil. after all, as someone who doesn't face those negative stereotypes, being civil is just an example of your high-minded munificence, not a tax you pay on every single daily interaction.

5. i said it before, minorities are expected to always be civil, because if we aren't, it's used against us. we have to be fucking saints because if we're not, somehow we either deserve the abuse or we're irrational or we're biased. if we are not civil we are discounted, uncounted, and if we are we are still discounted and uncounted, but in the case of the latter those with power and privilege can pretend they neither see nor hear us much more easily. most of the people we today consider being perfect examples of "civility" for their cause ended up dead, regardless of how civil they were. so to pretend that there isn't a cost to civility is, at the very least, phenomenally uncivil.

to prioritize "civility" over incivility, defined as being rude adamant and angry assertive and passionate (like a dude), because of worries about the costs of being incivil, without factoring the true costs of civility? i've seen better arithmetic in a paul ryan budget or a brexit leaver's bus ad.
posted by anem0ne at 9:33 AM on March 14 [20 favorites]


in short, civility is bunk.

appeals to civility are naught but a "polite" demand for compliance from minorities to rules the majority deems necessary to maintain their position.
posted by anem0ne at 10:47 AM on March 14 [11 favorites]


Joseph Heath argues in Enlightenment 2.0 that outrage works well for right-wing politics, because it tends to be reducible to simple slogans ("cut taxes and end the gravy train!"), which is perfectly compatible with white-hot anger. Left-wing politics requires reason, which in turn requires cooler and calmer discourse.
... yet there is a connection between politeness and sanity. One of the things that has been noted about those on the American right is that they always seem to be very angry. Furthermore, anger sets a political tone that seems to work for certain kinds of political views but not for others. This is particularly obvious on talk radio, where the more effective hosts spend a significant portion of their time trying to get their listeners worked up. This sort of anger is clearly not politically neutral. Anger makes people more receptive to some viewpoints than to others. Seen through the lens of common sense conservatism, it is easy to see why this is. Anger works for this particular brand of conservatism because angry people aren't thinking with their heads, they're going with their gut. This makes them more likely to trust "common sense" solutions - ideas that are familiar and intuitive - and to mistrust the fancy talk of liberal intellectuals (or any argument with more than two steps to it).

... the left, in one form or another, has always been committed to the idea of progress, and progress has always depended on the exercise of reason. Most of the social and economic problems in our society are complex problems that require both ingenuity and collective action to resolve. None of this will happen if we simply follow our gut feelings. Solving collective action problems requires rational insight. Furthermore, the most important institution when it comes to resolving these problems is the state. Thus there is an almost inevitable connection between left-wing politics, support for government, and a commitment to the use of reason to improve the human condition.
Personally, I blame the Internet for the loss of civility.

In a pluralistic society, I think it's pretty common for a dynamic to occur where someone inadvertently offends someone else, the second person retaliates, the first person is puzzled and offended in turn, and then things escalate from there. The Internet is the ultimate pluralistic society, so this happens quite a lot. I really like the FidoNet rules, which are intended to prevent this sort of dynamic: (1) don't be offensive, and (2) don't be easily offended.

Besides this dynamic, outrage ("eye-rolling") seems to be the default state of discourse on the Internet. Outrage goes viral, because we have a natural instinct to punish violations of norms. This works well in small groups, not so well on the Internet.

Maintaining civility in Internet communities (like MetaFilter) requires intensive moderation. I'm puzzled why MeFites would think that civility isn't important - to me, that's a big reason why discussion on MetaFilter is way more productive than elsewhere.
posted by russilwvong at 3:42 PM on March 14 [2 favorites]


The kind of civility we have on Metafilter doesn't translate into real-life civility: on Metafilter, you can pretty much just not worry about whether you're being civil or not and a mod will decide for you. You can't do that in real life. You can say some seriously uncivil shit and mods will likely delete it before too many people even get a chance to see it. In real life, nobody's going to be your personal censor. Metafilter (imo) for the longest time coddled a small number idiot trolls who wanted to act like they couldn't understand why people thought they were trolls, and we've had soooooooo many good people flame out or just fade away from the site because we encouraged snarky technically polite assholery.
posted by 23skidoo at 3:53 PM on March 14 [5 favorites]


civility on metafilter is in large part due to people's compliance with the moderators' rules.

the moderators have means of enforcing compliance.

as 23skidoo points out, that is not something that happens in the world outside.

in the world outside, that civility is weaponized and used as a cudgel. the ferguson protestors were insufficiently civil. apparently so was kaepernick.

those who were sufficiently civil included fucker carlson, and all those people who just didn't agree with how kaepernick protested and then said he wasn't a good QB anyway.

in the world outside, people who aren't civil are trans women asking terfs to stop harassing them and performing bigotry, and trans writers who have lots of criticisms on how we are falsely written about.

people who are civil? writers like jesse singal, defended by a large number of liberal journalists, regardless of his inability to write fact and his concern trolling, which is also very civil.

it is not the concept of civility that is dismissed so much as the fetish for it, the demand we comply with its nebulous rules.

that difference would have been obvious had you either read the article or any number of other comments in the thread.

