Adventures in Ethics and Science

In preparation for our session at ScienceOnline2010, Dr. Isis asks:

I talked to my two lovely, delightful, and beloved comoderators last night, I couldn’t help but think that we were approaching this from different experiences and, potentially, with different goals. That made it hard for me to figure out what having me there might add to our discussion, other than to cross the line in some way. I realized that some of my discomfort might come from the fact that I’m not sure that we are all defining “civil” in the same way. …
[T]o get the discussion going here and help me in crafting my portion of the session, let me ask you to provide an answer,

What is the definition of “civility”?
And believe me when I say, I will disemvowel the first one of you to quote me the dictionary definition.  How’s that for civil?

I’m not going to even try to give necessary and sufficient conditions for X to be civil. I’m still working out what I think. But I’m going to see if I can move this along just a little.

When, partway through a conversation, one participant says to another, “I don’t think you’re being very civil,” what’s happening?

It’s likely that there are different things happening in different instances, but it a lot of these cases, it seems to me that something like the following might be going down:

Participant A says participant B is not being civil (although participant B thinks that she is being civil to participant A, and she may even say so in response to the claim that she’s not). What participant A is trying to communicate is that she doesn’t think participant B is treating her with the regard to which she’s entitled and/or that participant B is not showing participant A the same regard that participant A is showing participant B.

In other words, my working hypothesis is that civility is, at its core, a matter of treating the persons with whom your engaging with a certain kind of respect. Arguably, this means we’re talking about the substance of interactions, not just surface niceties.

Of course, there’s a lot we could unpack as far as what entitles someone to a particular level of regard (and about whether people are generally successful at extending to others the same level of regard to which they feel entitled themselves). Personally, I’m inclined to believe that there’s a certain level of regard that we owe each other as fellow human beings. I’m also inclined to believe that avoiding hurt feelings at all costs would fall short of the regard we owe each other (since this would preclude honest engagement around difficult but important subjects). But, my hunch is that there are situations where one party will view another as being uncivil and where that other party will really believe that she is being civil. To me, getting to the bottom of what’s going on in these situations is much more interesting than focusing on situation where someone claims she’s being civil but actually knows that she’s not.

What’s up when B thinks she’s being civil to A and A thinks she isn’t? Maybe there’s a disagreement about the particular kind of regard they owe to each other (or how far that extends — can I separate my regard for you as a person from my regard for your beliefs, your goals, your interests, your tastes, the company you keep, etc.?). Maybe there’s a disagreement about the goals of engaging with each other. Maybe there’s a disagreement, whether conscious or unconscious, about whether all of the participants are really entitled to the same level of regard.

Or maybe there’s a gap between intentions and effects — between the level of regard one means to show and how it comes across to the other person. Possibly, too, a single such instance of actions falling short of intentions ends up being part of a pattern — which can give one participant’s imperfect execution of good intentions one time more negative heft to the person on the receiving end.

There is lots more to think about here, but I have to scoot to a meeting. In the meantime, please chime in to let me know if you think this is a reasonable way to begin unpacking good faith disagreements about whether things are civil or uncivil. If I’m off base, what is it you are really looking for from online civility?

Comments

  1. #1 david
    January 5, 2010

    In my opinion, this discussion is another form of “framing science” which has come up before online. But I will chime in with some observations and questions.

    What milieu is calling for this civility? such various milieus exist then, but do you want to give respect to them, always, overriding truth or competence and supporting pretense? Um, reminds me of the Victorian Bishop’s wife at a soiree who upon hearing that man might be descended from an ape, said, “Let us hope that it is not true, and that if it is, it does not become widely known.”

    And here are some words I foresee needing explanations, because their usage I see is rather private, border eccentric sometimes when inspected.

    “deserve”– what does that mean and who all decides and then what are the different things done? then, so what?

    “respect”– originally based on “fear” (still some sense of that in the French usage). No reason to fear someone on the internet. What is it now? Then, “disrespect” and “dissing,” what are they now?

    There seems to be a perception that science blogging is different from other blogging, If so, how so?

    All this has happened before. TH Huxley was accused by some of being “disrespectful” to Bishop Wilberforce, and Darwin’s Captain Fitzroy, who was present, accused him of being disrespectful to the Bible.

