In defense of civility

Dec 18 JDN 2459932

Civility is in short supply these days. Perhaps it has always been in short supply; certainly much of the nostalgia for past halcyon days of civility is ill-founded. Wikipedia has an entire article on hundreds of recorded incidents of violence in legislative assemblies, in dozens of countries, dating all the way from to the Roman Senate in 44 BC to Bosnia in 2019. But the Internet seems to bring about its own special kind of incivility, one which exposes nearly everyone to some of the worst vitriol the entire world has to offer. I think it’s worth talking about why this is bad, and perhaps what we might do about it.

For some, the benefits of civility seem so self-evident that they don’t even bear mentioning. For others, the idea of defending civility may come across as tone-deaf or even offensive. I would like to speak to both of those camps today: If you think the benefits of civility are obvious, I assure you, they aren’t to everyone. And if you think that civility is just a tool of the oppressive status quo, I hope I can make you think again.

A lot of the argument against civility seems to be founded in the notion that these issues are important, lives are at stake, and so we shouldn’t waste time and effort being careful how we speak to each other. How dare you concern yourself with the formalities of argumentation when people are dying?

But this is totally wrongheaded. It is precisely because these issues are important that civility is vital. It is precisely because lives are at stake that we must make the right decisions. And shouting and name-calling (let alone actual fistfights or drawn daggers—which have happened!) are not conducive to good decision-making.

If you shout someone down when choosing what restaurant to have dinner at, you have been very rude and people may end up unhappy with their dining experience—but very little of real value has been lost. But if you shout someone down when making national legislation, you may cause the wrong policy to be enacted, and this could lead to the suffering or death of thousands of people.

Think about how court proceedings work. Why are they so rigid and formal, with rules upon rules upon rules? Because the alternative was capricious violence. In the absence of the formal structure of a court system, so-called ‘justice’ was handed out arbitrarily, by whoever was in power, or by mobs of vigilantes. All those seemingly-overcomplicated rules were made in order to resolve various conflicts of interest and hopefully lead toward more fair, consistent results in the justice system. (And don’t get me wrong; they still could stand to be greatly improved!)

Legislatures have complex rules of civility for the same reason: Because the outcome is so important, we need to make sure that the decision process is as reliable as possible. And as flawed as existing legislatures still are, and as silly as it may seem to insist upon addressing ‘the Honorable Representative from the Great State of Vermont’, it’s clearly a better system than simply letting them duke it out with their fists.

A related argument I would like to address is that of ‘tone policing‘. If someone objects, not to the content of what you are saying, but to the tone in which you have delivered it, are they arguing in bad faith?

Well, possibly. Certainly, arguments about tone can be used that way. In particular I remember that this was basically the only coherent objection anyone could come up with against the New Atheism movement: “Well, sure, obviously, God isn’t real and religion is ridiculous; but why do you have to be so mean about it!?”

But it’s also quite possible for tone to be itself a problem. If your tone is overly aggressive and you don’t give people a chance to even seriously consider your ideas before you accuse them of being immoral for not agreeing with you—which happens all the time—then your tone really is the problem.

So, how can we tell which is which? I think a good way to reply to what you think might be bad-faith tone policing is this: “What sort of tone do you think would be better?”

I think there are basically three possible responses:

1. They can’t offer one, because there is actually no tone in which they would accept the substance of your argument. In that case, the tone policing really is in bad faith; they don’t want you to be nicer, they want you to shut up. This was clearly the case for New Atheism: As Daniel Dennett aptly remarked, “There’s simply no polite way to tell someone they have dedicated their lives to an illusion.” But sometimes, such things need to be said all the same.

2. They offer an alternative argument you could make, but it isn’t actually expressing your core message. Either they have misunderstood your core message, or they actually disagree with the substance of your argument and should be addressing it on those terms.

3. They offer an alternative way of expressing your core message in a milder, friendlier tone. This means that they are arguing in good faith and actually trying to help you be more persuasive!

I don’t know how common each of these three possibilities is; it could well be that the first one is the most frequent occurrence. That doesn’t change the fact that I have definitely been at the other end of the third one, where I absolutely agree with your core message and want your activism to succeed, but I can see that you’re acting like a jerk and nobody will want to listen to you.

Here, let me give some examples of the type of argument I’m talking about:

1. “Defund the police”: This slogan polls really badly. Probably because most people have genuine concerns about crime and want the police to protect them. Also, as more and more social services (like for mental health and homelessness) get co-opted into policing, this slogan makes it sound like you’re just going to abandon those people. But do we need serious, radical police reform? Absolutely. So how about “Reform the police”, “Put police money back into the community”, or even “Replace the police”?

2. “All Cops Are Bastards”: Speaking of police reform, did I mention we need it? A lot of it? Okay. Now, let me ask you: All cops? Every single one of them? There is not a single one out of the literally millions of police officers on this planet who is a good person? Not one who is fighting to take down police corruption from within? Not a single individual who is trying to fix the system while preserving public safety? Now, clearly, it’s worth pointing out, some cops are bastards—but hey, that even makes a better acronym: SCAB. In fact, it really is largely a few bad apples—the key point here is that you need to finish the aphorism: “A few bad apples spoil the whole barrel.” The number of police who are brutal and corrupt is relatively small, but as long as the other police continue to protect them, the system will be broken. Either you get those bad apples out pronto, or your whole barrel is bad. But demonizing the very people who are in the best position to implement those reforms—good police officers—is not helping.

3. “Be gay, do crime”: I know it’s tongue-in-cheek and ironic. I get that. It’s still a really dumb message. I am absolutely on board with LGBT rights. Even aside from being queer myself, I probably have more queer and trans friends than straight friends at this point. But why in the world would you want to associate us with petty crime? Why are you lumping us in with people who harm others at best out of desperation and at worst out of sheer greed? Even if you are literally an anarchist—which I absolutely am not—you’re really not selling anarchism well if the vision you present of it is a world of unfettered crime! There are dozens of better pro-LGBT slogans out there; pick one. Frankly even “do gay, be crime” is better, because it’s more clearly ironic. (Also, you can take it to mean something like this: Don’t just be gay, do gay—live your fullest gay life. And if you can be crime, that means that the system is fundamentally unjust: You can be criminalized just for who you are. And this is precisely what life is like for millions of LGBT people on this planet.)

A lot of people seem to think that if you aren’t immediately convinced by the most vitriolic, aggressive form of an argument, then you were never going to be convinced anyway and we should just write you off as a potential ally. This isn’t just obviously false; it’s incredibly dangerous.

The whole point of activism is that not everyone already agrees with you. You are trying to change minds. If it were really true that all reasonable, ethical people already agreed with your view, you wouldn’t need to be an activist. The whole point of making political arguments is that people can be reasonable and ethical and still be mistaken about things, and when we work hard to persuade them, we can eventually win them over. In fact, on some things we’ve actually done spectacularly well.

And what about the people who aren’t reasonable and ethical? They surely exist. But fortunately, they aren’t the majority. They don’t rule the whole world. If they did, we’d basically be screwed: If violence is really the only solution, then it’s basically a coin flip whether things get better or worse over time. But in fact, unreasonable people are outnumbered by reasonable people. Most of the things that are wrong with the world are mistakes, errors that can be fixed—not conflicts between irreconcilable factions. Our goal should be to fix those mistakes wherever we can, and that means being patient, compassionate educators—not angry, argumentative bullies.