Monday, April 09, 2007

Civility.

Over here is an NYT article on blogging "civility". The tone of the article is generally favourable towards the idea of voluntary codes of conduct, but reasons why are thin on the ground. The idea seems to be that a voluntary code of conduct will somehow exert sufficient pressure on bloggers that "mean" or "nasty" comments and postings will be driven to the margins. (Let us ignore the implicit presumption that these are not generally marginal already.) I'm unclear how a voluntary code of conduct is supposed to perform this miracle. I'm also unclear as to why there's any pressing need to codify standards of discourse. My rule around here is simple: I decide what goes up and I decide what does not. My house, my rules (or, strictly, my judgement).

On a more important note, though, I do think that calls for civility in discourse are, more often than not, a form of cover: a way of trying to silence aggressive or controversial voices and views without engaging with their substance. (This is a common tactic of both the modern right and left, the former tending to appeal directly to courtesy, the latter to nebulous if not vacuous notions of "hate".) If a comment or other piece of writing is so far beyond the pale that it is directly harmful to someone, then the problem isn't that it's rude -- the problem is that it's wrong (and possibly illegal). But there's a space between writing that is wrong and writing that is (morally or legally) permissible, and it is in this space that the notion of civility would have real impact, for not all uncivil writing is wrong. And this is what I find to be cause for concern. That something is rude or mean or unpleasant doesn't imply that there's anything wrong with saying it, and, given what I've seen of codes of conduct in other contexts, a blogging code of conduct would probably collapse this distinction. Which would mean that, instead of addressing the issues and views raised in a "mean" comment, people could, by appeal to this code, simply dismiss the comment on the basis of "tone".

This is, at heart, a distortion of the notion of civil discourse. Civil discourse is not discourse in which no one's feelings are hurt or everyone "gets along". That's kindergarden. Civil discourse is importantly different, for it is a way of organizing debates and disputes between various camps such that they progress without lapsing into stalemate, violence, and other unproductive outcomes. And the reason this counts as "civil" is not, as said, because no one's feelings get hurt ("civil" does not necessarily mean "nice"), but because of the origins of "civility" (and, for that matter, "politeness"). Civility and politeness are the behaviour appropriate to people who live in cities; that is, people who live and work bunched up together, and somehow have to learn to get along without killing each other and have to learn how to advance their collective goals.

That should be the point of a code of "civil" conduct, but it is a point that is already well-served by two other sorts of codes: law and ethics (or, if you like, ethics contextualized). Anything else is either redundant (in which case, stupid but harmless) or an attempt to strangle views that one does not wish to address honestly and openly.

2 comments:

Psychols said...

Adam,

I envy you your background in philosophy. Who but a philosopher would question the call to civility and develop such a convincing argument.

Civility is certainly helpful in any debate but perhaps the system is somewhat self correcting. Rude or unlikeable individuals seldom convince anybody because most of us already marginalize and ignore them.

ADHR said...

Who would question it? I dunno... sane people? ;)

That's an aspect I didn't actually consider. I think it's just as worrying as a formal code, though, for just about the same reasons. It's easy to look at something you disagree with, pick out a word or phrase here or there, say "oh, it's rude!" and dismiss it. It's hard to face up to the idea that the tone isn't really the problem: the ideas and arguments are.