"sorry" for being so "uncivil".
posted by anem0ne at 5:28 PM on March 14 [8 favorites]


Also, I disagree that it's a left/right thing.

In the UK, the discussion of trans folk cuts across political leanings: many self-proclaimed liberals write long arguments explaining why I am a monster and explicitly refusing to admit my slogan, that "trans women are women". Those on the right use slogans like "think of the children" and don't bother to listen to well-reasoned arguments as to why their slogan makes no sense
posted by anem0ne at 5:34 PM on March 14 [6 favorites]


*claps for anem0ne*

In particular, I'd like to call out a couple things:

the blithe way you imply that there's no cost to civility suggests to me that you might not have spent much of your life as a visible minority, because i assure you, there is definitely a cost.

Discussions like this make it plain which of us have our faces under a boot, and which of us are wearing boots, don't they?

Just to back up what you said:

For some of us, civility is a comfort that can be taken for granted, a reassurance that things are fine and dandy and that life can proceed in peace, and for those people it can be pretty hard to understand what the fuss is about.

For some of us, civility is a lifelong, shit-eating dance that we are required to perform on pain of loss or even death. It is, at best, painfully weaponized the way sciatrix described so eloquently above. The consequences for some of us can be pretty dire even if we play along. (I appreciate the note above about civil leaders being assassinated anyway, because yep.)

Also, I disagree that it's a left/right thing.

Yeah, this just needed more than a +1. This is always about who's got power, and who's frozen out. It really isn't as tidy as 'the other guys are terrible.' (Although they still are too.)

Also, coming back to this:

Personally, I blame the Internet for the loss of civility.

I think this is true, but not at all in the way you mean.

Civility has been a boot on a lot of faces since pretty much the dawn of time. The difference is that it used to be harder for marginalized people to call it out, draw attention to it and connect with one another to decide to stop playing this game in various ways. Mass communications are letting a lot of previously ignored complaints be heard, and making it harder to gaslight people about this stuff. I watched this happen in real time on Metafilter at least once.

That's a good thing, not a bad thing. That's why it upsets Nazis.

I really like the FidoNet rules, which are intended to prevent this sort of dynamic: (1) don't be offensive, and (2) don't be easily offended.

Also, this sounds nice, but it's overly reductive.

My rule is: if rudeness from me could be easily misconstrued as a threat to someone else, I need to keep my cool even if another person does not. For example: if a woman, nonbinary or trans person is upset about gender issues around me, I need to be on my best behavior because even an offhand remark could make someone afraid or unwelcome.

Conversely, if someone has more power or equal power than me in a situation, gloves are at my discretion. There is no moral imperative to coddle someone with more than me, it's purely strategic: will I be fucking shot if I raise my voice? (This is a real question I've needed to consider in my life.)

This is obviously a lot muddier and hard to gauge than what you propose, but life is like that.
posted by mordax at 6:45 PM on March 14 [9 favorites]


Discussions like this make it plain which of us have our faces under a boot, and which of us are wearing boots, don't they?

Some of us are also Canadian.

More seriously, the fundamental divide in international politics, and arguably in domestic politics as well, is between those who support the status quo and those who oppose it. No argument there.

My point is that raising the temperature produces a political environment that's more hospitable to right-wing politics than to left-wing politics. There's an asymmetry here. Someone who's hostile to government and public programs is perfectly happy to have political discourse reduced to people shouting at each other. Someone who wants to actually create new public institutions - public health care, for example - needs to get people to understand the reasons for doing so, which is a lot easier to do in a calmer atmosphere.

So on the whole, I think the Internet and its tendency towards outrage ("a tidal wave of digital bile") has made life harder for the left than the right.
posted by russilwvong at 8:47 PM on March 14 [1 favorite]


Some of us are also Canadian.