    Ever heard of “herding cats”? And why not? :)

  2. #2 Miki Z
    January 5, 2010

    I think you’d find if you ran a study that the statement “I think you’re being uncivil” is qualitatively different than the thought “you’re being uncivil”. It’s hard to judge motives online — perhaps more accurately it’s hard to know if those judgments are correct — but in most of the online conversations where someone has said “I think you’re being uncivil” that person is often the aggressor. The accusation of incivility is used as a tool to cast the other party in the wrong.

    My personal supposition, based on the WGBON* method is that in an online conversation saying “I think you’re being uncivil” is nearly always a manipulative technique: if the offense were real, the person would leave; offense is being feigned to excuse poor reasoning, proud ignorance, or open hostility.

    I think actual incivility is rarely commented upon by either of the parties to the argument, even when it’s obvious to all.

    *Wild Guess Based On Nothing

  3. #3 Janet D. Stemwedel
    January 5, 2010

    david @1, I’m a little frightened that the general topic has the appearance of being of a piece with “framing science”, because I struggled mightily to understand what that was about and am completely unconvinced that I succeeded! I think I’m with you, though, in believing that truth can be more valuable than politeness (or whatever the other option is in a given case). It is the truth-valuing, by the way, that I most often hear cited as the thing that makes the science-y blogosphere different than other sectors of blogtopia. (I suspect, though, that plenty of political bloggers, sports bloggers, knitting bloggers, etc., are truth fanciers.)

    Miki Z @2, I think you’re right that the claim “You’re being uncivil!” seems to shift things in a discussion — at the least, it seems to impose a burden on the person so identified to establish that she’s *not* being uncivil. This may well be a diversionary tactic (especially in cases where the person making the charge doesn’t really believe it — that’s why I specified the “arguing in good faith” bit), and even in cases where it isn’t intended as a diversionary tactic, the charge may be unfair.

    I’m not sure that precludes there being cases where the charge is fair, and where dealing with the problem is necessary for the conversation and/or the relationship to move forward.

    Also, not everyone leaves when offense is real. There may be more opportunities to do so online than offline (when, say, your boss or parent or partner is in the habit of offending you), but even online some people stay to try to deal with it. Sometimes it’s because you’re not ready to cede your online community (or indeed, your own blog) to the assholes. Sometimes it’s because you’re optimistic that the person you’re dealing with would be open to changing if she really understood the effects of what she was doing (which, arguably, is less likely if you don’t say anything at all about those effects).

  4. #4 Chris Clarke
    January 5, 2010

    I very much value collegiality and friendliness and constructiveness online, and I occasionally lump those all together as “civility” in my mind as a bit of shorthand. I also am pretty damned over the kind of discourse that seems to be de rigeur on a lot of blogs but would get you thrown out of a bar if tried in real life.

    That said, I have noticed that a non-trivial number of calls for “civility” come from people who have been raked over the coals for offensive, injurious behavior clothed in polite language.

    I blathered away on that kind of “civility” at some length some time ago: it’s here if anyone’s interested.

  5. #5 Miki Z
    January 5, 2010

    I know you’re talking about the “arguing in good faith”. I think that often those abusing the call really believe that they are making the call in good faith, that people are being unfair to them. I think it relates back to what David says in #1 about first needing to frame the discussion. At a cocktail party (do people still have those?) telling uncomfortable truths is not civil. In a discussion of facts, that would be a crippling stricture.

  6. #6 ARJ
    January 5, 2010

    In part I think there are generational and certainly contextual differences here — for an older generation certain words were probably inherently “uncivil,” but for today’s 20-somethings I’m not sure that words are ever “uncivil” — punching someone in the nose may be uncivil, but words are just sounds or markings (so get a thick skin).
    And contextually, civility on a blog is definitely different from civility in a more professional realm, like a journal or professional discussion group.

  7. #7 Grant
    January 6, 2010

    Janet, two quick thoughts:

    I’m always wary of the word respect when used with the implication that you’re obliged to give it to others. To me respect is something you earn, not a “right”: to get respect you need to give others something that they might respect.

    There is an understanding that there is some sort of “neutral level” that you treat others you’ve yet to know, or what to present yourself neutrally too (which involves a certain amount of pretence, I guess), which is where civility comes in to play IMHO.

    I think of civility as the “accepted practice” of a group. It differs in different groups. I think the original blog post has an important role in setting the tone or “accepted ground” expected, as it were.

