Reader Request Week 2019 #5: Civility

In an email, Pablo asks:

Civility: A genuine plea for common understanding, or just another tool to oppress?

I mean, why not both?

Which is to say that one can genuinely wish for “civility” — a sort of courtly and dignified mode of discourse — without understanding all the ways that “civility” generally favors the more powerful parties in said discourse and/or can be used to mask or minimize within the discourse wholly awful ideas, events and opinions. Even the less formal versions of a desire for “civility,” the plaintive cries of “be nice” or “can’t we all get along?” have within them this same dichotomy. And this is why, almost inevitably, “calls for civility” are usually issued by those who have power (or belong to a powerful group): because it’s a rhetorical system of control, whether the person issuing the call consciously realizes it or not.

But let’s back up a bit. When is “Civility” just, you know, civility? Which is to say, two (or more) people engaging each other in a polite and courteous fashion? It can happen, right?

Sure! For example civility is easy when the parties engaged are at or near the same social/power level with each other. If you belong to a country club, chances are you can be perfectly civil to every other member of your country club, because you all are of more or less the same stratum: Probably professional, probably white-collar, probably of a certain level of wealth (those country club fees are a thing), probably possessing a particular world view, and so on. I pick “country club” here because it’s an easy thing to pick — and to pick on. But other organizations or fellowships work just as well. I recently joined a private library, which is a place that holds book events and author tours and so on; just the sort of place where I could meet other like-minded bibliophiles, who also have enough means to subscribe to a private library. I have no doubt the membership is generally perfectly civil with each other.

Likewise, civility is easy when it’s forced on you from above. There’s a near example of this: This very blog, which both has a comment policy and a moderator (waves) who isn’t shy about shaping the conversation, or deleting comments when people go out of bounds. As a result, on average, people here tend to be polite(r) to each other when they comment here than at many other places online. They are, in a word, civil. Because they know if they’re not, they lose the ability to participate in the discourse entirely. I am very clear I am practicing a system of control here — this is my house online. If you don’t want to behave when you’re in my house, you can get the hell off my lawn. Most people get that and play by the rules. Which are, again to be clear, my rules.

(Mind you, I am not enjoined to play by the same rules as everyone else here. Which is also in line with the general facts of a system of control.)

Lateral Civility — the civility of peers — is easy to have because no one person is at a particular disadvantage to any other in terms of power or status (or if they are, it’s because of other factors, and that disadvantage is often temporary). Top-Down Civility can be less congenial because even if it’s “evenly” applied, it favors those people who attitudes, status and world view are similar to the person(s) enforcing that civility, and who better implicitly understand the rules of the civility road, as it were. Civility almost always favors the “in group” whose status is not in question, and whose status is unlikely to be threatened.

So, for example, take me: Hi, I’m white, male, straight, well-off and in the cohort of age whose hands are currently on a lot of the wheels of industry, government and the creative arts. Also for the last decade or so I’ve been at or near the top of my chosen profession. I’m not an outsider in any meaningful sense. It’s super-easy for me to practice, engage with and benefit from the rhetoric of civility, because I have nothing to lose from it. And I like civility! It’s nice when people are polite to each other and we can get through whatever we’re getting through with a minimum of social friction and anxiety. Moreover, as the social primate I am, I don’t like it when people are uncivil, and attempt to make me feel uncomfortable —

— which is, to be very clear, the magic of the rhetoric of civility: It creates the conditions by which being uncivil — not playing by the rules of the “civility” game, however they were created and imposed — becomes the emotional and dialectical equivalent of any possible actual wrong that an aggrieved party brings to an issue.

So: Yes, the water system of Flint, Michigan is literally unsafe and has been made so by bad governance, but you were a dick about it to me in an online discussion, so that’s just as bad. Yes, this oil spill ruined miles and miles of coastline, but then someone had to go and splatter an executive of the company that caused the spill with the blood of a dead, oiled seabird, and that’s just uncalled for. Sure, that smooth-talking alt-right dude would happily murder the Jews if he thought he could get away with it, but then someone punched him and made him cry, so really, both sides are bad, aren’t they?

