Recently, I observed a mighty Twitter battle between monsters and snowflakes … a mighty pointless battle. Something happened, one group claimed that there were monsters in their midst, and another group mocked the first group for being fragile snowflakes. Sadly, I was unsurprised by the intensity and schoolyard level logic of the back and forth. In this Live Well and Flourish article, I discuss the causes of such incivility and its effects on flourishing. This is the first of a series of articles in which I’ll deal with matters related to incivility and its consequences.
A short time ago, I attended a conference. Without going into details, a polarizing individual attended unannounced, some people blasted the organizers for allowing this person’s presence, which led to an apology being posted to Twitter, which was immediately followed by mocking tweets in response. At last count, or at least when I got tired of looking at them the apology tweet had almost 14,000 comments and 6,700 retweets. It was a twitter-storm at its finest … well, finest might not be the best description.
In a shout-out to Jonathan Swift, let’s call the two groups the Big-Enders and the Small-Enders. (Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels includes a story about prejudice against people who break their eggs on one end rather than the other end. Note that big and small in the following discussion are assigned pretty randomly to the two groups so I don't intend any value judgments.)
The incident in question started when a well-known Big-ender attended the conference so that Big-ender attendees could take pictures with him. Some Small-enders saw this Big-ender and spread the word and took collective umbrage with his presence and expressed their concerns to conference organizers, who issued the aforementioned apology online, and the “you-know-what” storm was on.
Scanning through the responses, I was struck, but not surprised by the absolute entrenchment on both sides. I saw absolutely no attempts at trying to understand the other perspective, nor did I read anyone trying to explain their perspectives. Essentially, the responses were either Big-Enders are monsters or Small-Enders are fragile little snowflakes. (By the way, I remind you that Big and Small here are just labels, I’m not making or implying any value judgments regarding the two perspectives.) I have to admit I did feel some sympathy for the poor conference organizers; they were basically screwed regardless of how (or whether) they responded.
These sorts of exchanges and the thinking (or lack thereof) behind them is, it seems to me, a core cause of some of the problems we face as a society. There is a lack of civility. There is a lack of civility, a lack of honest attempt at understanding the perspectives of others, and an associated demonization of those whose views oppose our own. Such a lack of respect and consideration is a self-imposed blight that hinders our collective flourishing.
Before going further, I want to tell you that this is a bit of a hot take as the cool kids say (At least I think they do.) So, please excuse any small inconsistencies or omissions. Also, I am NOT making judgments about the superiority or inferiority of the values of any particular group.
We need more civility and basic decency in society, especially with respect to debates and disagreements. Of course, incivility is not a new problem, even for me to write or talk about. I first started being concerned about incivility during the 2016 US Presidential election campaigns. In fact, I wrote an essay about incivility then. Sadly, today the situation is no better.
Here’s the bottom line. Until we can be more civil in our societal debates, we will remain mired in a quagmire of a status quo that is satisfying to virtually no one. For God’s sake, can’t we all just treat each other like human beings instead of evil monsters, fragile snowflakes, or unthinking idiots? Really, we all just need to grow up and remember that the world is a diverse place, full of people with different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives. Just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t mean they’re evil or an idiot.
To me, it seems that three factors contribute to incivility. The first is a lack of humility. At its core, civility requires humility; it requires an acknowledgement that we’re not at the center of the universe and that we are not all-knowing. This humility gives us the realization that we need to behave in ways that recognize others and their feelings. This leads us to our second factor. Civility, especially civil discourse, requires us to not only acknowledge that others are important, it also requires acknowledging that we may be wrong. One of the things that makes a controversial topic controversial is that the answer or solution isn’t obvious. The correct path is unclear. Pick any of the many difficult challenges facing our society. Regardless of the issue, I don’t know the answer with absolute certainty, and neither do you. You may think you know, but you don’t. You may believe in an approach, but you don’t really know if it will work. Sure, we can and should apply evidence and reason, but at the end of the day, there are too many unknowns to really know the answers. (By the way, that does not mean we shouldn’t advocate for certain positions or solutions. It just means that we should listen to contrary views.) Finally, incivility comes from cluelessness. Sometimes we’re simply unaware of how we appear to others. We just don’t think about how we come off to other people. Most of the people I’ve unfollowed or muted on social media are nice people. They aren’t trying to be uncivil, they just seem a bit clueless about how they're being perceived.
