Civility, Call-Outs, and Monsters

02.26.2013, 9:00 AM

It turns out, other people on Internet like to talk about civility too!

Over at Camels With Hammers, philosophy professor Dan Fincke has stirred up the skeptic/atheist blogosphere by writing a rather lengthy, detailed civility pledge.  The lawyer part of me is intrigued by the depth and precision of it, even as I have reservations about its pragmatic application and even as the cynical (or hopeful? it’s good to have these conversations, right?!) part of me foresees endless pedantic meta-debates in its future (or maybe that’s the lawyer part of me too).

On an individual commenter level, managing his 13 rules (and many, many more sub-rules) in addition to contributing substantive points to a conversation, seems like a lot for any person’s mind to juggle. In the midst of considering and re-considering whether the words one wants to use are the most accurate, precise, and civil words one could be using, is it normal to be like, “Wait….. what did I want to say, again?”

Nonetheless, what I appreciate about his pledge is its suggestion that civility in contentious conversations is both a difficult and a worthwhile aim. And, I agree with much of his pledge, even if I think it would be impossible for even a saint to be 100% compliant with it.

Beyond perhaps the more obvious tenets such as not assuming bad faith, are maybe less obvious ones like holding our allies to the same standards we want to see in our opposition and not implying that people we disagree with are necessarily “stupid” or “crazy.”  I say these latter tenets seem less obvious because I don’t see them regularly practiced in the blogosphere, or in more traditional avenues of punditry actually. Conceding that people we like or people we are politically aligned with sometimes act in problematic ways seems to be too much of a concession than what many people are regularly willing to make.

While I was more active in the atheist and skeptic blogosphere in the earlier days of my blogging, I retreated from it in large part because of some of its participants’ incivility toward both religious people and feminists. I just altogether stopped reading blogs where it seemed like every day the headlines bemoaned how some “idiot,” “wingnut,” “lunatic,” or “crazy” person said this or that thing that the blogger felt was so self-evidently wrong that it required no actual rebuttal. Besides, it seems to be a form of microaggression to read bigoted statements over and over again that are never actually substantively addressed.  Do the heterosexual ally atheists continually citing homobigoted statements ever think about that potential impact on their LGBT readers?  But that’s a whole other can of worms (that anyone’s welcome to address).

Becoming more active in feminist blogging, over the years, allowed me to participate with other skeptic/agnostic-leaning communities for whom feminism was not self-evidently irrational or unworthy of being seriously discussed. And, in feminist blogging, I found that people seemed more willing to call out ableist language suggesting that one’s political opponents were intellectually inferior, mentally unstable, or disabled by sheer virtue of their political opposition. Feminist Internet is notorious, or famous, for its Call-Out Culture! Can you believe it? LOL.

To end, I think civility is important to continually strive for in debate primarily because it recognizes the human dignity of those we disagree with. Yet, like Fincke, it has a practical side as well. He writes:

“When you challenge people you make them uncomfortable. They would rather, if they can find some fault in your demeanor, blame you for being a bad person rather than have to consider that it is the truth of your ideas that is the problem. So why give them the actual evidence you’re a disrespectful person that encourages them in their preferred narrative?”

In my experience, many people approach Internet debate as though an enemy is lurking within everyone who disagrees with them. Oftentimes, the assumption is that those who disagree are acting in bad faith, being “disingenuous,” and perhaps being hellbent on destroying society [or something else most people care strongly about].  Many people have a lot invested in thinking the worst of their political opponents, and when we are uncivil, we confirm that narrative and give our political opponents an excuse to disengage and to not take our substantive arguments seriously.

It is easy, lazy, and oftentimes inaccurate to think of our political opponents as monsters with whom we have little in common. And in that shared belief, many people of all political persuasions have more in common with one another than they’d ever care to admit.


32 Responses to “Civility, Call-Outs, and Monsters”

  1. Diane M says:

    Wow! That is one fantastic pledge!

    I have to get some work done, so I’ll try to be brief.

