Only in the age of Twitter could the universalizable maxim “don’t be a jerk” somehow become a #slatepitch. With the increasing ideological segmentation of the American public, being nice to each other is more important than ever. But with incivility on the rise, some would make the argument that those of us worried about the rise of incivility in American life are nothing more than hand-waving monsters who wish not to debate issues on their merits.
Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig writes in “Civility, Outrage” of the problems of us civility-trolls:
1.) It’s just an aesthetic.
What I mean by this is that ‘civility’ isn’t actually hooked into a common sense of etiquette or formal public behavior anymore… it’s more about adopting the style of a particular class of discussion than anything else. When people call for civility, what they mean is that you should take whatever it is that’s being said, and rephrase it and reorient yourself until it comes off as similar in style to a kind of salon-esque neutral debate between equal arguers.
Bruenig has some correct arguments: civility is not always warranted, and civility-mongerers sometimes come off as, she says, pushing a mode of argument in which “all arguments [are] potentially equal in merit.” This calls to mind the internet saying “the amount of energy necessary to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.” There are some arguments that we want to signal to our friends are so far out of bounds that it’s not even important to address them seriously.
The problem is that polarization and incivility are on the rise. It’s not an argument made by Bruenig, but it often seems in the era of internet outrage that the interlocutors most accused of incivility are those who are the ones being uncharitable towards pretty widely-accepted ideas. Civility is not always warranted, but we should be civility maximalists so as to reach as wide an audience for our arguments as possible.
Bruenig is also right in saying that some civility-mongers’ motivating emotion is outrage. Plainly, it sucks to be called an asshole, a moral monster, or a peddler of bullshit. Perhaps there are an enlightened class of sociopaths for whom, so convinced of their righteousness, insults trigger nothing in their brains. Most people are not this way. Incivility triggers emotions.
Which brings us to, I think, the biggest problem with Bruenig’s argument. Civility is not merely an aesthetic. Incivility injects emotion into discourse, and emotion clouds our thinking. Mother Jones science correspondent Chris Mooney, in putting a spin on some new research, reported:
In a recent study, a team of researchers from the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication and several other institutions employed a survey of 1,183 Americans to get at the negative consequences of vituperative online comments for the public understanding of science… The text of the post was the same for all participants, but the tone of the comments varied. Sometimes, they were “civil”—e.g., no name calling or flaming. But sometimes they were more like this: “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these products, you’re an idiot.”
The researchers were trying to find out what effect exposure to such rudeness had on public perceptions of nanotech risks. They found that it wasn’t a good one. Rather, it polarized the audience: Those who already thought nanorisks were low tended to become more sure of themselves when exposed to name-calling, while those who thought nanorisks are high were more likely to move in their own favored direction. In other words, it appeared that pushing people’s emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs.
The use of incivility in discourse, in other words, does not help to convince anyone. It’s designed to inflame passion. Its use is more performance art than argumentation. It serves to rally those already predisposed to your “side” while shutting out those predisposed to the “other side.”
Incivility is pretty firmly on the rise in American society, and most people think serious problems have arisen. A yearly survey on civility finds that 81% of Americans believe an increase in incivility is leading to an increase in physical violence:
I think most of these people are wrong. I could call them intellectually-challenged asshats, to boot, but as discussed, that would likely make it likely that my argument falls on deaf ears. Instead, I could try to convince them that incivility is a milder problem than they think it is, even if it is dramatically on the rise.
Perhaps in some golden age of the 1950s that maybe didn’t even exist - perhaps in Pleasantville - we were on the wrong end of the civility bell curve. I think it’s clear that we’re no longer there, and the amount of incivility in society is possibly doing harm to our mental well-being, our moral fiber, and our public policy.