    Oh, and one more: I struggle(d) with framing too!! I’ve written a piece about this that I’ve yet to put up with, but basically I decided “stuff it” and defined it for myself, based on a few words from Laskoff and I brief moment of thinking. Got sick of trying figure out just what it was that Nisbet (etc.) meant, especially as I couldn’t find a clear definition from them.

  8. #8 Nick
    January 6, 2010

    I’m not prepared to propose a sufficient set of conditions for civility, but I think I can suggest some things that are inherently uncivil:

    Ad hominem attacks (including attacking the motives of one’s opponents rather than their actual arguments) are uncivil.

    Responding to arguments that weren’t actually put forth, or willfully disregarding arguments that were, is uncivil. (Human fallibility in reading comprehension and clear writing can confound identification of this incivility.)

    Derailing a discussion about a subject into a discussion about the civility of the discussion is uncivil.

    I’m sure that there are more…

  9. #9 BugDoc
    January 6, 2010

    Perhaps it’s easier to judge the civility of conversations by looking at whether the focus of comments is the question at hand, or discrediting the character of the participants. For example, one could say ” I disagree with the scenario you proposed because the data demonstrate otherwise” or since you are an annoying blog troll, I don’t believe you know anything about this issue”. One is civil and one isn’t, regardless of the specific nature of the comments.

  10. #10 Paul W.
    January 6, 2010

    Count me in as one of the people who thinks that substance —serious engagement with arguments—is far more important than anything else in determining what’s civil.

    My experience is colored by years of participation in the Framing Wars and the New Atheists vs. Accommodationist wars.

    IMHO, the least civil bloggers that I read regularly are, ironically, Chris Mooney and your co-panelist Sheril Kirshenbaum. They are the last to address an actual position or argument by the people the criticize, and the first to cry foul if somebody says so in “loaded” language, and they don’t set a good example in the comments on their blog.

    One problem exhibited on their blog is that they generally don’t respond to critical comments, no matter how politely worded they are, or how often they’re repeated. (At least, they don’t reply substantively. They often whine about being criticized, without seriously addressing whether the criticism is accurate.) They write the blog as if they were writing op-eds for a newspaper, and don’t engage their critics. There is no feedback, and that’s frustrating for someone who is used to blogs with a lively community and bloggers who engage with their community.

    With respect to the New Atheism, they and their supporters generally stonewall about actual bones of contention, and repeat the same two major straw-man assertions that they’ve been making for literally years. But when their critics get tired of that and resort to calling a spade a spade, they’re attacked as “uncivil.”

    To people like me, that comes across as rude as hell. If you won’t respond to your readers’ serious objections to your arguments, you don’t deserve to have any readers. They seem to expect a degree of deference that they don’t reciprocate, and get all huffy when the lack of respect is reciprocated.

    (And they quote-mine their “rude” critics, omitting the substance of the criticism, e.g., why P.Z. eventually told someone to fuck off after what was arguably some very serious and repetitive substantive provocation on their part.)

    I recently did an experiment hanging around The Intersection for a month and countering the anti-New Atheist talking points by pointing out that they were repeatedly parading two big straw men, and asking a couple of pointed questions about them. Over and over and over again, maybe dozens of times.

    Not once did Chris or Sheril or any of their supporters answer either of those questions. It was amazing and morbidly fascinating. I have never seen such a concerted display of stonewalling on the internet. (And I’ve been on the net since before it was The Internet, using the arpanet and USENET news) Several of their supporters heaped ad hominems and general invective on me, for a month, for repeatedly asking the same two questions and repeatedly pointing out that nobody was answering them.

    To me, that was the rudest behavior I’ve ever seen in over three decades of online discussions in science forums and social-issues forums. You just don’t stonewall for a month about very basic and sincere clarifying questions from somebody who displays a serious knowledge of the subject and keeps trying to engage the substance. (And nothing I was saying was new; they’ve been stonewalling many people about the same questions for literally years.) I wasn’t shocked that Chris and Sheril themselves didn’t respond, but I was amazed by their supporters being able to stonewall so consistently as well; usually somebody can’t help but break ranks and say something of substance.

    To Chris and Sheril’s credit, they let almost all of my posts through, even when I was saying pretty bluntly why I think that they are persistently and consistently dishonest about that subject. I found that kind of weird, too. They really do seem to draw lines about acceptable behavior in places I find weird.

    (To me it’s much worse to be called dishonest than, say, an asshole; the latter is clearly an expression of an attitude, which can mostly be ignored, but the former is very serious indeed.)

