Civility, Outrage

In the grand scheme of internet things, I don’t think I’m a particularly harsh interlocutor. While I sometimes happen into them, I don’t like twitterĀ  fights. When I argue I prefer to keep the points neat, discrete, and narrow. This is to keep things topical and non-personal. That’s just how I prefer to argue in public — keeps the headaches to a minimum.

Nonetheless I am still from time to time accused of being uncivil. This is usually in the context of me writing about something odious someone has said, like when that Federalist dude said we should shame poor kids, or when Erick Erickson said poor people negotiating better working conditions are “failures at life.” In these cases critics usually don’t take exception with what I’ve argued, they just suggest it would’ve been better if I had done so differently — usually that means in a kinder, gentler, more soothing way.

But I’ve gotten suspicious of this brand of criticism — which is not uncommon — and so I’ve put together a list here of reasons I seriously question the cult of civility.

1.) It’s just an aesthetic.

What I mean by this is that ‘civility’ isn’t actually hooked into a common sense of etiquette or formal public behavior anymore. There may have been a time when there were actually formally coded speech expectations dependent upon gender, class, rank, etc. Except for some pretty rough parameters, that’s not true for us anymore. So rather than civility relating to what is actually deemed appropriate to the ideal type of a person — e.g., a gentleman, a countess, a lord, a lady — it’s a very hazy know-it-when-you-see-it type affair.

This means that it’s more about adopting the style of a particular class of discussion than anything else. When people call for civility, what they mean is that you should take whatever it is that’s being said, and rephrase it and reorient yourself until it comes off as similar in style to a kind of salon-esque neutral debate between equal arguers. This has several problems.

1.A.) No case is ever actually made for the wholesale superiority of this style of argument.

This is to say: sometimes, neutral, disinterested debate is appropriate. You can see it making sense in matters of, say, where to situate water treatment plants. You can pretty well establish a criterion for figuring out what the best location would be like: convenient, safe, cheap, yadda. But there are equally situations in which disinterested, neutral debate is not really sensible — this is usually the case when you’re arguing across frameworks. Consider this:

You’re a Christian who’s really interested in developing a ‘culture of life.’ You notice someone arguing we should shame poor kids in order to reduce welfare participation. Arguing that it wouldn’t reduce welfare participation is one route, and you do this — but there’s something else you want to argue against, too: the idea that being a person who shames poor kids is acceptable. So you let the interlocutor proposing this idea know he’s a bully picking on people who aren’t present to defend themselves, and that the proliferation of characters like him in politics is a cancer on society and antithetical to building an authentic culture of life.

Have you been uncivil? By most accounts, yes: you’ve made personal attacks, maybe even the dreaded ad hominem — saying that the speaker’s lack of virtue is in direct relation with his wrongness. But you’ve also argued exactly what you meant to argue, where the strictures of civility would’ve forced you to give up not only the way you wanted to argue, but the very thing you wanted to argue. So it would appear the ‘civility’ approach was just never the right one for these stakes, this situation, these opponents. And there’s another problem.

1.B.) Civility prefers a particular framework.

It’s not an accident that civility forces you to adopt the framework it is premised upon — the one which preferences no values, which automatically considers all arguments potentially equal in merit, the one which supposes the particular aesthetics of the afternoon salon produce the richest debates, and that the richness of a debate is really its goal. It’s not an accident because — as even people who argue for civility will tell you — civility is about, at some level, establishing common ground. Supposedly this works the arguers to a mutually satisfactory resolution.

But there simply isn’t always common ground, and to be artificially placed on common ground is necessarily to lose some of the ground you were holding. So if you are arguing, for instance, that poor people are being mistreated, should be angry about it, and should lobby for change — civility will force you to give up the ‘angry’ part, or at least to hide it. But that was part of your ground! Now you’ve been muzzled.

And to whose benefit?

1.C.) Civility benefits the same people every time.

