In recent days, this corner of the blogosphere has come back to the question of what constitutes civil engagement online (and, perhaps, offline).
If you’ve not being keeping up with the events that spurred this iteration of the conversation, you might want to read this, this, this, this, and this as background. However, believe me when I say the discussion in this space — in this post — is about the broader issue, and that you are not invited to weigh in here on behalf of your “team” in the recent events.
I’m someone who “does” ethics for a living, and my sense is that at its most basic level, ethics is a matter of sharing a world with other people.
Sometimes that world is one where we’re sharing physical space, close enough to look each other in the eye or punch each other on the arm. Other times, the world in question is a virtual space in which we interact primarily by way of words on a screen.
Either way, whether sounds or strings of characters, the words we use are connected to ideas, and the people sending out or taking up those words are humans with their own interests, histories, social environments, grasp of the language, powers of empathy. These humans have privileged access to their own thoughts, intentions, and emotions, but not to those of the others with whom they’re sharing a world. The words passed back and forth are part of how a human might get some (necessarily incomplete) information about what’s going on in other humans’ heads.
Conversation, in other words, is a hugely important tool for us in the project of sharing a world. So, arguably, figuring out what’s happening when our conversations derail could help us do a better job of sharing that world.
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When, partway through a conversation, one participant says to another, “I don’t think you’re being very civil,” what’s happening?
It’s likely that there are different things happening in different instances, but in a lot of these cases, it seems to me that something like the following might be going down:
Participant A says participant B is not being civil (although participant B thinks that she is being civil to participant A, and she may even say so in response to the claim that she’s not). What participant A is trying to communicate is that she doesn’t think participant B is treating her with the regard to which she’s entitled and/or that participant B is not showing participant A the same regard that participant A is showing participant B.
In other words, my working hypothesis is that civility is, at its core, a matter of treating the persons with whom your engaging with a certain kind of respect. Arguably, this means we’re talking about the substance of interactions, not just surface niceties.
(This gets complicated, though, given that we don’t have access to what’s in each other’s head except by means of words, the tone of voice and cadence in which they’re delivered, the facial expressions and body language accompanying them, and so forth. In some engagements, we only have some of these clues. If you want to assert the substance of what you’re saying starts and ends with your intent, we should probably postpone all substantive interactions until brain-probes with easy-read displays have been perfected.)
Of course, there’s a lot we could unpack as far as what entitles someone to a particular level of regard (and about whether people are generally successful at extending to others the same level of regard to which they feel entitled themselves).
Personally, I’m inclined to believe that there’s a certain level of regard that we owe each other as fellow human beings.
I’m also inclined to believe that avoiding hurt feelings at all costs would fall short of the regard we owe each other (since this would preclude honest engagement around difficult but important subjects).
But, my hunch is that there are situations where one party will view another as being uncivil and where that other party will really believe that she is being civil. To me, getting to the bottom of what’s going on in these situations is much more interesting than focusing on situation where someone claims she’s being civil but actually knows that she’s not.
What’s up when B thinks she’s being civil to A and A thinks she isn’t? Maybe there’s a disagreement about the particular kind of regard they owe to each other (or how far that extends — can I separate my regard for you as a person from my regard for your beliefs, your goals, your interests, your tastes, the company you keep, etc.?). Maybe there’s a disagreement about the goals of engaging with each other. Maybe there’s a disagreement, whether conscious or unconscious, about whether all of the participants are really entitled to the same level of regard.
Or maybe there’s a gap between intentions and effects — between the level of regard one means to show and how it comes across to the other person. Possibly, too, a single such instance of actions falling short of intentions ends up being part of a pattern extending far beyond the particular engagement currently underway — which can give one participant’s imperfect execution of good intentions one time more negative heft to the person on the receiving end.
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Sometimes I think the whole question of civility and incivility (online or offline) boils down to the question of am I welcome in this space?
Do you think I belong here just as much as you do?
Do you think I don’t really belong here? Are you going to exert the effort to run me off, or are you just going to wait until I give up and go away on my own?
Do you welcome me enough that you’ll tell me when I’ve messed up — not because you were waiting for me to slip up, but because you respect me enough that you think I’d want to know that I’d messed up so I could fix it?
Do you trust me enough to tell me what’s on your mind? To tell me how your experience might be different from mine and trust that I’ll believe you? Do I matter enough to you that you will take what I tell you, including my experience of things, seriously?
Or are my concerns and my reports of my own experiences, ultimately, going to seem like more trouble than they’re worth to you?
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I think a civility worth having is all about establishing respect for the people we’re engaging — finding enough common ground and common purpose to function like a community. This does not guarantee pleasant behavior at all times. Communities often have to struggle with deep disagreements. However, glossing over the conflicts can kill a community from the inside.
And this leaves us with the challenge: how to interact with each other in ways that are welcoming enough that people don’t give up before they start, yet honest enough that people can share their thoughts and experiences, where we can all work hard to get smarter together without puking from the adrenaline overdose we’d get from being at constant war with each other.
I don’t think there’s a master equation that captures the optimal balance of forces here. It’s radically context dependent, and we’re all pretty much winging it.
But as we’re trying to share a world, or particular enclaves within that world, I think it’s important to recognize that we all bring stuff with us when we engage with others, and we’re engaging with people who bring their own stuff. Taking each other seriously probably means making a bit of room for the stuff while simultaneously trying to create a space for new stuff — one hopes better stuff — from our engagement together.
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Significant portions of this post first appeared, in slightly different form, in earlier posts on this blog.