    I think it would be hard to live up to, particularly ideas like always speaking sincerely and being ready to learn from the other person. (Not using certain words is not actually as hard.)

    And if people aren’t acting in good faith, it would be nearly impossible to enforce – you could end up endlessly arguing that you aren’t really listening to me, no you aren’t. (Come to think of it, I’ve probably had that argument with my husband. :-))

    Anyhow, it’s a good pledge to think about living up to.

  2. Diane M says:

    This fits my experience. Not just in the blogosphere but on Facebook and sometimes just in everyday discussions with friends.

    “Holding our allies to the same standards we want to see in our opposition and not implying that people we disagree with are necessarily “stupid” or “crazy.” I say these latter tenets seem less obvious because I don’t see them regularly practiced in the blogosphere, or in more traditional avenues of punditry actually. Conceding that people we like or people we are politically aligned with sometimes act in problematic ways seems to be too much of a concession than what many people are regularly willing to make.”

  3. Teresa says:

    Geez, I’m so happy, Fannie, that you Posted on the topic of civility. I wanted someone to do just that for sometime now, because I take it very seriously and I want to be better at it … because I value my neighbor.

    I’ve been curious about your stance on civility, and how you correct people who breach the civility wall. I’m going to take sometime to reflect on the ’13 rules’, but much more on the whole idea and how you do it. My first takeaway is for me to place myself as a student when someone else is talking … they have something to teach me, I have something to learn.

    I’ll be back after I know a bit more of what I’m talking about. :)

  4. fannie says:

    Hi Teresa,

    As for correcting people who breach civility, my personal opinion is that I prefer to tell people why I think they are being uncivil, as opposed to just deleting their commentary without explanation. That’s what I tend to do at my own blog, as I think that approach can be informative, at least to others, even if the person being corrected ends up feeling defensive or “attacked.”

    And along those lines, which makes that approach tricky, is that I also don’t think very many people are into receiving this sort of feedback- feeling that it’s condescending, patronizing, and/or uncivil itself. There’s a lot of weight to feeling like one is being accused of being sexist, racist, homophobic, or otherwise uncivil, and those kinds of labels can really make people shut down and dis-engage.

    So, my short answer is, I think it’s complicated.

    And, it gets more complicated when someone has been hurtful or problematic without intending to be, because many times, such people don’t feel that they anything to correct or apologize for. To them, the other person is the problem for being “too PC” or “too oversensitive.”

    The best I can do is try to articulate why I find something problematic, hurtful, or offensive- and to try not to immediately go to that “OMG you’re an evil, awful person!” place. And, in the case of a written civility policy, I try to explain why I think a statement doesn’t meet that standard. (I also don’t think I do any of this perfectly, but I do think it’s important to try).

    On a broader note, and I’ve said this before, I don’t think US society is very good at teaching people to respect other people’s boundaries- and this is especially true, I think, for people in marginalized groups whose boundaries are deemed as especially unworthy of being respected. This disrespect of people’s humanity shows in a lot of Internet commentary that I see, especially in forums where “anything goes.”

    Every now and then, it seems like the mainstream does some soul searching for about 2 seconds, after various tragedies like teen suicides or shootings, where people pay lip service to ideals of peace, non-violence, and anti-bullying. But, putting those ideals into actual practice, in actual conversations where individuals, agencies, advocacy groups, politicians, and even nations, are greatly disagreeing, is much more difficult than uttering platitudes.

  5. Diane M says:

    There are times when people are uncivil without realizing it, but a great deal of the rude behavior on the Internet is something people don’t do in face-to-face conversations. They do know better.

    There are also a lot of rules that people could understand. Being always trying to listen to the truth of someone else’s viewpoint is hard, but don’t use sarcasm or ad hominem attacks or straw-man arguments is not.

    I think that the fundamental barrier to civil behavior on the Internet is that we (the blogosphere) are not serious about enforcing it. If people who insult others are just not allowed to comment, people will stop doing it. Most websites are out for comments and page hits, so they don’t really want to stop nasty conflicts. In addition, they probably don’t have the time or money to hire someone to moderate all the comments.

