Is civility a professional error?

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.

9 thoughts on “Is civility a professional error?

  1. Thanks for this beautifully written piece, and its sentiment. It is high time that meeker voices inherited the philosophical earth from those who choose to externalise anxieties that would be better worked out in private. We have reason to believe that this is happening. Fortune favours the brave!

  2. “better worked out in private” is echoing through my head now. I am one of those people who tries to externalize my own personal experiences, and sometimes it’s not pretty. I make mistakes, I react, I am sometimes “uncivil.” I am thanked so many times, however, in private, by people who feel the same way, who have been through the same things, but can’t face the shaming and vulnerability involved in expressing themselves in the open. When faced with criticisms that are couched under the cloak of the words “civility,” “collegiality,” and “politeness,” it often feels like a silencing or shaming technique, and I think often enough, it is such a technique. I am certainly not against being ethical in the ways outlined above, but given the way the previous expressions are often used to silence dissent, I seriously worry about thinking about being civil as being ethical. Sometimes, the dissenting voice is seriously hurt, has been hiding for a long time, has been silenced for so long, that when finally, finally, they explain their perspective, it comes out sounding like a incoherent roar…at first. I think we need to learn to tolerate or at least understand this. We need to take into account where this person is coming from and why they might be being “rude.” We need to understand that our standards of civility themselves often come from class based biases, and we even need to sometimes tolerate the truly rude. To tell people who have trouble expressing themselves within socially acceptable ways to go work it out in private is to erase their voices from public discourse period. It asks people to blunt certain emotional reactions to things that may be entirely appropriate, but are difficult to deal with. It asks those who have been silent for a long time already to keep waiting. Wait until you are able to live up to socially acceptable standards of expression, wait until the ugliness has been white-washed, until what you say doesn’t make us uncomfortable. But, sometimes, recognition of that silent voice is required for “healing.” Sometimes, the kind of acknowledgment needed is that which goes beyond the simple need for personal recognition and empathy from close friends — it’s just not enough — public/political recognition is required. There are people who do everything right to heal their “personal’ issues but never get to the place they need to be precisely because it is NOT just a personal issue. It requires some political action. So what are those of us improperly socialized abuse victims, those of us who maybe come from an impolite background, who may not understand, and know how to express themselves in socially acceptable ways always, supposed to do?

    Further reading:

    Lynne McFall “What’s Wrong with Bitterness?”
    Diana Tietjens Meyers “Rancorous Emotions and Heterodox Moral Perception”
    Ariel Dorfman “Death and the Maiden”

  3. I couldn’t agree more. Thank you MM! We should oppose administrators who cynically claim to *enforce* civility through hiring and tenure decisions. But as academics, and especially as philosophers, we should be promoting reasoned and respectful discourse and be models of it ourselves.

  4. Thanks savageheidi. My post was intended to be entirely consistent with sentiment in this critique, as I’d imagine the original post itself was intended to be (which is not to at all imply that the critique was unnecessary given the clumsiness of my efforts). Indeed, it may well be that the word ‘civility’ is not one that we will be able to keep using as we strive for better ways to live together. But I suspect it’s useful at the moment.

  5. Even if you intended it to be consistent, given what you just said now, it is clear that it is not. I actually think the exact opposite. Maybe, someday, if we get a notion of civility in place that actually has more than vague notions associated with it that are often based on bias and mere social conventions, it may very well be useful. But now it does more damage than good.

  6. I have limited patience with this, so I’ll repeat what I wrote elsewhere:
    “The power claimed of philosophy is the power of prescription. As description it’s just another form of literature, and no philosopher will accept what by their own definition would be a drop in status.” You claim to search for truths. If you want to argue from principles as principles you’re going to get in fights. There’s a reason the first rule of a barroom is there’s no discussing religion or politics.

    The first anonymous made two statements that are in absolute contradiction “It is high time that meeker voices inherited the philosophical earth” “Fortune favours the brave!”

    If you want to argue feminism, do it in context. Argue the feminism of the women of the IDF vs the feminism of the women of Hamas.
    The author’s a Quaker.

    Leiter’s authoritarianism is only possible in a field where people proclaim the existence of absolutes founded on nothing but grammar and hot air. The cultures of mathematics and engineering are bubbles, but there’s no harm in that; there’s no contentious debate over ranking mathematics and engineering departments. At the other end of the spectrum, literature and history departments are diverse by definition. But philosophy professors make claims for “technical philosophy” You want all the clarity of engineering and all the license of poetry. What you end up with is the authoritarianism of the Roman Catholic Church and the metaphysics of hippies.

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