In the last Live Well and Flourish article, I discussed an incident of considerable incivility I witnessed recently, and talked about how incivility is fruitless. In this article I focus on how incivility in many ways is the opposite of flourishing, and therefore is harmful to your flourishing.
The incivility I talked about last time was brought on by an incident at an industry-related conference I attended. You can access that article at livewellandflourish.com . Shortly after the conference and the related Twitter storm, I received an email newsletter from a well-regarded industry expert. I should note that there was enough time between the events and the newsletter going out so that the message didn’t represent a reactive “hot take.”
The expert focused the entire newsletter on the different ways in which the industry could respond to the controversy. Since I respected the person, I opened the email and started reading. The message started with a statement that the expert wasn’t going to try to look at both sides. OK. That’s a little odd, but fine. Then they wrote that they weren’t considering both sides because they found the side they opposed to essentially be below contempt. The other side’s opinions weren’t worth considering. Wow. That surprised me, but I kept reading. The message was filled with juvenile characterizations and sophomoric name calling that I suppose the author thought was clever. They were wrong. At that point, I stopped reading and unsubscribed from the newsletter. Why? Well, to me the message showed a clear lack of reasoning and excessive incivility. My conclusion was that I really couldn’t trust this person’s opinion much, so I wasn’t going to waste my time reading their newsletter. I also want to reduce my exposure to incivility, so unsubscribing seemed the right thing to do.
I want to be very clear here. I didn’t unsubscribe because I disagreed with their perspective. I unsubscribed because the message signaled to me that the writer was not the sort of person I wanted to follow. Let’s break down why I felt that way by discussing the relationship between incivility and flourishing.
Incivility is a lack of civilization or an uncivilized condition. OK, then what does it mean to be civilized? Being civilized means having a highly developed society and culture; showing evidence of moral and intellectual advancement, and being humane, ethical, and reasonable. Those last bits are critical here. Characterized by moral and intellectual advancement; being humane, ethical, and reasonable. So, acting with incivility usually signals a lack of moral development along with a lack of intellectual development and sound reasoning. By the way, this is kind of ironic because those who act uncivilly often seem to view themselves as being morally or intellectually superior to their targets.
Now let’s look at what flourishing involves. Flourishing is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue and reason. Do you see the parallels? The things that characterize someone who is acting with incivility are in opposition to the things that characterize flourishing. Because incivility signals a lack of moral development, it is not in accordance with flourishing. Because incivility signals a lack of intellectual development it signals a lack of reason, and is contrary to flourishing. So, incivility is diametrically opposed to flourishing.
Think about the last time you witnessed incivility. What did the messages or speech look or sound like? Typically, incivility is characterized by illogical arguments such as ad hominem attacks, hostility, stereotyping, excessive displays of emotion and the like. These are ALL indications of a lack of reason and virtue. Aristotle’s view of virtue is that acting according to virtue means acting somewhere between the vice of deficiency and the vice of excess. He calls this the mean (although it doesn’t mean middle, the correct mean varies from person to person). For example, the virtue of courage lies at the mean between cowardice, a vice of deficiency, and foolhardiness, a vice of excess.
How does this relate to incivility? Well, when you act uncivilly, you exhibit a number of vices, cantankerousness, pride, intemperance, hotheadedness, and lack of respect to name a few. You act with a lack of virtue.
Let’s take this a step further. According to Aristotle, we become what we repeatedly do. Conscious practice leads to habit, which leads to being. When you continually act in a certain way, over time acting that way becomes a habit, and eventually a part of your being. When you repeatedly act with incivility, incivility becomes a habit, and then becomes a part of your being. You become an uncivil person and you move away from flourishing.
So, it’s not just about what you signal to others, it’s also about who you want to be. Do you want to be an uncivil jerk or a moral, rational person? The choice is yours … literally … and I don’t mean figuratively literally, I mean literally literally. You have control over who you are. Incivility or flourishing, the choice is yours and yours alone.
Note that this doesn't mean you should be a pushover and that you shouldn't engage in debate and discourse ... civil debate and discourse. Virtues lie at the mean between extremes. So, being a cowardly noodle is just as bad as being uncivil. Also, as I mentioned in the last episode, there are some rare, VERY rare times when acting with righteous incivility is the correct action, but as I said, these times are rare.
I want to make one more connection between acting uncivilly and reason. Incivility doesn’t accomplish anything of real value, as I discussed last time, ultimately incivility is an act of futility. So, the high costs of incivility will virtually always exceed the benefits. Choosing something in which the costs exceed the benefits is clearly irrational and contrary to reason.
OK, so that’s how acting with incivility harms your flourishing. Now let’s consider how exposure to incivility does the same.