    There are more subtle ways people insult each other or people they disagree with and I don’t think you could just forbid that in the same way. Then you would need explanations.

    There’s also the issue that trust makes a difference. If you’re going to listen to someone’s viewpoint, you want to be sure that they are sincere and not being sarcastic and that they will listen. To me the pledge the man is proposing sounds a little bit like unilateral disarmament. Maybe that’s too cynical, but I don’t wonder about it.

  6. annajcook says:

    If people who insult others are just not allowed to comment, people will stop doing it.

    While this sounds simple on the surface, Diane, I think it’s actually really hard to agree on what counts as “insulting.” Some things are easily (or widely) identified as insulting; others are not. Take, for example, the recent discussion we had here at FSB about the use of humor in mixed company, and how it can hook into larger discourses of shame and marginalization and bullying for some readers and not others. Who gets to decide what is an insult? Obviously, the blog moderator (here, as elsewhere). But those decisions are always made by humans and often contested (silently or not!) but folks who believe something NOT insulting was deleted, or something that WAS insulting slipped through.

  7. fannie says:

    Anna and Diane,

    I agree that in practice it’s really difficult for people, especially in “mixed-company,” to agree on what counts as insulting. As a reader of many blogs of varying political backgrounds, I’m somewhat intrigued by the differences I see with respect to blog comment moderation and what does and doesn’t count as civil or insulting.

    I’ve participated in blog conversations where opponents of SSM were talking about how homosexuality was obviously a mental illness, but where I was simultaneously pre-warned that I could participate in the conversation as an open lesbian “only if” I were nice to these participants. At some of the progressive blogs I read, it wouldn’t even be considered “civil” to treat the topic of homosexuality as a mental illness as a matter of legitimate debate.

    The people who moderate blogs hold power to define what is and isn’t civil or insulting in their spaces. Of course, people are still free to hold their own opinions. It’s just interesting to me to see how differently people’s conceptions are of what counts as civil and uncivil.

  8. Teresa says:

    Fannie, I just read The Camels With Hammers Civility Pledge. I’m wondering if civility is breached if we go off-topic from the original Post (not mindfully) or if we comment on another’s off-topic comment.

    I think it may be, because the OP had definite reasons for creating the Post, and to take if off-topic seems a transgression. I’ve done it myself, and continued commenting on another’s off-topic comment. I don’t like it when I do it.

    I’d appreciate your comments, and anyone else’s on this.

  9. fannie says:

    Teresa,

    That’s a good point. My thinking on the matter is that the person who wrote the post, as the one who put effort into creating the article, is the one who generally gets to decide if commenters can go off topic- especially when comments are capped out a certain number.

    And, on a similar note, I’d suggest that, when comments are capped, people try not to leave a string of multiple, one-liner comments, and instead try to consolidate their thoughts into less frequent, but longer posts. That way the conversation isn’t as…. monopolized.

  10. Hector says:

    Fannie,

    It’s strange to me that you would think that our public discourse in this country isn’t polite or civil enough. my perception is the exact opposite, I think political discourse in this country is muffled and crippled because people start immediately sympathizing with anyone whose feelings get hurt. I’m not a believer, personally , in trying to be polite and circumspect all the time: I believe in calling out folly, wickedness and immorality where I see them. as I recall, Our Lord wasn’t averse to using harsh language against those who deserved it, either.

    The sheer gall of a lot of people nowadays who expect never have their feelings hurt, is something to behold. Rod Dreher has a great post about how once he was at lunch with a couple Manhattan feminists, who were outraged when they heard he was pro life, and said they felt personally threatened or not safe or something. my response to them would have been, simply, ‘grow up’.

  11. Hector says:

    I had a hard time reading through that Camels with Hammers blog post, I kept thinking it was a sort of parody of political correctness, and I was amazed it was actually meant seriously.

    Refraining from calling people stupid, really? This is too good to be true. who does that?