What makes all of this worse is that there actually is a time for incivility, for what has been called righteous incivility. There’s a time to put aside niceties and go for righteous anger. Here’s the thing though, righteous incivility should be reserved for those times when there is absolutely no doubt about the righteousness of your position. Absolutely no doubt. I'm gonna say that again. Absolutely. No. Doubt. Unless you are horrendously intellectually arrogant, there are precious few times when you should hold to this level of confidence. This is especially true when you haven’t subjected your beliefs to rigorous challenges. I’m reading Amy Olberding’s interesting book on rudeness (there's a link below), which includes some insightful discussions on righteous incivility. Let me quote from the book:
"If I fight on the side of justice, surely I can enjoy getting in some licks on justice’s behalf. But this thinking just pushes worries about self-deception and rationalization back a step. Everyone believes he is in the right moral tribe, everyone thinks he punches for justice. Some of us are surely wrong about that …"
And later, Dr. Olberding (and I hope I'm saying that right) writes, referring to one who expresses what he thinks is righteous incivility:
"One thing I notice about that guy is the perversity of his confidence. … His high certainty of his own rightness and righteousness is … maintained in a kind of epistemic naivete, his confidence sustained in part because his views are far less tested and tried than those of others."
The short of it is that, in many (maybe even most) cases, a belief that one’s incivility is righteous is based in an odd combination of intellectual naivete and arrogance. So, before you engage in incivility, be sure you’re right … not pretty sure … not mostly sure … ABSOLUTELY sure.
This brings me to an important point that I want to reiterate. Often, incivility is caused, in part, by a sort of intellectual arrogance … an assumption that you and your opinions are superior to those of others. Of course, I’m using the collective “you” here, not referring to you individually … I hope. Incivility reflects a lack of respect for others and their views, when someone is uncivil, they are effectively saying that they and their views of the world are better than yours, which is the literal embodiment of arrogance. What’s kind of interesting here is that I’d bet few of the people engaged in the Twitter incivility I witnessed think of themselves as arrogant. Maybe they’re not, but their actions sure indicate that they are. In a later episode, I’ll go into more detail about the causes of incivility. Here’s a spoiler - none of the causes are very flattering to those who engage in incivility.
Incivility is damaging to your flourishing, and to our collective flourishing. There’s convincing empirical evidence of the negative effects of incivility on well-being, which is closely related to flourishing. I’ll talk more about how this happens in the next episode, but it seems clear that being the target or the originator of incivility is a bad thing. Collectively, there’s a tendency to respond to incivility with incivility, which leads to a downward spiral of incivility and negative behaviors. As Kahlil Gibran wrote, “An eye for an eye, and the whole world would be blind.”
What makes incivility so puzzling to me is that it seems pretty pointless … it just seems a waste of time and energy. It just seems like an excuse in futility. Incivility brings about more incivility … it doesn’t really lead to anything worthwhile. (Of course, there may be rare, and I mean RARE exceptions to this …) If you want to bring someone around to your point of view, if you want to persuade someone to change their mind, incivility is a pretty poor approach. Incivility implies a lack of respect and understanding, and without understanding it’s pretty hard to persuade anyone of anything. I don’t know, maybe some folks get a brief emotional charge out of uncivil dialogue, but incivility seems a pretty shallow way to get your jollies. If you want to affect real change in someone, understanding them is critical. You have to listen to their perspective and understand where they’re coming from. Only then can you effectively persuade someone to change their thinking. This understanding comes from honest, CIVIL discussion, not uncivil haranguing. So, when someone acts with incivility it seems to me that they’re just blatering … they’re just making useless noise. Truly righteous incivility may be the exception, but such incivility should be reserved for only the most important causes. Otherwise it loses its power.
So, what can YOU do about incivility? I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and here are three things you can do this week that can help reduce incivility if in no other way than refusing to be a part of it.
First, recognize incivility when you see it. If you see an online debate that’s characterized by language that’s aggressive, demeaning, insulting, or disrespectful, step away. As the saying goes, don’t feed the trolls. This may not stop the incivility, but at least you won’t be part of it.
Second, when you see someone have a strong, uncivil reaction to something, take a couple of minutes and think about what might lead a person to have such a reaction. Try to build a little cognitive empathy. Try to actually picture the person, not as a monster, but as a human being.
Finally, as I’ve recommended before, think about the assumptions that underlie your political and societal views. For more about how our assumptions limit us and our thinking, check out my article called The Cage of Your Assumptions, which is available at livewellandflourish.com. (There’s a link below.) Something is an assumption when we hold it to be true without evidence of its correctness. So, your assumptions might be wrong. Keep that in mind before you act uncivilly. You. Might. Be. Wrong.
Let me close with the following points. Civility doesn’t mean weakness. Civility doesn’t mean a lack of resolve. Civility doesn’t mean capitulation. Civility means being considerate. Civility means being nice. Civility meets seeking understanding for the collective good. Civility, in the long run, means finding better solutions, together, as a civil society.
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.
Olberding, Amy. (2019). The Wrong of Rudeness: Learning Modern Civility from Ancient Chinese Philosophy: https://www.amazon.com/Wrong-Rudeness-Learning-Civility-Philosophy/dp/0190880961
If you liked this article, you might want to listen to episode 39, ”Incivility and Your Flourishing”
The Cage of Your Assumptions
For a deep dive on what it means to flourish, check out episode 8. “Human Flourishing – Living the Excellent Life.”