Thursday, September 05, 2019

Evening Note for Thursday, September 5

Thought for the Evening: Civility

There has been a lot of philosophical discussion on the subject of civility recently; three notable examples, all good:

* Amy Olberding, 20 Theses Regarding Civility
* Olufemi O. Taiwo, What Incivility Gets Us (and What It Doesn't)
* Amy Olberding, Righteous Incivility

One weakness of the discussions is a running ambiguity between civility in the sense of etiquette ('lesser morality' as Hume calls it) and civility in the sense of the specifically civic version of amicitia, civil amiability. This is not generally fatal, because there is a relation between the two. But etiquette is essentially a set of norms that (for the most part) arise out of social interaction. None of the norms is indefeasible, and many of them are negotiable. (Indeed, as I've pointed out before, many of them are simply moves in ordinary social negotiations.) Civil amiability, on the other hand, is essential to common good, and lies in a mean between obsequiousness and hostility. (That is significant because many of the arguments against the necessity of civility can be clearly seen to be conflating it with obsequiousness.) Etiquette is a means to civil amiability; civil amiability is both a means to society (because it facilitates other things that are necessary for society to work) and an end of society (because things in society that conflict with it are contrary to common good, simply speaking). If you violate etiquette, this indicates a breakdown in particular negotiations within society; if you act in a way simply inconsistent with civil amiability, this is a breakdown in society itself. Allowing ambiguities between them often results in defenders of the value of civility conceding half their ground of argument when there is no good reason to do so. (I think Olberding, who usually avoids this, nonetheless ends up doing it in her "Righteous Incivility" piece.)

Even lumping the two together, much of the opposition to 'civility' in this mongrel sense is not well motivated, and, indeed, often looks clearly like excuse-making. One argument that I have repeatedly seen, and that needs to die, is that civility is how oppressors keep the oppressed in line. (Taiwo discusses it briefly and takes exactly the right line on it.) Close examination shows, I think, that this is not really true all that often; what is more commonly used to keep people in line is inconsistencies in standards of civility. You can tell who has power in a society, very often, by who gets to be more rude. It is true that people sometimes try to appeal to civility to keep people down, but it's not the appeal to civility that's keeping them down, it's put up as a roadblock and it is a roadblock in particular because other people are not strictly held to it. Even if this weren't so, however, it's an absurd and useless argument. Guess what other things have been appealed to by oppressors? Justice. Freedom. Loyalty. Responsibility. Reasonableness. Indeed, one could say virtually all of ethics. And the reason is obvious: ethical discourse has an independent normative force and motivational influence, so one of the things you try to do if you want to maintain power is to control the ethical discourse. You see this everywhere when you look at abuses of power and persecutions. People don't go around justifying their actions by the evilness of their actions; they look for things that are independently recognized as good, and try to use those. The bad as well as the good appeal to things that are good.

But civility, again, has a power on its own, whether you interpret it in the sense of etiquette or in the sense of civil amiability. The reason manipulators of all kind go for it is that it has an independent value; and thus this value does not rely on, nor can it ever by wholly ruled by, the manipulator. Civility usually deals with small things. You will not overthrow tyrants with civility. But there are many cases in which people abusing their power have found civility to be a power they cannot control. This is one reason why nonviolent campaigns often work, when they do: there reaches a point where, no matter how you manipulate things, it becomes obvious that your opponent is being decent and you are being abusive. On its own, this might not accomplish much; but if it's integrated into something larger, it can contribute quite a bit in its own way. Civility is like gravity; its power lies in its constancy and universality. And like a tree breaking stone there can be an immense power in the consistent insistence on being civil regardless of what those in power try to enforce.

I know that there are lots of people who don't want to hear that. But it's true nonetheless.

It is true, of course, that civil amiability has to be understood in such a way as to be consistent with indignation against injustice and vindication of the just. But neither righteous indignation nor vindication trump civil amiability; they must be understood in light of it just as much it must be understood in their light. Civil amiability is often precisely what differentiates just from unjust anger and vindication from vengefulness. Those who dismiss civility outright do so at great danger to others, yes, but at greater danger to themselves.

Various Links of Interest

* Emily Hanford discusses how the strategies of teaching reading that have been used in schools for decades have in fact probably been interfering with learning how to read.

* A good discussion of Alien as the preeminent example of science fiction horror.

* Tim Maudlin reviews Judea Pearl's The Book of Why

* Ashok Karra discusses Wittgenstein's blocks and slabs

* Diane Shane Fruchtman, Martyrdom as Sacrificial Witness. This is not far from the truth; think, for instance, of the medieval notion that the Holy Innocents, St. Stephen, and St. John are all in some sense martyrs, despite the fact that only St. Stephen is a martyr in the most direct and obvious sense. But one also can't divide martyrdom from death, even in cases like that of St. John, who did not literally die for the faith. Otherwise it empties the notion of sacrifice of any and all meaning that made the adjective 'sacrificial' indicate something of importance to begin with.

* Cecelia Watson, The Virtues of the Semicolon

* Patricia Grosse St. Monnica (or Monica, as she is usually known; one N is a Romanization).

* The Cherokee Nation is planning on trying to press one of the rights that it was given in a nineteenth century treaty but which was never fulfilled -- the right to send a territorial representative to the House of Representatives.

* Remembering Shareware-era DOS games. SLEUTH was a good game -- I actually still have it for DosBox on my computer.

* Strategies for combating online hate. This explains the moderation behavior of a number of websites. What I find a little disturbing is that there seems no recognition here that all of these strategies are strategies regularly used by majorities to stifle minority voices of any kind -- there's nothing about them that requires them only to be used one way.

* The Isotype of Marie and Otto Neurath.

* Keith A. Mathison, Christianity and Van Tillianism

Currently Reading

The Nibelungenlied
Rosamund Hodge, Desires and Dreams and Powers
Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind
Anna L. Peterson, Everyday Ethics and Social Change
Brad Inwood, Ethics After Aristotle

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