  12. mythago says:

    Refraining from calling people stupid, really? This is too good to be true. who does that?

    Christians, presumably. (Matthew 5:22)

  13. fannie says:

    Hector,

    I’m not at all surprised you feel the way you feel, or by your absurd straw-characterization of my post or the Camels with Hammers one.

    Some people will never be convinced that civility is a more worthwhile aim than beating people over the head with what they believe is Absolute Truth. Instead of listening to people’s experiences with abuse and pain, some people just like to gaslight and imply that the problem isn’t the abuser, but the abused, for being too sensitive.

    I’m not sure it’s possible to engage in meaningful conversation with someone who is so dismissive and trivializing of, not only my post, but the current state of discourse in which it’s apparently A-OK to call a pre-teen girl in a movie a “c*nt” and to call people on the other side of debates “wingnuts” and “crazies.”

    I expect more from people and from a civilized society. And, your nearly every comment in this space indicates that you don’t. Okay.

    So, what exactly are you doing in this space? Are you just here to mock and ridicule?

    What’s perhaps most notable about your post is that we get to see atheists, agnostics, and skeptics being more dedicated to civility, understanding, and compassion than an avowed in-your-face Christian.

  14. mythago says:

    Some people will never be convinced that civility is a more worthwhile aim than beating people over the head with what they believe is Absolute Truth.

    Oh, I don’t know. I find it pretty amusing to see a cry for ‘a return to civility’ and ‘why are they so mean and calling us bigots?!’ from the same folks who, not so long ago, sneered about political correctness and oversensitivity.

  15. fannie says:

    It’s all PC Gone Too Far until someone gets called a bigot.

    ;-)

    I do find it frustrating when people trot out the “PC gone awry” complaint claiming that important truths are being sacrificed in favor of not hurting people’s feelings.

    For one, racist, sexist, and homophobic statements aren’t just uncivil because they are often hurtful, they are uncivil because they are often not true.

    And secondly, I’m not sure the extent to which people of relative privilege fully appreciate the eggshell-walking-on that, say, LGBT people and allies engage in when we engage people arguing against our basic rights and equality. Even if we believe that a person is a bigot, or holds bigoted views, the moment we actually utter that, the conversation is often shut down.

    So, it’s tricky to know how to ever call out someone’s problematic or hurtful behavior. As tough and Not Sensitive as some people say they are, many people cannot receive even the most tepid criticism that they might have been acting in any way, even unintentionally, problematically.

  16. Schroeder says:

    Hector,

    I’m a Christian, too, so I will speak bluntly.

    As I recall, Our Lord wasn’t averse to using harsh language against those who deserved it, either.

    Are you God? Can you look into someone’s heart and say to them exactly what they need to hear? As Jesus did in the sermon on the mount, I would encourage you to look into your own eye before you try to remove the speck from someone else’s. What is your aim in using “harsh language?” Love? Or “proving” that you’re superior to an anonymous person on the internet? (I often have bad motives for posting too. For instance, I want to look smart. But I try to 1.) learn from and 2.) have compassion and empathy for the people who post here.)

    You’re absolutely correct when you say that Jesus wasn’t adverse to using harsh language. But think about nearly all of the times he did so. To whom was he speaking? To non-Jews? to “sinners?” Or to the religious leaders of the day who thought that they were completely right before God on their own merit and not in need of a doctor?

    I’m not, in theory, opposed to being “uncivil” (if someone were trying to hurt someone I love, for instance). But I can’t imagine a situation in which that would be the right, charitable, or honorable thing to do on the internet. Examine your motives and see if you honestly can either.

    Good post, Fannie!

  17. Teresa says:

    Schroeder, thank you for the wonderful comment.

  18. Hector says:

    Fannie,

    On the contrary. when I look around, I see people setting forth plain truths about real and essential differences between men and women, derived from evolution. and then I see a bunch of people who refuse to listen to any of those truths, because they consider them
    ‘offensive’ or ‘patriarchist’, whatever that means.

