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?