On fake civility

Jul 02 2011 Published by under academia, librarianship, social media

Libraryland is sometimes plagued with a civility problem.

We disagree but we want to be nice about it. But sometimes, being nice isn't a great way to express disagreement. Life and the world is messy and unkind and difficult. And sometimes our commitment to our ideas and passionate disagreements need to reflect that.

But the temptation for those in power -- those at whom the anger is often directed -- need to keep a lid on the very human anger and resentments that often boil over in what might seem like minor disagreements. It's hard to control those kinds of deep feelings and the best way to control the conversation can often be to control, diffuse and dispossess the anger.

Not always, of course, sometimes the anger can go overboard. Threats and serious character assassination aren't acceptable. But really, I think the bar should be very high before a call for civility is used to shut down the argument.

I like the way Bora Zivkovic puts it in a recent tweet:

Call for fake, condescending "civility" = avoidance of substance = maintaining the illusion that 'we are above you': http://wapo.st/kGzekv

The Washington Post article he points to is MSNBC's suspension of Mark Halperin is way over the top, about a commentator that was suspended for using some vaguely inappropriate language:

I'm sorry, but this is crazy. Halperin's crack was crude and dumb, but it doesn't deserve indefinite suspension. Halperin's use of an expletive is trival when compared with the degradation of our political discourse we witness on a regular basis from Halperin and many others -- degradation that is seen as perfectly acceptable because no curse words are employed. Suspending Halperin only reinforces a phony definition of "civility" in our discourse, in which it's unacceptable to use foul language and be "uncivil," but it's perfectly acceptable for reporters and commentators to allow outright falsehoods to pass unrebutted; to traffic endlessly in false equivalences in the name of some bogus notion of objectivity; and to make confident assertions about public opinion without referring to polls which show them to be completely wrong.


I care that Halperin does dumb things like parroting GOP predictions of a big victory when all available evidence is pointing the other way, as he famously did in the runup to the 2006 elections. I don't care as much that he used the word "dick." Suspending Halperin indefinitely for this only reinforces the bogus idea that a crass and dumb slip into foul language is worse than all this other stuff we see on a regular basis.

In other words, what he was really saying was discounted because he showed a bit of very human anger in the way he expressed himself.

Now, I'm not going to pretend I'm not incredibly torn by this whole issue. Slagging people left and right isn't discourse. No one should have total carte blanche in terms of insulting or accusatory language and behaviour. And no, I don't know what the boundaries are between "acceptable anger" and going too far.

And yes, I've been angry on the Internet in a way that perhaps wasn't the most productive. But I always hope that people will give me the benefit of the doubt when I overstep. And I always hope I'll have the courage and grace to give others that same benefit when their passion spills over a little into anger.

I really don't have definitive answers, only more questions.

What do you think?

And yes, feel free to let me know how you really feel, here or via email at jdupuis at yorku dot ca if you'd prefer not to go on the record.

8 responses so far

  • Leah Wescott says:

    I've seen colleagues and supervisors demand "civility" in situations in which they actually want avoidance of all conflict. As a result, the conflict finds a way to manifest itself, often as passive-aggressiveness, competitiveness and resentment. Opportunities to use disagreements as starting points for productive brainstorming are turned into moments of defeat and disempowerment. And thank goodness! If climates of healthy discourse emerged, The Cronk would be out of a job. Nobody wants that.

  • oldebabe says:

    FWIW, I agree with you. Using a currently contentious `cuss' word (dick, dickishness, DBAD, etc.) is no worse than, and really not as bad as, some of the stuff that is being said consistently, using adjectival descriptions of persons by media and elsewhere of course. It was obviously, not very smart (churlish, at the very least)to use it to describe one's feeling about a President of ones own country, but... And the man DID apologize...

    There seems to be a trend lately that everyone has to publicly apologize for everything and anything that may have been said that affronts another. This is useless. While some things are obviously inappropriate to many, who is to determine the extent of criticism and/or civility? If the Supremem Court says it's okay for people to blatantly deride a dead person at a funeral for that deceased...

  • Kerau Fike says:

    I heartily agree with this post. More discussions have been destroyed by overzealous moderation than by all trolls and assholes combined, by far. It takes a microsecond to skip a comment you don't want to read. Moderators can't be ignored. And the feminists have the goods on what "civility" itsself is really usually about anyway.

    Dean's corner right here on sciblogs prohibits profanity I found out recently. I always thought that guy was a wafflehead and now I know for sure (with the latest repugnican apologetics especially).

    Greg laden had an arguably more worisome policy - basically anything he didn't like, but checking again (about page) he seems to have changed it, although I doubt he has at heart. And yes there are some legit practical benefits of such an approach but that still leaves the downsides. It would be fine except when you start talking about important issues like wikileaks and he doesn't like being told he's wrong or otherwise doesnt like the way things are going.

    PZ is generally very good, but he does not allow anonymous commenting, which is a real problem when you start talking about serious government related issues (like the recent murder by cop of the carpenter) because it makes it impossible to speak frankly - lest the government put you under surveilance (or mugh worse). Remember, the NSA vacuums up essentially all telecommunications in the US and data mines it. All. This posted through tor.

  • Phillip IV says:

    I'm a big fan of fake civility in real life, especially at work and with neighbors - in many cases it can prevent a momentary aggravation from becoming a permanent liability in a relationship.

    On the Internet, I've got a lot less use for it - especially in a forum where everyone uses a pseudonym, or at least isn't acquainted with each other in meatspace, I don't see why you shouldn't call a spade a spade.

    Halperin's case is yet different. His suspension is absolutely correct, in my opinion - his job description is being a political analyst, and his demonstrated personal dislike for a major political figure destroys any pretense at impartiality he had had. Of course, the WaPo blogger points out quite correctly that a pretense at impartiality was all he's ever had - he never did any objective analysis, he only pretended to while actually being a political entertainer. In many ways, this resembles the cant of Victorian morals - everyone really knew that Lord Kitchener was gay and that Queen Victoria was doing the stable-lad, but as long as the flimsiest pretense to the opposite wass offered, everyone was expected to pretend they hadn't noticed.

  • Bob O`Bob says:

    I'm not sure that "real" civility exists. And even if it does, in any context where it did, it would seem to be unnecessary. When people *actually* respect each other, and that respect is trusted all around, plenty of "fake incivility" is usually perfectly acceptable.

    Sorry that I got hung up on the title, but I think that civility probably is, in practice, nearly *all* faked.

  • John Dupuis says:

    Thanks everybody. Keep the comments coming!

  • In general, I do my best to be civil, both in my professional life and my personal life, and I expect the same from the people around me. I especially expect it from people in the course of their work, and this includes professional journalists.

    Having said that, I'm not in favour of giving individual words more weight than they deserve. After all, words are just tools we use to get ideas across. I'm reminded of George Carlin's Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV:

    "Bad Words. That's what they told us they were, remember? "That's a bad word!" No bad words, bad thoughts, bad intentions, and words."

    If I were Mr. Halperin's supervisor, I would certainly have called him into my office and asked him to show a little more professionalism. But I would not have suspended him, even temporarily, for such a minor infraction.

  • Elizabeth Brown says:

    Great post! I agree our profession doesn't learn how to argue - other disciplines do a much better job of integrating conflict into classes, discussions, etc as a means to reach consensus. I see a lot of conversations where each participant is convinced they have the "correct" answer. The Tiaga Forum is a really good example of this - there's been more focus about the tone of the work and the message that this tone sends than the ideas and content in the statements.

    As far as being angry, I think our culture both glorifies and shames those who become angry in public. This double message just makes the whole discussion more polarizing.

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