    You’re right that its not strictly a problem of the liberal side, either. it annoys me to be debating the pros and cons of the Cuban revolution, for example, and for some Cuban exile fellow to come in and start baby whining about how he lived in Cuba and it was terrible. I’m generally unsympathetic to the Cuban exile types, as I’m unsympathetic to the ultra feminists, and for much the same reasons.

    The truth will, inevitably, be uncomfortable and offensive for a lot of people. I’m more interested in trying to pursue truth, virtue, and morality, frankly, than I am in being ‘inoffensive’.

  19. Diane M says:

    I don’t see any contradiction between speaking truth and civility.

    My definition of civility is not that you can’t put forward an unpopular viewpoint.

    It’s that you have to put your views forward in a manner that respects the people who disagree with you and you have to listen to the other person and what they are saying.

    I also don’t think we are going to get anywhere debating what happens on other websites or off the Internet. We’ve had different experiences and there are so many different examples that we could talk about it forever.

    I’d rather focus on how civility might be able to work.

  20. Diane M says:

    Teresa, since you mentioned staying on topic in another thread – I think one thing that makes me stay on topic is that I often come into the discussion much later. That means I’m looking more at the blog than interacting with the people.

    However, I think you’re right, we should all be trying to avoid getting caught up in side-arguments that aren’t related to the blog. It is very easy to do.

    I think it’s more of a problem some times than others. If there aren’t that many people commenting on the blog or if the discussion is somewhat related to the blog, I don’t think it’s as much of a problem. Also, if the discussion is relatively friendly it seems better to me.

  21. Teresa says:

    Diane

    I think it’s more of a problem some times than others. If there aren’t that many people commenting on the blog or if the discussion is somewhat related to the blog, I don’t think it’s as much of a problem. Also, if the discussion is relatively friendly it seems better to me.

    Excellent points, Diane. I would add that I’ve always found you to be an excellent example of civility in commenting. You are seldom off-topic, and you have a genuine knack to turn many of us back to the Post at-hand; besides the fact that you know so many things.

    What I find disturbing in myself is being sucked into a side conversation that leads nowhere and is not really helpful to anyone here at FS, or me. I’m learning by watching those I’ve come to recognize as great commenters. Being a civil, on-topic commenter takes much prudence, humility, genuine interest in what others have to say, and reticence when nothing need be said. At least that’s how I see it.

    I notice I do best at this when I put myself in the position of student in relationship to the rest of you FS masters.

  22. Matt N says:

    Hector: “I think political discourse in this country is muffled and crippled because people start immediately sympathizing with anyone whose feelings get hurt.” (emphasis added)

    I realize that this will probably go nowhere, but I’ve known quite a few people in my time who’ve explained in depth how the terms “cripple” or “crippled” have been used to deny them a voice, so it would be nice if you don’t use that language again. I’m not banning you, I’m not asking for the mods to ban or censor you – I’m just saying that what seem to be nothing more than a word among thousands to choose from for you is actually the exact one that some people have been told they could be described with and therefore they were worthless. It’s just something to think on.

    Hector: “I see a bunch of people who refuse to listen to any of those truths, because they consider them ‘offensive’ or ‘patriarchist’, whatever that means.

    I don’t want to presume to speak for Fannie (or fannie if she prefers), but I think this is precisely what she was talking about when she said:

    For one, racist, sexist, and homophobic statements aren’t just uncivil because they are often hurtful, they are uncivil because they are often not true.

    I’m relatively certain that she believes that the notion of innate, unvaried differences between the sexes to be, as she said, hurtful, but I haven’t seen her declare those views to be offensive to point that she won’t discuss them (although I suspect she might only be willing to discuss them when they are the topic of a thread, rather than derail the discussion). What she appears unwilling to do, actually, is assert they are true, presumably because she doesn’t believe that they are.

