Civility, respect, and the project of sharing a world.

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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?

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *
Significant portions of this post first appeared, in slightly different form, in earlier posts on this blog.

Posted in Blogospheric science, Communication, Diversity in science, Ethics 101, Scientist/layperson relations, Social issues, Women and science.


  1. Very well considered and well-written, Janet.

    In the context of internet-based communication, and the virtual spaces that we inhabit, I think it is necessary to recognize the interpersonal & group dynamics that are typical of this medium.

    Specifically, in-group/out-group dynamics tend to escalate more rapidly online than anyplace outside of a middle school. Moreover, the subtle, nonverbal assurances that can convey respect in the context of disagreement are unavailable online — except for hated emoticons ;>) — and a special effort is required to replace them.

    I would submit that making the requisite effort to overcome these tendencies is an important step towards ethical online behavior.

    I am aware, however, that others disagree, arguing that suggestions such as mine serve to support and protect certain unethical power structures IRL. I suppose the corollary, from that perspective, is that civility should not be granted to those perceived as supporting the power structure.

    But how does one decide that someone is not deserving of that basic civility? I do not see many who carefully delineate such criteria. Rather, in the absence of a blanket of civility, the tendency immediately falls towards “you’re either with me, or against me.”

  2. Well said. I try to make sure that I don’t put anything in a comment or post that I wouldn’t say to the person in a face to face conversation. It’s much easier to be rude when anonymous or when safely behind a computer screen. And of course the Golden Rule works too.

    Mutual respect would end most of the ugliness.

  3. I do think that online escalation is much more rapid, as n-c has already stated, and I think some of this has to do with the performance/spectacle of it all. Arguing on a stage where motives for argument may not simply be advancing one’s position (i.e. playing to the crowd and not to the debate) puts “civility” in a fragile position. In addition, the repetitive nature of engagement with topics even if the individual advancing the disagreed with sentiment is new also makes civility more fragile. People get frustrated with an idea and all of that baggage or what have you builds up. It is like a fresh batch of undergraduates.

  4. The necessary precondition that solves these ills is simple. One needs to be prepared to consider that one is deeply, fundamentally and utterly wrong. So a simple exercise is to introspect about something that qualifies in your own history. When did you flip a 180 and actually change your behavior in a fundamental and lasting way?

    Personally I suspect people who have difficulty modulating their positions online are the same people who have never been fundamentally wrong in their own minds and changed their behavior accordingly

    • One way to do this perhaps is to use language that could signal recognition of such a a hypothetical (wrongness). Internal recognition of such might not be as useful if what is projected or signified is “I AM RIGHT, OTHERS ARE IDIOTS.”

      This is the recipe card that everyone should have with DM’s advice.

      1. The internet exists.

      2. Someone is always wrong on it.

      3. You reading this might be that someone.

  5. Although I agree with your arguments, one aspect that you haven’t mentioned is the sheer relentlessness of some attacks – from your notional A or B. IRL you can say, hang on; let me go away and think about this. But this seems very hard to do in the virtual world, particularly via Twitter. When I’ve been challenged but not in a position to reply (travelling for instance, without easy internet access), even if I wanted to agree with the person my silence has always been interpreted negatively and the attacks have mounted. But even when I can reply and try to send holding responses the tweets can just escalate as if that trying to take time to think is never enough. I think this is extraordinarily unhelpful for the civil debates you are advocating and can certainly add to the stress (and so the likelihood of someone ‘snapping) in a negative way.

  6. You write:
    “am I welcome in this space?”

    I find this an interesting (and pervasive) metaphor for the internet–that this blog (for example) is a “space”. “Space” is usually thought of as three-dimensional, a place for embodied objects.

    There are other ways to describe the internet (and this blog). My favorite is “text”, because that’s how I understand the internet–lots and lots of text. With this metaphor, the question above becomes “am I welcome in this text?” And perhaps, viewed in this light, the analysis becomes different.

  7. But how does one decide that someone is not deserving of that basic civility? I do not see many who carefully delineate such criteria. Rather, in the absence of a blanket of civility, the tendency immediately falls towards “you’re either with me, or against me.”
    The benefit of the doubt should be extended to those who have no record, but those whose record is impeached – those who’ve denied the equal humanity of others, however sweet-worded the argument – have earned contempt and castigation.

  8. And who decides that, gingerest? I have encountered many bloggers who believe that I deny the equal humanity of others, just because I have the word conservative in my handle. Come to think of it, some of them are quick to deny my equal humanity, eo ipso, which is what this discussion is about.

    Be aware that 40% of Americans self-identify as conservative – have they earned contempt and castigation? What about people who wear a tee-shirt with a reverential depiction of the racist mass-murderer Che Guevera? Many European and American academics have decided that Israelis “deny the equal humanity” of Palestinians. Do you agree?

    I think that we should be extremely cautious in defining the boundaries of crimethink. I should think that those on the far left, who represent a small minority of Americans, should be especially circumspect in this regard. In most cases, I would rather err on the side of John Stuart Mill and other classical liberals, that free and open discourse is the best path towards the truth.

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