Which is why people who are not on the inside are wary of “calls for civility”: They are being told that to be heard, they have to engage in a rhetorical system in which the value of their actual injury is held to be the equivalent to the value of the other side’s emotional investment in the rules of discussion. “Yes, you are suffering, but you were also rude to me about it, so my suffering is the same.” Which is, you know, bullshit. And the injured know it, even if the person calling for “civility” is not.

Additionally, when one “calls for civility” one is very often asking people who are genuinely aggrieved to engage in a rhetorical system in which their actual injury is not seen as a problem to be addressed, but an item to be debated — which means a lot of dudes out there with no skin in the game, or who are actively malicious, laying out their “Debate: The Gathering” cards, with the sole object being to “win” the discussion, and to string it out into irrelevance. When “civility” is a stalking horse for crap like this, there is no value for those with actual injury to engage with it; it literally does them no good to do so.

You can’t demand “civility” without understanding what it costs those you demand it from. You can’t demand “civility” without understanding how it advantages you. You can’t demand “civility” without the knowledge that what you are actually saying is “this is a game to me, and you have to play it by my rules.” Or, actually, you can, in each of these cases. But then you can’t really be surprised when other people choose not to play along.

If you want people to engage in civility then the answer is simple: Help to create a world in which “civility” does not inherently and explicitly disadvantage the most injured party — where such rhetoric of discourse isn’t a system of control. It can be done! But, well. It will take a lot of work. And the real question is whether the sort of person who always calls for civility wants that world at all, or is in fact satisfied with the world we have now, because “civility” is just an excuse to treat people in an uncivil manner when they call out the game for what it is.

36 thoughts on “Reader Request Week 2019 #5: Civility

  1. “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” ― Frederick Douglass

    So if you’re one of the oppressed, you should err on the side of UNcivil.

  2. In one of their chat sessions the writers at fivethirtyeight broke down “civility” into four main categories:

    “Powerful people being uncivil to other powerful people: bad for democracy
    Powerful people being uncivil to non-powerful people: bad for democracy
    Non-powerful people being uncivil to powerful people: good for democracy
    Non-powerful people being uncivil to other non-powerful people: bad for democracy”

  3. I will say this once only (and I suspect nobody who wasn’t watching UK TV in the 70s/80s will recognise the reference): Yes.

    Right now, civility is a function of power. As is the tone argument rehashed.

  4. > a rhetorical system in which the value of their actual injury is held to be the equivalent to the value of the other side’s emotional investment in the rules of discussion

    More often than not, I don’t think it’s so much about emotional investment in the rules of discussion as it is about trying to distance oneself from a problem. Typically people care more about tragedies in their backyard than they do about tragedies on the other side of the world. When an injured party escalates their complaint from “civil discourse” to something more aggressive, that makes it harder to ignore and pretend it’s an “other side of the world” problem.

  5. A very thoughtful and accurate treatment of the pleas for civility. I spent a long career as a mediator and facilitator of public policy discussions, and that whole movement to me represented a push to bring more voices to the table, increase representation of the groups that are often pushed aside as too emotional, radical or uncivil. But no one grants anyone a place at the table. It has to be fought for by activists who use the media, demonstrations, picketing, the courts – whatever tools may be at their disposal – to fight to be heard and taken seriously by the most powerful groups. The people who have power now know how to use their exquisite verbal skills to persuade in public while using blunt force to get what they really want. For a while, there was an outpouring of books and talk about civility, often paired with the need for community, which completely ignored the reality of control and dominance. Thanks for bringing up these issues. I think they also enter into the way writers approach politics and dominance in science fiction, and I wish more would grapple with the way power works.

