A guest post from MM McCabe
Amid the debate about academic freedom which has been in the professional news recently, there has been a parallel discussion about the nature and importance of ‘civility’. It is a category mistake (as I have argued) to take civility to be the converse of academic freedom. But some have argued that civility is still a professional error: that we may or even should use uncivil language and a hostile stance at times in dealing with opposition and criticism. And the demands for incivility are heard more acutely when we face attack on our very institutions and seem to be fighting for our academic lives.…..
Begin, however, with the ordinary case. In the corridor or the classroom or the seminar, civility is at least an aspiration – that we speak and listen to each other in a civil manner: it is an aspiration within an existing community – hence the political overtones of the word. Why should we bother? Civility is an attitude displayed in the content of what one says, revealed by tone or linguistic choice, but it is fundamentally an attitude to another person – of taking them seriously, of treating them with respect and care, and without prejudice. This, I take it, matters intrinsically – just because whatever enterprises we are engaged in, we are engaged together. This explains the shock and outrage and the sympathy for its target when civility seems to be cast aside.
But civility matters practically and instrumentally, too. For discussion – not only in philosophy, but perhaps philosophy is a paradigm case – is a fragile thing. In its full sense it relies both on each party’s having the confidence to speak without hesitation or fear and on each party’s ability to listen to the other. Shouting, of course, precludes listening; and so does its behavioural counterpart, incivility – where the damage may be done at a distance, or over a length of time. For these are exercises of power; and they distort and damage and stunt each party over time. (As a young graduate student, in seminars with an array of philosophical heavyweights, I said not a word in public for years; and the sense, both of terror at speaking up, and of hubris in daring to think I have something to say, has remained with me ever since, only overcome, regrettably, by a natural garrulousness). The wielding of power is bad for each party; both the silenced and the speaking end up with a view of what they each think that comes from their squinted sense of themselves, rather than from some better assessment of what they (might have) said. That is bound to limit what we think about – since some stuff never gets said; and some gets said too much. And it is bound to limit us.
For all this has both a narrowing effect and a broadening one. Incivility relies on an assumption of being right; and that assumption itself may make a speaker risk-averse (this is the Mastermind syndrome – you too can be a specialist within a vanishingly narrow scope…) or pontifical everywhere (this is the God syndrome – to which both those who believe in a god and those who do not are prone…). Both syndromes affect both parties to a discussion where the balance of power is out of whack: but they are the assumptions of power, not of careful inquiry.
For the hearer, civility has an obvious epistemic advantage, that it does not tempt us to accept beliefs whose warrant is sustained only by force majeure; it allows us to see the limits of expertise or authority; and it encourages us to think that we too might have something to say. Moreover, in eschewing particular attack, it allows us to turn our attention better to what is impersonal and abstract; it has that instrumental value.
For the speaker (or the writer) it may be hard to remember that we might be wrong, or that we could think again, or that others might have thought about the same things too; and in the grip of a passionate conviction it is especially difficult to make oneself look at the passion from the outside, from the perspective of another, from the abstract stance of the discussion itself. But discussion gives us these other perspectives: if we are able to listen, then we can think about what we think is different ways. If we are sure we are right about something, we can surely afford the patience to listen to a different view; and if the different view is worth hearing, then perhaps we are not so right after all. But that sense of perspective arises only if the other party to our discussion is able, not only to listen, but also to speak. Listening, if you like, goes both ways; and each of us has to have courage to speak, as well as the patience to hear, if the deep intellectual benefits of discussion are to be reaped. That courage can be very hard indeed to find. Civil exchanges, where the exercise of power is absent, are one condition for finding it.
Civility is hard, though: it is easy indeed to feel oneself under threat and to respond without hesitation, seeking to defend ourselves. This escalates – one remark construed as uncivil provokes another and another; and then the history of the offence is just repeated and rehearsed. This is the rhetoric of the playground, of ‘she said, he said, she said…’, the endless recapitulation of grievance, the constant repetition of what was done, by whom, to whom, and under what provocation. Such disputes, legalistic in their detail, may be not only interminable, but utterly indeterminate, since the original offence is often lost in the retelling itself. Both parties, of course, take themselves to be in the right, and to have behaved impeccably. Either may be right. But in such a situation, remember Jarndyce v. Jarndyce: we are all the poorer for it (apart, perhaps, from the Court of Chancery). Return, then, to the nature of the aspiration to be civil. The prospect of restoring good will and the possibility to speak and to listen together demands that the endless detail is, at last, abandoned. The future of collaborative discourse is more important than its past.
In all of our exchanges, perhaps, we fall short: civility is under construction, but it continues to be an aspiration. But there is still a question of the role of rage: are we never right to express fury, or righteous indignation? Communities, after all, are not only the place for polite discussions of an afternoon in the study, but the locus of structures of power, places where wrongs can be done and go unnoticed or unprotested. When that happens, there is another demand upon us, a different kind of courage called for – the courage to protest, to object, to stand up for one party against another – a courage that is demanded even where there is no risk of physical harm. So in counterpoint to the aspiration to civility, there is a proper demand to call out wrong, and to insist on expressing disapproval or disdain or condemnation. This may be a case, merely, of objecting to a wrong; or a protest against the improper wielding of power. (It should not, I think, for all the reasons above, simply call out an intellectual mistake – accusations of stupidity promote the wretched ‘smartness’ competition). Such a protest may indeed express other responses than civility: anger is the properly moral emotion in response to some appalling injustices. And that rage may be, not only about the content of the injustice, but directed against the perpetrator – after all, we regularly think that there is a connection, sometimes, between the views that someone holds and their moral character. As so often, there is a matter of fine judgment here between the demands of moral indignation, and the demands of attentiveness; and this, we might think, works within any community, whatever its boundaries. But once again there is a difference of category: moral indignation may be a moment or a stance against some particular offence; but it should not be a general attitude, nor a repetitive trope, nor, indeed, a policy. Instead, in general, civility serves us well; for it underpins the virtues that promote freedom of inquiry: modesty, a sense of community and intellectual courage.