If you don’t know how to ‘talk the talk’, if you’ve grown up speaking in slang and playing the dozens and you’re not really clear on the delicacies of civility, you’re going to be ruled out of the discourse at every turn. Not for any real reason of course, but because you can’t speak the way upper class parlor sitters do.

I mean, consider the absurdity of that Federalist situation: a man writes an article saying poor kids should be stigmatized for eating free lunches, I call him out on it as a bully and a poor-hater, and he writes this faintingly exasperated post about a return to rational, civil discourse. But who has said the indecent thing here? Why is it legit to tsk-tsk over calling a bully a bully, but there’s nothing much the matter with arguing for the harm of children? It’s just a matter of preferring the pretense of abstract, neutral discussion — but of course, poor children are real, and there’s nothing morally neutral about arguments like his.

2.) Civility exists in a horrible dyadic relationship with outrage.

When you see calls for civility, what’s going on?

Outrage. For the arguer who considers himself an authority on civility, there’s really only one response to an uncivil opponent: aggrieved astonishment at the lack of civility. So many breathless rants and blog posts do nothing but lament the sheer indignity of having argued with someone who said things in a mean way. This has several horrible outcomes.

2.A.) It means an argumentative position will be conflated with the prima facie ‘wrong’ of being uncivil.

It doesn’t matter how right someone is: if you can establish that you were civil and they weren’t, you’ve gone a long way to damaging the possibility that their argument will be credited as the better one, and their position preferred. You can write an entire article about what a jerk someone is, arguing (essentially) that they shouldn’t have been punished for it, and still come off looking much more supportive of their punishment than not, purely due to the invocation of civility and politeness. There’s sleight of hand here that is very subtle and very effective.

2.B.) It means outrage over incivility supplants actual arguments, and style wins over content.

This is related to the point above, but what I want to point out is that the style of argument (civil v.s. uncivil) becomes a value in and of itself. Whatever value you were arguing in favor of — justice, freedom, whatever — you are now burdened with another value, civility, which may make it fundamentally difficult for you to maintain the one you’d intended to defend. This is a real boon to the person with the more terrible argument, because it means so long as they can win on style, they’re free to carry on with their awful content. So long as they can comfortably default to outrage over their opponent’s incivility when it arises, the actual substance of the original argument does not really need to favor them.

So much of history has played out this way, with a particular class disguising its savagery with its preferred style of discourse, all the while abusing and dominating the remainder of society whose etiquette and habits were deemed meaner and coarser. There’s an almost Hannibal Lecter-esque brutality to the total insistence upon civility in argument, especially in the weaponized form it’s nowadays often deployed. As usual the solution I have in mind is provisional, but:

I think the wise thing to do is to not treat all arguments, arguers, or subjects as identical. The ‘civility’ code seems to suggest that there’s one style that’s appropriate to all frames, all people, all subjects, all stakes — and I’ve tried to show why I think that’s inadequate and often harmful. A better approach is to distinguish between cruelty and love; it’s one thing to want to defend poor kids from stigmatization, for example, because you love them; it’s another to bash someone who happened to argue for the stigmatization of poor kids because you already disliked them, and see this as a mere opportunity to gain some ground. Obviously it’s a little challenging to judge motives like this, but usually significant social or political stakes should tip you off as to whether a very fierce line is worth pursuing. In this realm I also include ethics having to do with relative power and status; don’t break, as it were, a bruised reed. Don’t punch down.

None of this is to argue for being cruel, vulgar, intentionally insulting, etc. But there’s a peculiar tyranny of ‘civility’, and it’s to argue that the good of civility should be judged according to the particular conditions of argument, and should always be balanced against the stakes of the actual content of the debate. We should all want to be the kind of person who is charitable, merciful, quick to forgive and quick to ask forgiveness; these are all better virtues than ‘civility’ anyway, which is by its own admission little more than a veneer of these genuine virtues. But we should also see that love is at times bracing, especially when it is operating in defense, and that a little rupture and agonism are sometimes necessary for an honest reconciliation.