Exposure to Incivility and Flourishing
Incivility is toxic. You may have heard that before, maybe to the point of it being a cliche. It's a cliche because it’s true. Incivility IS toxic, especially for your flourishing. Just like exposure to chemical toxins is dangerous, so is exposure to incivility. How? I have some thoughts. Exposure to incivility may lead you to overemphasize negative aspects of a situation. Maybe you’ve heard someone say that American politics are the most rancorous they’ve ever been. My response is typically to say, “Burr - Hamilton.” Check out some political cartoons or editorials from the 1800s. Good Lord! Talk about rancor. Things seem so rancorous today because it’s so much more apparent, especially on social media, talk radio, cable news, and some podcasts. So, we often see people at their most exaggerated state of incivility. Exposure to this much negativity harms your flourishing.
Similarly, exposure to incivility can, in some cases, reinforce harmful stereotypes. Stereotypes are generalizations we make about groups. Incivility preys on these stereotypes … the left calls the right bigoted fascists and the right calls the left delusional snowflakes. (Did you just think, “Well, that’s because they are?" Of course, you didn’t, but I’ll bet some folks did.) These stereotypes, when applied to individuals, are usually wrong. So, when you apply stereotype thinking, you’re making a reasoning error. (If you want to learn more about how generalizations can be harmful, check out my article on the Problem with Generalizations. There’s a link below.)
Being exposed to significant incivility may also lead you to develop an anti-deliberative mindset. What does this mean? Well, by “anti-deliberative mindset” I mean a mindset that tends towards snap judgments without accounting for the fact that in any situation you can consider it from multiple perspectives. As I often tell my doctoral students, learn to look at things through multiple lenses and you’ll see problems through innovative eyes. Shift your perspective and you’ll shift your understanding of the world. An anti-deliberative mindset only considers its own perspective. Look, tough problems are tough because the solutions aren’t clear. The world is a gray place. To really understand something, you need to think about it from different angles, being exposed to excessive incivility limits your ability to do this.
Incivility also tends to be an odd sort of an echo chamber, even when there’s a debate between opposing sides. When witnessing such exchanges, we have a tendency to overvalue what people on our side say, so we only really “hear” what our side is saying. That’s an echo chamber. What’s odd though, is that when you read or hear comments from the other side, there’s a tendency to just reinforce our negative views of the other side. You think, “See, the other side is a bunch of unthinking jerks. Here's proof.” Again, when you start thinking this way, you’re not in accordance with reason … you’re not flourishing.
As I mentioned last time, incivility typically spawns more incivility, so it’s easy to get dragged into a downward spiral of incivility. When a debate starts to take an uncivil turn, it’s really easy to want to respond in kind, to fight fire with fire. So, incivility is not only toxic, it’s contagious, and it’s terrible for your flourishing.
Well, hopefully, I’ve convinced you that incivility is a barrier to your flourishing, even if you’re just exposed to it and don’t engage in it yourself. So, what can you do to avoid the effects of incivility? You guessed it … I have some ideas. Here are three things you can do this week to avoid the effects of incivility on your flourishing.
My first, and perhaps most important bit of advice is to avoid incivility. When something is toxic or contagious, to avoid the thing’s effects, avoid the thing. (You might want to remember this as flu season approaches!) Seriously, when you sense that something is becoming uncivil, just disengage. Politely leave the conversation or close the website or app. Just walk away. True, this won’t stop the incivility, but it will limit its effects on you. In the next episode, I’ll talk about how incivility hurts our collective flourishing and will offer some thoughts on how you can help reduce collective incivility. But for now, we’ll focus on you.
Something else to try, and I admit this is a bit out there, is to use incivility as a chance to examine your stereotypes and generalizations. Do this by thinking of counter-examples. When witnessing incivility from the other side, your brain tends to use the episode to reinforce any negative stereotype you might hold. Put the brakes on this by actively thinking about someone from that group who does NOT act uncivilly. If someone on the right makes a nasty, idiotic remark about gay people, don’t think “right wingers hate gays” think of an example of someone on the right who respects and supports gay people and their rights. (They exist, I promise you, I know a lot of them.) If someone on the left trolls with some stupid anti-law enforcement remarks, think of someone on the left who supports law enforcement.
Finally, don’t let the current state of incivility get you down. Despite all of our problems, the world is a pretty good place, and most people are decent. When you witness incivility, disengage, pause, and think about the good in the world. The world is full of people who are kind, considerate, respectful and just plain nice. The jerks are the exceptions.
I’ll close with this quote from one of my favorite authors, Kahlil Gibran, “An eye for an eye and the whole world would be blind.”
Until next time, be well my friends.
The Live Well and Flourish podcast covers this and other topics that can help you live a flourishing life. Episodes are available at https://www.livewellandflourish.com/ and on all major podcast apps.
If you liked this article, you might want to listen to episode 38, ”The Futility of Incivility”
The Problem with Generalizations
For a deep dive on what it means to flourish, check out episode 8. “Human Flourishing – Living the Excellent Life.”