  11. #11 Paul W.
    January 6, 2010

    Janet and Grant,

    If you don’t understand what framing is from Mooney & Nisbets presentations, you’re not alone.

    I actually studied framing (a bit) with Lakoff, so I probably have a better idea of it than most.

    One thing about Lakoff-style framing is that it’s best applied in contexts where you have a limited TV time or print space to get your view across, or just a limited attention span from somebody in an elevator, and do not have time to convincingly rebut your opponents’ points as well.

    It is infuriating when people do it on blogs, where you can write as much as you want to explain your view, get comments, and respond to comments… it often amounts to avoiding serious underlying issues, and going for the short-term win by pumping intuitions that people already
    share, rather than the long-term win of changing those intuitions. (They never address Overton Window arguments, which are about long-term shifts in public opinion.)

    I think that’s why so many people got annoyed and disillusioned with Nisbet and Mooney. They not only discuss framing, they use that style in writing their blogs—as though what we needed was soundbites and talking points, rather than a serious discussion of deeper issues.

    Basically, they talk down to us, and a lot of us think we can see through them, and it’s very irritating.

    Another problem is that some of Lakoff’s best stuff is about certain aspects of liberal vs. conservative politics, where you’re pumping intuitions that you think are actually valid.
    (If you’re a liberal.) Those are things that you think are true, but don’t have time to explain, so you just hit the highlights and punch the hot buttons that work in your favor. So it might be slanted, of necessity, but it’s not basically dishonest.

    When Mooney and Nisbet try to apply that sort of strategy to the New Atheism, they end up advocating things that many of us think are basically dishonest. (I don’t think that Mooney or Nisbet honestly believe some of the things that they say, and want us to either say or shut up about because our views are inconvenient truths.) We can’t go there, especially since we think that it’s giving away the store in the long run, due to Overton Window issues. We honestly think it’s the kind of appeasement that’s likely to make things worse.

  12. #12 Grant
    January 6, 2010

    [off-topic: framing]

    Paul,

    Thanks for you comment. That’s basically why I decided to go back to Laskoff myself and work forwards, figuring I might see the general idea better. (Nisbet and co. write more about what they want framing to achieve that what it is, which is frustrating if you’ve no idea what it is they are asking you to do.) I’m familiar with the Overton Window concept. I think there are other issues. I’ll try get my own post on this up soonish (meaning in the next few days).

  13. #13 Jeffrey
    January 6, 2010

    I don’t know that ad hominems are necessarily uncivil or invalid. For example, when someone says that diet and meditation can help cure cancer and cite Deepak Chopra, it’s perfectly fine to point out that Chopra thinks that “every cell instantly knows what is happening in every other cell, in fact, in the whole universe.” It’s a shortcut to eliminate crappy evidence.

    It is kinda useless when you’re trying to convince the person you’re ad homineming, but if that person isn’t there or are unlikely to convince them anyway, I don’t see any reason not to go ahead.

  14. #14 Gloria
    January 15, 2010

    Looking forward to seeing your presentation at ScienceOnline.

    I have one basic rule of online civility– I won’t say anything to anyone online that I wouldn’t say directly to their face if they were standing in front of me. I run a blog and even when people comment on it with criticism, I treat them with this rule in mind.

    I’ve found that others don’t do the same.

    I often read science blogs, and I have encountered what I consider to be incivility a few times. One example– a science blogger wrote a political post, stating something as a fact which was pretty debatable. I provided an anecdote that refuted much of what the person stated as fact, and she replied back that I was lying, and who was I anyway? I didn’t reply at all and never went back to her blog (actually, that’s probably exactly what she wanted!), but I lost respect for her. I imagine others must have had similar experiences with her. I never had someone call me a liar to my face in non-virtual life; I don’t know why I should have to put up with that online, either.

    A more egregious example was a post on Tetrapod Zoology, where the blogger basically called a scientist an idiot. I replied that I didn’t think that was very polite or something to that effect, and he should post an actual criticism rather than name calling, and man I really got it from a lot of commenters over there. I wasn’t even sure if the man originally criticized was correct, but I think the basics of civility mean that if you call someone an idiot you clearly state why and give facts to back yourself up. That blogger was refuted by many articulate comments, and his side just resorted to ad hominems and name calling without addressing anything of substance. It was the opposite of anything you could call science.

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