A Pragmatic Defense of Civility

nina-strehl-140734-unsplashCivility is a dirty word in social justice circles right now.

I understand why. It’s ridiculous to care more about being polite than about babies being torn away from their mothers. It’s backwards to worry about niceties when human lives and human dignity are at stake. And often “they” interpret passion as incivility, anyway. “They” don’t like how it makes them feel, so “they” call it incivility to no longer feel responsible for their uncomfortable feelings. To “them,” no form of protest, no matter how respectful, peaceful, or carefully thought out, will ever be seen as civil simply because the act of protesting, resisting, and making “them” uncomfortable is uncivil.

But let’s be honest: sometimes, many times, people in social justice circles are uncivil, out of control, and just plain rude. They attack people outside of their circles; they attack people within their circles. Say the wrong word, the wrong opinion, and you’ve unleashed your doom.

I understand that too. I want to scream when I see dismissive memes. I want to shoot back sarcastic and mean-spirited zingers when I hear callous and ill-informed opinions. I want to spew obscenities at the people doing disgusting and dehumanizing things. I often feel that rude people deserve rude responses, that jerks get what’s coming to them, that people who don’t care about others don’t require my care, either. An eye for an eye. Anger with anger. Hate with hate.

I could ramble a lot about my conflicting feelings regarding justice and mercy within the Christian tradition. Regardless of my philosophical and theological beliefs, when it comes to altercations with stupid, rude, and/or callous people, when it comes to trying to change people’s minds, I still cherish civility as a virtue.

People may deserve a good chewing out when they fail to live up to basic human decency. Maybe a good, loud, simplistic, angry rant fulfills some sort of cosmic justice. Maybe I shouldn’t have to police my tone due to all the unfair things I’ve put up with; maybe I should get to be as angry as I want and speak out of that anger as much as I want.

I mean this sincerely: maybe that truly is justice. It doesn’t seem fair to me that people who have already put up with so much hatred and discrimination, sometimes against their very personhood, should even have to think about their tone in voicing legitimate complaints. I support understanding where people are coming from and letting them speak unfiltered, hearing what they say even if the way they say it is offensive.

But my defense of civility is almost purely pragmatic. Basic human biology prevents anger, hate, rudeness, and anything of that nature from being an effective tool of persuasion. That’s not to say that love, kindness, and civility will change any minds either (see the second paragraph), but hate, rudeness, and incivility definitely won’t — or they’ll at least make it more difficult.

When we say whatever we want to say however we want to say it, we trigger fight or flight responses. It is nearly impossible for someone in a fight or flight state to meaningfully absorb information, much less change their mind and make necessary changes. Some particularly gracious, patient, or obtuse people can struggle against the fight or flight state to engage with and process what you’re yelling at them. But that’s a difficult thing to do.

It’s inevitable that saying uncomfortable things will make people feel uncomfortable. Showing emotion of any kind, even if not directed toward another person, may trigger offense or anxiety. Even saying uncomfortable things civilly may trigger fight or flight responses, especially if that person has had those uncomfortable things screamed at them before.

That’s not on you. That’s on them.

And honestly, you might need a space or a moment to just speak your unfiltered mind, civility be damned. You might need catharsis. That’s fine too.

But if you want the best shot at having the other person hear you, understand you, and change her mind, then it is on you to speak the truth in a way that circumvents that fight or flight response as much as possible. It’s not fair, but it’s reality. For this purpose, I defend civility as a virtue.

 

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2 thoughts on “A Pragmatic Defense of Civility

  1. David

    I respect your ambivalence, but I hope you’ll let me offer a counterpoint: not all protests are aimed at persuasion.

    Sometimes the point is to say, as loudly as possible, “We will not submit.” (Understanding this, by the way, is the answer to a LOT of surly, resentful questions that religious conservatives ask about gay pride parades. They’re not “celebrations of lust,” as I saw one gentleman call them — the protesters are *aware* that conservatives want them to go back into the closet and suffer in silence. A float full of gyrating, scantily-clad young men sends a pretty direct answer: “not gonna.”)

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    • Bailey Steger

      Right! I wanted to qualify my support of civility with “if you want the best shot at persuading people.” Sometimes shouting your truth without wanting to persuade anybody is a much needed cathartic experience.

      I want to write a post about how both the speaker and the listener need to be aware of the difference. I think people get frustrated and discouraged when they aren’t quite sure if they’re speaking to persuade others or speaking for catharsis, and listeners don’t know how to respond either.

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