  6. Calls for civility are often used as a pretense to deal fairly with the issues of others without actually dealing with them. People want to look concerned and helpful when they really don’t care so they can get what they want without the moral costs to themselves. With people who have been dishonest repeatedly about as issue, this is the default perception – if you’ve been dishonest before for your own benefit you aren’t getting any presumption of innocence, The dishonesty is worse for the pretense.

    Other times, calls for civility are an attempt by people believed to be in the wrong (or likely to be wrong or perceived to be wrong) to distance themselves from the consequences of the issue – to talk without dealing with the anger and frustration that are caused by it. It’s not as dishonest but is still not honest. If you want peace, you have to acknowledge the harm you have done or helped to do to others (and stop doing it), and to actually know what harm you’ve done.

    If someone actually intends to talk as reasonably as possible to others about something without calling names or other forms of anger and force (“don’t be a dick”), then being civil to others can be helpful because you might be able to understand their concerns and what you might be able to do about them, and vice versa. Much of the time, though, it falls into more or less egregious ways of avoiding responsibility for one’s actions without appearing to do so.

  7. The actually injured do, though, have to deal with the fact that they live among the people who are calling for civility, and that in democratic systems those people get an equal vote. They need to engage in a calculation of whether their lack of civility will drive away more people from supporting them than it will attract.

    Also, once some group is uncivil and it works for them, all the others will decide that this is the best way forward to get the attention they feel they deserve, and then all public discourse becomes shouting down, personal insults, and violence.

  8. Here’s what I had to say about civility a few years ago:

    Short Tracy: politeness isn’t what civility is about. It’s a lot more complex. For details, see the above. Provided you have 25 minutes to spare, that is.

  9. “And I like civility!”

    Who are you and what have you done with the Creator of Kiva?

    [ed. Yes, yes, I know. Authors are not their characters. Comment strictly for humorous purposes.]

  10. Other people’s use or not of civility can be a useful insight into the kind of person they are, from a powerful person’s demands for civility from people who have been in decades long stuggles for rights to how someone treats servers of all sorts on a daily basis. It is also simply the easiest way to smooth your own interactions with others and seem far nicer than you actually are – or is that just me? – for very little effort. Though you do need to be careful that you are using the right code of civility for the person you are interactng with as codes can differ significantly, that’s the challenging part.

  11. I know that civility is the grease of social discourse, but sometimes you just have to call B.S., B.S.

  12. That’s the best outline of the issues I’ve ever read… which is to say, it’s just what I was thinking 😀 The problem with civility is when it hits the point where things get really serious… not many people would demand civility when you’re confronting a mugger, or child abuse, or… global catastrophe? And yet..

  13. This is really great. I hope it gets to be a perennial in the “Most-Read Whatever Entries” for years to come.

  14. I am a trial lawyer. The best and most persuasive lawyers I know are imminently civil regardless of the ferocity with which they oppose another’s position. Their ability to persuade jurors, regardless of the jury’s demographic makeup, is tied to their ability to remain civil and to have their position be considered by jurors. I’ve watched lawyers abandon civility and lose judges and juries who would have, in all likelihood, have viewed their position quite favorably.

    Civility should be embraced by all; ferocious advocacy need not be laid aside when doing so.

  15. So, you’re saying that civility works in a highly ritualized context where the active participants (i.e., the lawyers) are of roughly equal social status and power, and where the procedure is administered top-down by an authority figure whose systemic power allows them to punish the uncivil? You don’t say.

  16. lucaswilliams0605: Outside of court and other formal situations the raw use of force that backs up your lawyers use of civility is just not available. As a trial lawyer I’m sure you’ve dealt with people who would cheerfully offer violence to get their own way, both in opposition to and enforcement of the law. Since the latter group are mostly on your side you have no need to be personally violent. Which is part of the point Scalzi was making.

  17. Tracy, I loved the lecture on civility, but one small thing grates. The idea of “don’t trust experts, do your own research” is both incredibly arrogant and simultaneously dismissive of the incredible wealth of knowledge that humans possess. We know so much now that it’s impossible for anyone, no matter how brilliant, to even understand an overview of it, let alone the detail of more than a microscopic part of it.