    It seems we’re talking at cross-purposes. As I read her argument, Fannie is focusing on a variety of impacts that words or arguments can have that make them uncivil. Your argument, on the other hand, seems to be focused on presenting the labeling of terms or ideas to be uncivil to be rooted in them being categorized as “offensive” which you presented as a purely political term. She seems to working from impact and effect to labels, while you’re only looking at the end of her argument. Even if we try to nail down a standard of “offensiveness” as roughly equating with harmful, an effect that Fannie has referenced, that’s only part of her argument, which is more broadly defined.

    If either you or Fannie feel misrepresented by my comment, I’m very sorry and retract my claims.

  23. fannie says:

    Hector,

    “and then I see a bunch of people who refuse to listen to any of those truths, because they consider them ‘offensive’ or ‘patriarchist’, whatever that means.”

    And that statement right there, emphasis added, tells me that you don’t understand feminist viewpoints well enough to be able to render accurate, truthful, or fair critiques of them.

    Maybe you can explain how being so dismissive of concepts you have no understanding of leads you to truth. Because I’d argue that your approach takes you away from truth, rather than toward it.

    Diane and Teresa,

    Thank you for your comments. In my interactions with you, even if we don’t always agree, I’ve found you both to be civil to engage with. And, as a result, I’ve learned from both of you.

    Matt N,

    “I’m relatively certain that she believes that the notion of innate, unvaried differences between the sexes to be, as she said, hurtful, but I haven’t seen her declare those views to be offensive to point that she won’t discuss them (although I suspect she might only be willing to discuss them when they are the topic of a thread, rather than derail the discussion). What she appears unwilling to do, actually, is assert they are true, presumably because she doesn’t believe that they are.”

    This could be a much more in-depth conversations, but my position is that men and women have much more in common than they have differences, a position that’s based on meta-analyses of gender differences and the gender similarities hypothesis. I also think, contrary to Hector’s view, that evolutionary psychology is at times a questionable field engaging in after-the-fact explanations for human behavior that does not at all give us “obvious” “truths” about gender.

    Hector has said multiple times here that men and women have essential differences, but he never articulates what those are. So, it’s difficult to know where we agree and disagree. He dismisses me and all feminists before we even ever engage those details.

    I’m willing to have these conversations in a relevant comment thread. But, they are not fun for me to have with people who put no effort into actually understanding my viewpoint or the viewpoint of any other feminists, instead characterizing us as simply “refusing to listen” to what he believes are absolute truths.

    And, I guess that leads to another statement on what I think civility is. When I see the differences between Hector’s politics and mine, I see two people disagreeing over what constitutes truth, who maybe have good reasons for doing so.

    When he sees these differences, he characterizes me (and all feminists) as people who intentionally disregard the truth for what he deems stupid reasons like getting all offended at stuff. It doesn’t seem to cross his mind that we, too, have good reasons, including scientific backup, for believing what we believe.

    I also don’t see him seriously engaging with my post. First, he mocked it and the blog I linked to. And two, he seems to think that I’m in favor of censoring “truth” to prioritize people’s feelings. Yet, I don’t think that conclusion is warranted from anything I’ve argued here. And then we’re suddenly talking about the Cuban revolution….?

    I don’t know, it seems like he’s blowing down some straw arguments as opposed to engaging actual people’s actual arguments right here in this conversation.

    Is it productive or worthwhile to engage with people who take that approach? I’m not sure.

  24. Schroeder says:

    Evolutionary psychology is at times a questionable field engaging in after-the-fact explanations for human behavior that does not at all give us “obvious” “truths” about gender.

    This.

    I’m glad that I’m not the only one who has noticed this about evolutionary psychology. While I believe in evolution, evolutionary psychology seems kind of dubious to me most of the time.

    You can start with any “fact” about humans and “prove” it with evolutionary psychology. If humans all raised their hands every five second, there would probably be a perfectly reasonable explanation waiting from evolutionary psychology to explain that behavior.

    I’m curious, Fannie, do you think straw men arguments are uncivil? I hate, hate, hate straw men arguments (I think they are probably the number one problem with public discourse these days, even ahead of incivility), but I’m not sure that I think they’re uncivil. Most of the time, they are born out of ignorance or sloppy reasoning, whereas, I think, most of the time, incivility is born out of anger or hatred.

