Coming up with a good definition is hard. And it’s not obvious that people are even really talking about the same thing when they identify an action or a situation as displaying civility or incivility.
So I’m wondering what kind of insight we can get by looking at some particular situations and deciding which side of the line it feels like they belong on.
Before I put the situations on the table, let me be transparent about how I’m making my calls: I’m going to be asking myself whether it feels like the people involved are showing each other respect, and I’m going to make a special effort to imagine myself on the receiving end of the action or behavior in question. (I’m also going to keep my calls to myself until other people have had a chance to weigh in. And I’m purposely choosing situations where it’s not totally clear to me what I think about the level of respect that’s coming across — so my judgments here are nothing like an official solution set!)
Case 1: “Climate Change — I care!”
From a post at The Island of Doubt:
Over at Linked In, the professionally oriented social networking service, there’s a discussion group called “Climate Change – I care!” Most of its members are those who share a concern for what anthropogenic global warming is threatening to do to civilization as we know it. Until this week, membership was open to anyone. But the moderator just ejected one member who has, shall we say, a contrarian point of view. …
The member, Leigh Haugen, only posted pseudoscientific rants about the conspiratorial nature of the entire climatology community, and if he does actually care about climate change, it’s clearly a different sort of care. At the beginning his occasional post was little more than annoying. It was a relatively simple and quick exercise to post a rebuttal with a reference to peer-reviewed science. Not that that would change Haugen’s mind, but at least the exchanges had the appearance of respectful back-and-forth.
But over the past weeks, Haugen’s posts became increasingly offensive. His last missive, apparently offered him as a farewell before being removed from the group, included a series of links to stories about the recent cold weather that has taken hold over much of North America and Europe, a plea to “spare me one of your ridiculous lectures about the difference between weather and climate,” an implication that one scientist quoted in a story about snowfall was getting rich off his research grant, and this sign-off:
Silence all Dissent! Avoid all debate!
Joseph Goebbels would be so proud of you!
…enjoy lying to each other – how fun and productive for you.
Was Leigh Haugen showing respect for the members group with his contrarian postings before he started comparing them to Nazis and liars? After?
Were the other members of the group showing respect for Leigh Haugen?
Was the ejection of Leigh Haugen from the group a respectful move?
(There may be relevant facts that we don’t have here — make the best call you can from the facts available.)
Case 2: And the conversation dies.
This situation is described by drdrA in a recent post at Blue Lab Coats:
I was at a meeting recently and I was walking around one of those infernal mixer type deals, that they always have at these things, chatting with people. And for the most part, that was all fine, and I’m usually quite comfortable with the random chit chat and walking up to complete strangers and starting a conversation about projects, or some other mutually interesting topic.
But then I had one of those weird socially awkward moments. I walked up to a good friend (a man), who was standing with a big group of men, senior in my field, that I had not previously been introduced to. My friend was lovely, and he introduced me to all the other men in the group one by one. Then, all the group conversation totally stopped DEAD. I felt incredibly awkward- it was as if I didn’t know the secret handshake or the men had to use some other language to deal with me. I suppose this incident sticks out in my head because I was the only woman in the group, and junior in the field.
Mere social awkwardness? Or was there some respectful way the group could have either included drdrA in the conversation they had been having, or shifted to a new topic of conversation that included her?
Was coming up to the group while it was in the middle of the conversation (and in effect getting that conversation to grind to a halt) a respectful move on drdrA’s part?
Case 3: Your connotations don’t look like mine.
Bikemonkey, in a guest post at DrugMonkey, explains why he’s less than thrilled that a professional cyclist of note has been tagged (by one of his pals) with the nickname “The Redneck”:
I like Horner as a pro cyclist. He’s got a great story in the US-favored vein. Hard luck guy, talented but never quite hits the top of the game. Shows a lot of promise and class but manages to break the hearts of his fans, year after year. Great stuff. Whenever he writes a riders’ diary or piece for his local paper, you feel like this is a likable dude.
He might be. Probably is. But when a guy he rides with calls him “The Redneck”, it gives me pause. Yeah, probably just his buddies joking around with him. Guy’s pretty pale and he spends a lot of time with the back of his neck exposed to the sun. Probably just Armstrong giving his teammate the Texas nickname treatment made famous by W.
I can understand that. But I’m not particularly interested in being a fan of bigots. When someone like Mel Gibson goes all wackanut, it decreases my enjoyment of his movies. Speaking here as someone who was and is squarely in the target demographic for the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon movies. Someone who enjoys semi-provocative film enough to be in the zone for his recent weird-ass director efforts. Just like I’m finding myself reaching for the radio knob when Keillor comes on in recent weeks.
Commenters on the post take issue with the meanings Bikemonkey imputes to the “redneck” label. For example:
If you want to define “redneck” as someone who likes cherry lollipops and drools a lot, that’s certainly your privilege. You can also define “wetback” as a passionate snorkeler. On the other hand, if you’re going to read meaning into what someone else writes, it’s a good idea to use the same semantics they do — and every source I have (including history) tells me that the defining characteristic of a “redneck” is “poor rural white.”
References: Edward Abbey’s “In Defense of the Redneck,” Jim Goad’s “The Redneck Manifesto: How Hillbillies, Hicks, and White Trash Became America’s Scapegoats”
Whether I stereotype someone on the basis of incomplete information is irrelevant to the connotation of “redneck”.
As you yourself put it, you’re leaping from the label (“redneck”) to a conclusion that the person in question is a bigot. That’s the same “logic” behind concluding that someone with dark skin is ignorant.
And, like all bigots, you’re most vehement when your prejudice is called out.
Given the wide use of the word by large parts of the country in a manner that rarely touches on the economic interpretation of the slur, let alone bearing connotations of “racist”, haven’t we established that perhaps you’re over reacting?
Now, if you have evidence that Lance grew up in an area in which “redneck” = “racist confederate-loving skinhead”, then you might be onto something.
Meanwhile, Dr. Isis goes the visual semiotics route and shows us what images Google Image search delivers for “redneck”.
So … we seeing an exchange about the historical and emotional baggage attached to the word “redneck” whose participants, while disagreeing with each other (strongly) are still showing each other respect?
If not, can you suggest some other way to have this discussion that might be more likely to really engage participants while helping them stay respectful of each other?
Or is this one of those topics that you’d want to avoid if at all possible in order to be able to respect other folks (and yourself)?
Case 4: A post of mine that substantial swaths of the internet view as downright mean.
[W]hen I claim that people who opt out of vaccination are free-riders on society, what I’m saying is that they are receiving benefits for which they haven’t paid their fair share — and that they receive these benefits only because other members of society have assumed the costs by being vaccinated.
The post in which I defend the claim that those who opt out of vaccination for communicable diseases are free-riders on those who get vaccinated has been linked in a number of parenting forums. Denizens of those forums who identify this post as disrespecting them significantly outnumber those who describe the post as respectful (even if they disagree with my conclusions).
Interestingly, in the science-y sector of the blogosphere, I am frequently told that I’m too nice in that post.
If I’m seriously committed to the whole respecting other people thing, what level of respect does a post like this (explaining the foreseeable consequences of a particular decision, and looking at these consequences in the context of ethics) need to achieve? What’s the clearest way to demonstrate that respect?
DId I succeed or fail at demonstrating that kind of respect in the post I actually wrote?
* * * * *
What I’m really interested in discovering here is how much we agreement we have in our basic assessments of whether a particular engagement, or attempt to engage, or decision to not engage, comes across as showing respect or disrespect. (This is different from whether it comes across as polite!)
And of course, if you want to explain why a particular situation reads the way it does to you, have at it.