    That has real, concrete consequences. We can’t just “find out about climate” in any meaningful way without trusting experts. It’s experts all the way down, as the saying goes. In my tiny corner of a broad field, I use computers that I don’t understand running software that I don’t understand to write software that meets specifications that I don’t know the rationale for in order to meet business needs I know almost nothing about. In theory I could, with years of study, learn somewhat more about one particular aspect of one of the things I’ve said I don’t understand… but I’d still have to blindly trust the people who made the computers built on that knowledge.

    Instead I prefer to focus on getting the software I write to provide useful processing ability to people whose expertise is in other fields. For example, I wrote a pretty user interface that helps soil scientists validate the input files they use to model water moving through mining spoil heaps, before they spend large amounts of money on supercomputer time. They don’t understand what I did, I don’t understand what they do, but I sped up the rate at which they add more tiny grains of knowledge to the pile.

    Sadly I also deal a lot with failures. For example, the well known problem that formulas in spreadsheets cannot be trusted, because the error rate is so terribly high. Or the various reproduction crises in all sorts of science fields. That doesn’t mean I ignore science because of the errors, or only trust what I can independently verify, it means that I use the other techniques you discuss to sanity test claims. I work more on “balance of probabilities” than “proof by exhaustion” or worse, “beyond reasonable doubt” (because that relies on an untested null hypothesis… it has to, at some level)

  18. Dear hyrosen,

    Ummm. No. It doesn’t work that way. and when I say “doesn’t” I don’t mean merely “doesn’t have to” I mean that I can’t, off the top of my head, think of a single political movement, past or present which *did/does* work that way.

    Not saying it’s impossible for it to. But what you assert as inevitability (or even likelihood) does not conform to historical reality. Data trumps theory.

    pax / Ctein

  19. To paraphrase MLK, everyone in Egypt thought things were civil and polite when the Israelites were slaves baking bricks. Then when they said “Hey, we’d like to leave” suddenly Pharaoh was very upset by their lack of civility.

  20. Scalzi, I just wanted I enjoy what you write.

    Please keep doing it, as it helps reaffirm my faith that not absolutely everyone has gone completely ‘off the rails’ as we careen through what HAS to be the dumbest of timelines…

  21. think the big thing this misses is that’s it’s entirely possible for people in entrenched positions of power to not be civil.

    So what happens when you start eroding that civility? Is the expectation that the powerful people you’re not being civil to are just going to take it?

    It’s sort of like the geneva convention. Sure, you’ll be a more effective fighting force if you ignore it and start blowing up hospitals, but you’ll regret it when they start blowing up your hospitals too. Especially if they’re in a position of entrenched power, because they’ll be in a better position to use all the tactics that were previously off-the-table.

  22. Scalzi: That “highly ritualized context,” where it involves juries, moves the evaluation of advocacy and argument from “the authority figure” to 12 ordinary people who generally come from a wide cross-section of humanity. In interviewing those jurors following various trials, I have learned that regardless of an individual juror’s social status and power, and regardless of how the trial is administered by a judge, juries generally decide cases based upon civil and temperate presentations of fact that may, from time to time, be absolutely brutal in their calm and dispassionate delivery. I have never once spoken to a juror who said they were impressed with an attorney or witness who presented in an uncivil way.

    There is a time for uncivil interactions–the American revolution and Hong Kong come to mind.

  23. Lucaswilliams0605:

    “Scalzi: That ‘highly ritualized context,’ where it involves juries, moves the evaluation of advocacy and argument from “the authority figure” to 12 ordinary people who generally come from a wide cross-section of humanity.”

    You mean, the dozen people, selected by the lawyers themselves under specific rules for a specific purpose, who in the context of the process are given co-equal status to each other, are also constrained by specific rules for a specific purpose, and whose participation in the process can be revoked by the authority figure?