    This would be an interesting idea for a blog:

    A blog where straw men arguments were completely prohibited. You could do this by requiring participants to say what they think their opponent is arguing before they attempt to refute it. Participants would not be allowed to proceed to the refutation stage until they had first restated their opponents argument to their opponent’s satisfaction. It would require a lot of patience, but I bet a lot of new and creative thinking would come out of it!

  25. fannie says:

    Schroeder,

    Do you read skeptic-y blogs at all, particularly some of the explanations and criticisms of evolutionary psychology? If not, you might find them interesting. In my experience, the field is so much more complicated than revealing “obvious” truths that some claim it does.

    Regarding whether straw arguments are civil, I agree with you that many times they are the result of ignorance or sloppy reasoning. What I find particularly frustrating, though, is when that ignorance is willful- as in, a person will “rebut” an argument while not even trying to understand another person’s argument.

    Like, it’s one thing for a person to think they understand what someone else is saying, but it seems more uncivil to me when a person knows that they don’t really even understand what the other person is saying, but they wrongly summarize and rebut it anyway. On some level, constructing straw arguments to respond to is a result of simply not listening and not trying very hard to understand (and, to be fair, they can also be the result of the original arguer not constructing the original argument with sufficient clarity or precision).

    Anyway, regardless of whether it’s civil or not, I do think it’s a huge problem on Internet. I do think it’s interesting to imagine a blog where participants had to re-state their opponent’s argument to a satisfactory degree, though. That, to me, would be a great way to show good faith and attempts to understand the opposition.

  26. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: I do think it’s interesting to imagine a blog where participants had to re-state their opponent’s argument to a satisfactory degree, though. That, to me, would be a great way to show good faith and attempts to understand the opposition.

    Thomas Aquinas actually did this, in his “Summa Theologica”, as did some of his Scholastic followers. In this, as in many other things, modern Americans could stand to learn a thing or two from the medieval Natural Law schools of thought.

  27. Teresa says:

    Coming back to this Post with another consideration on civility. I’m seeing that oftentimes it’s best not to comment at all when the tone of the thread is tending toward combative or confrontational. By refraining from commenting, I keep myself in a position of objectivity and serenity.

    Not commenting at times, for me, is the most civil choice I can make.

  28. fannie says:

    Teresa,

    “I’m seeing that oftentimes it’s best not to comment at all when the tone of the thread is tending toward combative or confrontational. By refraining from commenting, I keep myself in a position of objectivity and serenity.”

    I don’t think that’s true in all situations with respect to objectivity. Some conversations that are “combative” or “confrontational” have somewhat of a more clear aggressor. Some conversations are deeply degrading to people. Some conversations are really insulting. Some people are really out of line – and maybe all of these things should be pointed out. Or else, does the aggressor ever learn? Are his/her behaviors and words implicitly condoned if they’re allowed in a space with no rebuttal?

    I think some people, perhaps those who try to avoid conflict, have a tendency to see people standing up for themselves as though they are “just as bad” as the initial aggressor, and I don’t think that’s a fair or objective take on the situation. It seems some people take a certain pride in being somehow “above the fray.”

    I’m not saying that’s you at all, because I don’t know, I’m just saying it’s an attitude I have picked up on in the past when I’ve felt that a couple of commenters have been abusive and I’ve tried to set boundaries or steer them toward less abusive comments.

    And, you know, I can genuinely understand the desire for people to remain silent if conversations are looking combative if that’s what people need to feel safe, serene, and mentally well. Some days I myself don’t have the energy to engage in conflict or stand up to people I think who are acting problematically.

    But, I also don’t think that remaining silent is neutral or objective. It’s basically doing nothing while aggression is happening or noble all the time. I think it’s fine to prioritize one’s own sense of well-being over getting involved, but I’m not going to pretend that silence doesn’t somewhat imply that aggression is okay. It’s certainly not taking a stand against the aggression that’s happening.

