When may I be rude?

[Note: I wrote this before recent events and, in light of them, hesitated to post it. I’ve overcome that hesitation so here goes.] Discussion on several blogs has lately seemed to entertain issues that cycle round the question: When may I be rude? I despair of this question since I think giving ourselves permission to be rude is quite hazardous and significantly elides the reality that we are not likely to constrain our rudeness to only those cases where we have cool-headedly identified a plausible warrant. It’s more likely that, having given ourselves inches, we will take miles. Still, there are conditions under which being rude may be quite tempting. I’m not sure when or whether these conditions would sanction rudeness, but maybe it’s useful to identify some cautions against easy assent to rudeness in any of them.


  1. Some speech or conduct is simply beyond the pale and thereby sacrifices all claim to polite response.



This is indubitably true, but it is worth entertaining whether rudeness and insult constitute the only, much less the most effective, mechanisms for expressing disapproval. They can of course convey levels of passion, with my breach of ordinary norms of polite interaction serving to register the depth of my disapproval or the hot righteousness of my anger. But such passion and heat are everywhere on display, on blogs and elsewhere, so that whatever power they may have once enjoyed is ever reduced by their ubiquity. Perhaps most to the point, if you want your rudeness to work on this level, you’d best be very sparing with it.


  1. Calling out error so that a) the one erring recognizes it and so that b) others do not follow the error.



a) There seems to me a perversity in this, as it relies on having a rather high estimation of the capacities of one’s target. She has erred enough to warrant rude reproach, but is presumed sufficiently astute and indeed broad-minded to find the “lesson” about her error in an insult delivered to her. I think few people are this astute or broad-minded. It is, any rate, unlikely that one receiving a rude response will turn inward to discover why she merits such censure and reproach. If correction is the goal, better not to rely on the erring’s capacity to plumb affront for its justice: When one has a sufficiently low estimation of someone’s understanding to proffer insult, one cannot simultaneously expect such magnanimity and circumspection from her!

b) This is perhaps more psychologically plausible, but here, I don’t know whether it facilitates *reasoned* recognition of error by others. The question here is what one wants to motivate others in winning their agreement with you. If the goal is to win deep, reasoned agreement that an error is an error, rudeness to those in error may mis-fire by merely cowing others away from replicating, or appearing to replicate, the error. Intimidated agreement seems a dubious win. Likewise, insofar as scorn and contempt inevitably assert a superiority over their target, the worry is that felt superiority is seductive. Agreement motivated by a desire to join a superior “we” – as in “we think your view is rot” – hooks into the dubious pleasures of smug self-satisfaction and in-group membership rather than offering the lures of reason-giving. Perhaps most of all, the force and heat of rudeness often become their own spectacle and overmaster attention to reasons altogether, again potentially reducing just the reflection one would want to win in others so that they will see and agree. Scorn, contempt, and mockery draw attention, but so does stripping naked and singing show tunes. What is most at issue is what sort of attention one wants and again, if it’s close and careful consideration of one’s views that one desires, spectacle may well distract.



  1. Rudeness as solidarity with those injured by others where suasion of my rude speech’s target is not in view.



This is, I think, the view I find most tempting. I see someone injure another and want through rudeness to register protest and solidarity with the injured. This embeds recognition that too often, polite treatment of one can feature as additional insult to the already injured. This is especially the case where power imbalances are operating so that the solidarity one would assert in rudeness is with those who lack the power to defend themselves or answer rudeness with like. Here too, however, I’m not sure that solidarity expressed in rude fashion is more powerful than other forms of solidarity that lack the hazards of rudeness. One considerable such hazard is that the distinctions regarding power in play in one’s rudeness are again lost in its spectacle, with any nuanced understanding of power dynamics submerged in the more fantastic and attention-catching flow of rudeness. There are many bystander strategies that don’t rely on rudeness and that don’t carry this risk of deflecting observers away from the long goal of securing discourse conditions favorable to respect, inclusion, and so forth.


What most undergirds all these cautions are two additional, more global cautions:


– I quail a bit at the level of self-trust one must have in one’s judgments to decide that otherwise important norms of respectful interaction are to be suspended. Rudeness often closes conversations and interactions, and the decision that there is nothing more to be learned from someone is dramatic, especially where other methods for disengagement – ones less likely to rupture possibilities for future, more fruitful engagement – are on hand. Given the high potential we all bear to mis-speak sometimes, to err, to fail our better intentions, I think charity toward each other and humility about our own judgments of others the better course. This seems additionally warranted by the likelihood that all sorts of implicit biases may operate beneath judgments we make or, worse, felt reactions we have, to others: The people I think deserve rudeness may seem so under the influence of biases I’m unaware of having.


– I likewise worry that many of our reasons for rudeness implicitly suggest that even minimally respectful treatment must be earned, that where someone fails to win a felt respect in me, I am effectively off the hook for simulating minimal interactional respect. But if each operates on her own judgments about who has and has not earned respect, polite interaction becomes a verdict leveled about others rather than default expectation, and thereby quite unreliable as a safeguard against misanthropy and foundation for cooperative activity. As satisfying as purportedly righteous rudeness can be, I can’t see that as a win, for I think we too often simply lack adequate knowledge of others to conclude that they have nothing to offer or to stand in confident judgment about their deserts. Our verdicts are again likely to operate on incomplete information, under sway of our own moods, preferences, and, worse, biases that we can’t even well recognize in ourselves.


As I say, none of this is decisive in particular cases, but I do think we ought tread more lightly and with greater caution than we often do.


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