    All of which is to say I’m not 100% sure a courtroom is the useful analogy you wish it to be here.

  24. Scalzi: It appears that we will not be able to agree that a courtroom, equipped with a jury consisting of a wide demographic swath of America, may be a useful lens through which to view civility and its reception across across a wide demographic swath of America.

    As a lawyer, I can assure you that a jury selected by the parties does not result in a platonic ideal for any party; instead, it strives to select a jury that will fairly and reasonably evaluate facts and arguments in a reasoned way.

    It may not be the best system, and it may not be the best analogy for whatever argument you seem to be making regarding striving (or not) for civility, but it is far superior to people acting boorishly, screaming at one another, and cementing other people’s views not based upon the quality of arguments but upon their poor presentation.

  25. Lucaswilliams0605:

    “It appears that we will not be able to agree that a courtroom, equipped with a jury consisting of a wide demographic swath of America, may be a useful lens through which to view civility and its reception across across a wide demographic swath of America.”

    We really won’t, because an artificial construct for a specific purpose featuring people who a) are either professionals with a highly specific purpose or b) people who are selected by those professionals also for a highly specific purpose isn’t a great analogy for the world in general. Also, mind you, bias in jury selection is enough of a thing that there was a Supreme Court case about it this year (about which, fortunately, the court ruled in the correct direction).

    We can agree it’s a nice thing to have civility in the courtroom, however.

  26. Lucas: “Their ability to persuade jurors, regardless of the jury’s demographic makeup, is tied to their ability to remain civil and to have their position be considered by jurors.”

    Having been on jury duty for a several-months-long murder trial, I would offer that it’s a lot messier than this. As soon as deliberations started, we were all pretty confidant of the evidence and decided to do an immediate vote. All 12 of us said, yeah, i think i know how this goes. So we took a vote.

    We split exactly down the middle.

    So then we had to go through the evidence trying to reconstruct what happened. Step by step, making sure everyone agreed on each step.

    We eventually reached a unanimous decision, but it was eye opening to see 12 people hear the same information and come to completely different conclusions.

    As far as civility goes, witnesses were all over the place emotionally. Some were confidant but had fuzzy data. Some were scared but were adamant about some fact. During deliberations, we went through what each witness said and whether we believed them or not to reconstruct the truth of what happened. It wasnt civility that was universally believed. It was far messier than that.

  27. Boffowaffle: My comments on civility do not relate to the sausage-making that goes into a jury’s deliberations. My position is that attorneys who are uncivil in the courtroom damage their client’s cases; attorneys who are civil, even when ruthlessly advancing their client’s position, are far more likely to persuade a jury. As it relates to the civility of witnesses, my experience is that civil witnesses, regardless of whether they are obviously emotionally affected, are more likely to be considered well by a jury than a combative, obstreperous, and rude witness.

    In summary, I believe that civil discourse is far more likely to persuade than uncivil discourse, regardless of the forum.

  28. In those last couple paragraphs of the original post, I’m struck by possible internal tension in the phrase “demand civility.” If “civility” is a mode of behavior, demanding it (as distinct from devising an environment in which its protocols are required, as in the courtroom or, in my old world, the classroom) would be stretching the notion itself. The civility I was taught (by my parents, from an early age) had to do with how I treated people. A failure to be treated so in return–well, my response to that would depend of the mode and severity of the incivility. Ma’s notion was that two wrongs don’t make a right. Dad’s addendum was that physical bullying (an extreme case of uncivil behavior) be met by a punch in the nose. My personal codicil to that was that it also makes sense to know which confrontations to walk away from. I have since found that that last notion extends beyond physical encounters. If attempts to treat others as I would like to be treated fail, I’m inclined to walk away. (And I know that someone will bring up privilege–not everyone has an “away” to walk to. But as long as I do, it’s better than shouting, let alone shoving matches.)

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