    Even as I understand that some people have really good reasons for not engaging, I will admit that I at times feel frustrated by bystanders to abusive, racist, sexist, homophobic, and otherwise problematic things happening in conversations in various forums in which I participate.

    Maybe it’s a basic philosophical difference regarding the questions of whether self-defense/defense-of-others continues the cycle of violence or stops it.

  29. Diane M says:

    I find straw-man arguments to be uncivil. They come across to me as someone not listening and misrepresenting what the other person has said.

    However, it is possible that the other person just doesn’t understand what is being said. I don’t think it would be possible to come up with a policy where you prohibited straw-man arguments.

  30. Diane M says:

    @fannie and teresa – I think there are times when the most civil thing to do is to disengage. Otherwise an argument can go on getting more and more off-topic and filling up the thread. Everybody else has to read it.

    What I appreciate about moderated discussions is having someone who goes over the line told to stop it.

  31. Teresa says:

    Thanks, Fannie, for your reply. I’m learning so much from FS: from the Bloggers, the Posts, equally as much from the comments/commenters. I consider myself a guest/student in the FS house, and try to act as such throughout my visits here. With that preface, the following:

    But, I also don’t think that remaining silent is neutral or objective. It’s basically doing nothing while aggression is happening or noble all the time. I think it’s fine to prioritize one’s own sense of well-being over getting involved, but I’m not going to pretend that silence doesn’t somewhat imply that aggression is okay. It’s certainly not taking a stand against the aggression that’s happening.

    Yes, Fannie, there is no arguing your point here; but, I meant something a little different when I commented about being objective and serene. I really, really pay attention to commenters: comments, behaviors, agendas, etc. Believe it or not, some comments have me coming back again and again just to reread the content of the comment; of course, but often the beautifully crafted way of stating their point. I may disagree with the commenter’s point of view, but I stand in awe of the precision, clarity, kindness of the comment. This often happens in a pushback comment to prior thread activity.

    But, long story longer, Fannie, you’re great at doing this. So is La Lubu, Anna J, Diane M, Schroeder, Maggie, David B, Matthew K., Elizabeth, et. al. I am not. Period. It’s very difficult for me to remain civil when I’m stomping my little toddler feet at someone’s comment. How you folks do it, amazes me.

    Additionally, Fannie, you and I probably disagree on lots of things. But, I recognize that when you Blog/comment, you’re coming from a position that has been years in the making with study, thought, struggle, experience. An old ’80′s commercial says it best: When E.F. Hutton speaks, people listen. I feel unschooled in many ways to all you guys. Is that being cowardly?

    Finally, some commenters, in my opinion, seem not to be here to share and learn; but, rather to impress and im-press the rest of us. I’d rather not engage some persons. Is that wrong?

  32. fannie says:

    Teresa,

    Your comment is full of humility, and in my opinion, I think you would be justified in giving yourself a bit more credit for being both civil and having some things you could teach others. I also think it’s admirable to see oneself as a student and to recognize that people have years of lived experience that they are drawing from when they comment – experiences that others shouldn’t try to erase or negate.

    I can see your point about not wanting to engage if you don’t think you can do so in a way that you think is civil. In such a situation, I think it is better to not add aggression or incivility to conversations. And, that’s one area I certainly don’t see myself as perfect at.

    I go back and forth about the utility of engaging commenters who show the problematic traits you describe – who seem to be writing in order to impress others or, I would add, who seem hell-bent on viewing people who disagree with them as their “enemies” without every sincerely trying to understand where these “enemies” are coming from. I know we’re supposed to assume good faith here, and I try to with everyone – but…. it seems foolishly naive, and unhealthy, to continue giving some commenters the benefit of the doubt that they’re here to engage in civil dialogue when they exhibit a recurring tendency to be uncivil and problematic.

    My personality is such that I think I prefer to counter such people, but no, I don’t think it’s cowardly or wrong if other people prefer not to engage such people. What I do think is wrong, gaslighty, and uncivil, is when people morally equate those who counter aggressors with the aggressors themselves.