A few thoughts on civility

24 July 2018 · 5 minute read · society

I’m a big fan of civility. After all, I excel at drama and formal debating.

Aside: that was a joke, just a reference to a song I like. But for real, my time spent debating made me value civility and formality as ways to convince people. As I’ve become more critical of the systems in which I live, it’s become clear that the rules of debate are a small system of oppression. I don’t think that means we should stop having formal debates in accordance with those rules, it’s just something to be aware of, and a reason not to judge the way people speak in general.

When we’re evaluating behavior, there are two different ways to evaluate it. One is: does this behavior achieve the intended effect; the other is should this behavior be prohibited (and therefore punished).

When it comes to “does this behavior achieve the intended effect”, I think that’s not really important to a discussion about engaging with a political system, for example by refusing to provide public accommodations to someone with whom you disagree. Often in this case the behavior is an end in itself: a refusal to associate with those with whom you disagree. There may be more effective ways of convincing people of your opinion, of explaining why you disagree. But that’s somewhat counterfactual; you’re not doing it to convince someone.

When we look at a broader context, we often see tone policing or attempts to limit discussion until you can have the best possible take. This is, in my opinion, wasted breath. People can say whatever they want. That’s a laudable thing.

Let’s instead talk about prohibition. Let’s talk about when people can’t say what they want, because what they want to say is harmful.

Harm is kind of a difficult thing to measure. Is it harmful to see a MAGA hat at a conference when you’re not expecting it? Is it harmful to say you believe in nationalism, or in white supremacy? To get really meta, is it harmful to say that holocaust denial should be criminalized? Or to refuse to serve holocaust deniers?

Those questions are messy, and hard to evaluate. There are too many lines that have to be drawn. And there’s a danger in limiting free speech: the people in power might not always agree with you. And you want to speak, even in that case. Perhaps especially in that case.

There’s actually one very clear criterion we can use to determine when it is permissible for speech to be banned. I feel like I probably stole this from Christian Turner and Joe Miller over at Oral Argument but perhaps I picked it up elsewhere. Certainly, I didn’t invent it.

One of the core elements of a liberal democracy is the idea that we have peaceful transitions of power. If an opponent wins, they are entitled to take the elected office. They are entitled to exercise their power, even if the exercise is one with which I disagree. We all agree to the rules of the game, so to speak.

I don’t question the right of the government, for example, to continue to collect my taxes even when it’s spending that money on things with which I vehemently disagree. That’s not compelled speech, that’s just the way democracy works.

There are, of course, limits. There are elections we would not recognize, and policies against which we would rebel.

As to whether this is lawful or not, check out Christian Turner’s Modern American Legal Theory for a gentle, entertaining podcasted introduction to the concepts. Realistically of course, it doesn’t matter; if enough people are in rebellion, they are the government. Just ask any government in exile.

The question of which policies against which you would rebel is obviously very personal. Hopefully though we all agree that the threshold is much higher than merely policies with which you disagree.

If you have in mind a policy that you would use violence to prevent in your government - say, Nazism - then it is clear this is a policy against which you are free to be uncivil. That flows easily, and it leads to a place where I am quite comfortable. Your right to speak is unfettered as long as you’re not trying to undermine the system of government, as long as you’re not trying to change the rules of the game.

Does that mean that governmental systems cannot change? Of course not! There are ways that you can make those changes. But you have to work within the system. It is hard and it takes time and effort and consensus.

If you can’t make the change you want within the system, then you have a choice. You can accept that the system has made the decision and you can’t change it. For example, I firmly believe that everyone should have a right to vote, without any minimum age. That is something I strongly believe, but not something likely to be changed within the system any time soon. But I accept that harm (or what I see as harm) because I recognize the system is working, and I think the system is good.

The other option is to abandon the system. This is dangerous, physically. Without a system of laws, the winner of most arguments tends to be the person with greatest brute strength. That isn’t good. But it’s a reasonable approach to take if you believe so strongly in the harm that you think it outweighs all the good of the system.

That’s a clear criterion. The line varies from person to person, but it has some nice results: Nazis can be punched, but you can’t stop someone advocating for your political opponent.

None of this, of course, is particularly novel, but I lay it out here as part of my thinking process.

There are some interesting unresolved issues, of course, some of which are outlined below.