And Canadians inability to call out, in plain language, some of the most disgusting islamophobia, anti-native racism, and so much else, is why we're just completely unequipped to deal with what's happening around us.
posted by Space Coyote at 9:01 PM on March 14 [6 favorites]


NPR today: When Civility Is Used As A Cudgel Against People Of Color. "People of color don't get to orchestrate the terms of civility," she explains. "Instead, we're always responding to what civility is supposed to be."

So the relationship between alleged civilizers and the people they're "gifting" with civility, Johnson points out, is "inherently undemocratic, unequal and racist." (Think of Native American children being forcibly removed from their homes and placed in so-called Indian boarding schools or Mexican children being punished for speaking Spanish in schools or African-Americans being forced to listen to sermons that preached that servants should obey their masters, etc.)

And so, pushing back against the status quo will be seen as inherently uncivil by the people who want to maintain it. And there are always higher standards expected of those people pushing back.

posted by TwoStride at 9:23 PM on March 14 [9 favorites]


Joseph Heath argues in Enlightenment 2.0 that outrage works well for right-wing politics, because it tends to be reducible to simple slogans ("cut taxes and end the gravy train!"), which is perfectly compatible with white-hot anger. Left-wing politics requires reason, which in turn requires cooler and calmer discourse.

Lol! In this he is wrong. While left-wing politics have recently insisted on the decorum of reason, that does not mean that they inherently require it.

Personally, I have marched in a furious crowd bellowing No Hate! No KKK! No fascist USA!" with the best of them. Seems catchy enough to me. "Say it loud! Say it clear!” / “Refugees are welcome here!" "My body, my choice!" "Muslim rights are human rights!"

Like. Buddy. I have to wonder: have you been paying attention to the left?
posted by sciatrix at 9:50 PM on March 14 [6 favorites]


God and even if you haven't got your ass down to a protest march in recent years, a casual glance at historical labor and political slogans ought to send that notion spinning on its haunches:

"Equal rights to all, special privileges to none!"

"The boss needs you, you don't need him!"

"Eight hours' labour, Eight hours' recreation, Eight hours' rest!"

"Women work! Women vote!"

"No child is free until all are free!"

"Jim Crow must go!"

"Deaf President now!"

"Nothing about us without us!"

Are you even trying?
posted by sciatrix at 10:10 PM on March 14 [4 favorites]


I'm not saying that slogans and mass mobilization aren't important for the left. I'm saying that for the right, slogans are enough on their own, as the right is basically trying to block action and dismantle existing programs. For the left, slogans aren't enough: to set up new programs, you also need blueprints, which need to be explained and justified. So an overheated atmosphere is more hospitable to the right than the left.

(1) don't be offensive, and (2) don't be easily offended.

To flip this around, the right wing violates rule #2 all the time. The hyperventilating on the right in response to Colin Kaepernick's respectful protest, or Trump's reaction to SNL's satire, comes to mind.

So I think it's fair to say that accusations of incivility are often used as a tactic to suppress dissent. But my response to this tactic would be to argue that the critics are being easily offended, or pretending to be offended, rather than to say that respect (even for your adversaries) doesn't matter.

Since "one person vs. all comers" isn't a good format for MetaFilter, I'll bow out of the discussion at this point.
posted by russilwvong at 5:21 PM on March 15 [1 favorite]


To be fair, the article does make a related point about the social good of "incivility", but the writing is so dense and you have to wade through all the Kant stuff to even have a big picture of what the author is trying to suggest. When I read it, I literally had to write down notes and still can't adequately summarize my thoughts on it.
posted by polymodus at 1:42 AM on March 16 [1 favorite]


not everything that isn't civil is incivil, and not everything that isn't incivil is civil. There's plenty of middle ground or gray area.
We need a term for that big gray area... I suggest acivility.
posted by oneswellfoop at 9:42 PM on March 16


So I think it's fair to say that accusations of incivility are often used as a tactic to suppress dissent. But my response to this tactic would be to argue that the critics are being easily offended, or pretending to be offended, rather than to say that respect (even for your adversaries) doesn't matter.

because "triggered much, snowflake?" is such a useful argument about how people are easily offended and that definitely leads to discussion...
posted by anem0ne at 10:41 AM on March 17 [1 favorite]


yet there is a connection between politeness and sanity.

This made me say "NO, FUCK YOU BRO" out loud I guess that makes me pretty u̶n̶c̶i̶v̶i̶l̶ insane huh smh
posted by Aarti_Faarti at 4:37 PM on March 18 [2 favorites]


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