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Thursday, February 24, 2005

On Civility.

Readers of the ever-popular blog Pub Sociology were recently treated to an excellent post by Brayden on the importance, and controversy, involved in the practice of civility. In short, Brayden discusses two positions in regards to civility. The first position argues that being civil in a discussion facillitates communication and makes argumentation more productive. The second position asserts that civility merely permits existing social rules to privilege the powerful and suppress the weak.

Now, I won't claim to be an expert on this issue, but seeing as how I have been accused of lacking civility before (Often fairly), I do think I have a certain perspective on it. Civility, as a practice, is a funny thing. At its most basic level, it simply means being polite, or treating others with a certain basic quantity of respect. There's nothing wrong with that, is there?

Well, there may be. At heart politeness has a very specific goal: the facillitation of interaction. We usually do not enjoy dealing with people who treat us poorly or infringe upon our integrity as human beings. Rules of civility, therefore, are interactional guidelines that lubricate the social machinery. By following these rules, we have a way to interact with people we don't know, or even people we don't like, that is relatively free of conflict. Since it is inevitable that there will be people we don't like, such rules are extremely useful. So long as most people in a society adhere to some sort of basic standards of civility, we all find it much easier to go about our business. The problem here, however, is that humans have a tendency to take things too far, and if a little civility is good, then a lot must be even better, right? Right?

Not so much. There have been periods in history when civility has been so heavily fetishized that it became a goal in and of itself, rather than a particular set of guidelines and rules for accomplishing interactions. One need only think of the Victorian Era in Europe for a particularly cutting example of this. For those who are unfamiliar with the Victorian Era, I suggest you read pretty much anything by Oscar Wilde. It's a good introduction. In any case, when taken to such outrageous extremes, civility can indeed work to suppress those who lack power. It defines any disagreement, any debate, any deviation from the ideal norm, as a crime of such severity that its commission automatically entails the rejection of the transgressor by the remainder of polite society. Under such circumstances, actual debate is extremely difficult, and radical debate becomes virtually impossible.

So does this mean that civility is automatically the enemy of the disenfranchised? No, I don't think that's the case either. When we observe a cage match between the haves and the have-nots, it's important to remember who has power: the haves. This is not to say that the have-nots are entirely powerless, they usually do have numbers after all, but their form of power is more difficult to organize and control. As such, the haves command an arsenal of options like a swordsman with a fine, elegant rapier, while the have-nots are all-too-often reduced to the "Hulk SMASH!" level of action. In other words, the actual mobilization of the crushing power of the have-nots, if it can be accomplished at all, may simply make things worse.

On the other hand, as much as I adore class warfare, many of the upper crust are not immune to reason or logic. Hell, most sociologists are pretty far above the mean income and we're as left-leaning as they come. Some are so left-leaning, in fact, that I'm pretty sure they're going to phase out of the normal space-time continuum and into some bizarre parallel dimension. A little like Sweden. In any case, the haves are not necessarily immune to reason and logic. So, if you want to convince those among them who can be convinced, what will work better: shrill accusation, or polite debate? I'm betting on the latter, more than the former.

If you need further convincing of the plain utility of civility, consider for a moment a debate in which no parties are civil. The constant interruption, snide remarks, shouting-down, and other such impolite practices would make real discussion quite impossible. Incivility may be useful from time to time, but its use is limited to situations where most others are behaving in a civil manner, much as the return from defecting in a prisoner's dilemma game is maximized when your partner cooperates. I have little respect for the position that civility is only a tool of the powerful, because without some standards of civility, social life as we know it would be impossible. The question is not a digital "Is civility good or bad," but rather a more complex, "What are the proper limits of civility?"

I think part of the reason why some people reject civility is they have the mistaken impression that being civil means being a doormat. We have all seen examples of a civil person and a non-civil person having a discussion and it may often appear that civility is trampled by its dirty cousin, rudeness. This seems to be the issue that Marie is grappling with in the comments to Brayden's post. Her student, who continually makes the same ridiculous, absurd point, is certainly being disruptive, but it is not necessary to be impolite to deal with it. One can be told, with great civility, that one is being a jackass. This is not to criticize Marie, as the classroom is a difficult environment and she has far more experience with it than I, but only to say that civility may be difficult to wield, but is often more effective than its counterparts. An instructor who lacks civility will sacrifice respect, while one who uses it to slap down an annoying gadfly will gain it. Civility is about the manner in which you approach others, not the content of that approach.

Which brings us to the final point I wish to make: that open-mindedness is not part of civility. Hell, the very term "listening politely" connotes not interest in the other person's speech, nor open-mindedness, but only a determination to avoid rudeness. Being civil is about treating others with respect. Arguably, it might be respectful to try to take what others say seriously, but this is not always the case. My ability to be polite to someone spouting neo-Nazi rhetoric (limited though it may be) does not depend on my willingness to seriously consider the merits of race warfare and the extermination of Jews. I cannot imagine a plausible set of circumstances in which I would consider either of those policies to be other than criminal and doubt I would take any such arguments seriously, or approach them with an open mind. I could, however, politely allow my neo-Nazi counterpart his say, and then equally-politely shred his positions. Being open-minded is a generally-desirable trait, but it is not demanded by polite society. All that is demanded is that you allow the other person their say.

Some of you might point out here that I do not seem to practice civility much on this blog, and there is some truth to that, but it is precisely because of this above issue that I play loose with the rules of polite discussion. The manner in which you approach an issue, and the content of your position, are two different things. If I make a good point while at the same time issuing a series of ass jokes, than I have accomplished something useful. Egos are so large in academia that I think we constantly run the risk of growing almost Victorian in our approach to civility. My approach in this blog is meant, at least in part, to serve as an anodyne to this tendency. Of course at the moment I'm being relatively civil, but that's okay. Considering the frequency with which I use profanity, or make bizarre comparisons, I think my point is clear.

This is not a debate that will be resolved here, or in the blogosphere as a whole, but it is one that is worth having. The use of civility to society is, I would argue, clear, but so is its potential for abuse. Our goal, however, should not be to mindlessly support civility or to witlessly reject it, but rather to find the limits that both facillitate interaction, and provide everyone with a chance to be heard. Sound difficult? Maybe, but think about this:

Are either of the alternatives better?


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