Thursday, October 30, 2003

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A note on civility

While reading Josh Chafetz's take on the Atrios-Luskin dust-up, I came across this Chafetz post from earlier this month on "the norms of civility." These paragraphs are worth repeating:

Are people really so sure of themselves that they simply cannot acknowledge that anyone who disagrees could be intelligent? Have they no humility whatsoever? Of course we all think we're right -- if we didn't think we were right, we'd change our opinions until we did. Maybe I'm just naive, but it really does amaze me when people claim that everyone who disagrees with them (on topics where general opinion is relatively divided -- I'm not talking about largely uncontroversial opinions like "slavery is wrong") is either malevolent, stupid, or both.

Why is it so hard to acknowledge that, on almost every issue, there are people on both sides who are both intelligent and well-meaning? That doesn't mean that neither side is right, or that you should give up arguing for your side. It just means paying the other side some respect, listening to their position, trying honestly to grapple with it. I'm not saying that there aren't malevolent and/or stupid people out there -- but they're on both sides of every issue, and on almost no issue is everyone on one side stupid and/or malevolent. It's fine to point out when someone is saying something stupid (or when someone is being malevolent). If they're malevolent and/or stupid often enough, it's fine to conclude that they, as people, are malevolent and/or stupid. But to conclude that everyone who disagrees with you is ipso facto malevolent and/or stupid ... well, I envy your certainty, but you frighten me. That kind of certainty is precisely what extremist movements of all kinds -- left and right -- are made of.


UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds has an update on the Atrios/Luskin episode that contains a slightly different take.

[W]hile comments are nice, they do pose a problem. When you have a lot of comments, it's very difficult to police them. I loved The Fray at Slate, -- but it had Moira Redmond riding herd on it full time. What blogger can do that? And the real enemy of a blogger isn't trolls who disagree, but the commenters on "your side" who go over-the-top. And comments sections tend to breed that sort of extreme commentary, it seems. That's not a reason why people shouldn't have comments, necessarily, but it's a downside.

So you're dissing your own readers now?--ed. Actually, no, because A) 99% of the comments have been civil; and B) None of the readers agrees is on "my side" consistently enough fall into this category. If I had Glenn's traffic, though, I'd probably abstain from having a comments section as well.

Andrew Northrup has a good post on this as well.

posted by Dan on 10.30.03 at 09:03 PM


Well, Professor Drezner, no one seems to be beating down the door to say that we should be more civil. Shocked? Not I.

But, perhaps we need to look at it as a management problem. You can only ask people to be civil, when you have to start enforcing it, you can never be successful, because what you would be getting would not be actual civility.

What many here need is a creative outlet for their frustrations. Why not have a "perma-thread" that floats to the left, just below your mast-head, that solicits comments on "I think Bush is worse than you do".

Increased traffic for you, the visiting buzzflash crowd would be happy, and the comment box in your threads would fill up with actual comments - get this - on the topic. Huh? Yes?

What do you think, my friend.

BTW- I am feeling rather guilty for not having taken the time to surf your Latin America links, and you seem to have put a lot of time into it. Think I'll do that now.


posted by: Arthur Wellesley on 10.30.03 at 09:03 PM [permalink]

Mr Wellesley, it's hardly civil to suggest that those who disagree with you here should be shunted aside, the more easily to be ignored.

The post Dan quotes is full of sense - I wish this standard of discourse had been the norm for the last ten years, if it ever was.

On the other hand, it wasn't always uncontroversial that "slavery is wrong" - I imagine we all have some middle-of-the-road opinions that in the future will seem insupportable - just plain stupid.

posted by: rilkefan on 10.30.03 at 09:03 PM [permalink]

There is much wisdom in the principle of keeping the forum civil. Besides the obvious practical and moral reasons, there is also the fact that heeding this principle is more conducive to one's own sound psychology and character than the alternative.

But Chafetz says, "...on almost no issue is everyone on one side stupid and/or malevolent" and "to conclude that everyone who disagrees with you is ipso facto malevolent and/or stupid...." These are red herrings. There may be suitable occasions for vitriol in the forum. These may be not so rare, and their suitability may derive from reasons other than the subjective fact that the other disagrees with one. There is wisdom in mildness and charity, but there is often wisdom, even duty, in showing hatred, publicly, to those who espouse ideologies which in fact are evil. Shall we dig into Aristotle and "hating the things we ought"? Sometimes digging out the evil opinions that rilkefan mentions requires a certain vigor, a hatred.

Ironically, Chavetz labels those who disagree with him on this point as frightening extremists. Voila. We're talking about a principle that, defended in the strict form of Chavetz, defeats itself.

posted by: Jim on 10.30.03 at 09:03 PM [permalink]


posted by: Tom Holsinger on 10.30.03 at 09:03 PM [permalink]

Dear Rilkefan,

Once upon a time the very concept of a Federal government was controversial. This is a battle still being fought unfortunately, by the likes of Luddites such as Grover Norquist. However, it is his right to say what he thinks and I shall defend to the death the right to say such things. I just wish the same could be said for everyone else in the 'marketplace of ideas'. I have a sneaking suspiscion that as many on the extreme right as the left have this concept of Freedom of Speech as they are free to tell other people what they ought to say. Certainly Murdoch's toy Frankenstein hasn't proved exactly 'fair and balanced' according to surveys that his viewers tend to proportionally believe more erroneous facts. The truth is not only the first causality of war, justice and fairness are the first causalities of factionalism and expediency. So wrote Thucydides in the 'Peloponesian War', a document that could be recommended highly to those who seem committed to further shrill partisan division of our country.

posted by: Oldman on 10.30.03 at 09:03 PM [permalink]

Oldman - I don't think I get your point. Thucydides had a grievance (as a successful general exiled for political reasons) and was writing in a time of violent factional civil wars. The lesson seems to be "stupidity is stupid". There certainly are things to be learned from him (though about all I recall is how difficult it is to write history and about war arising from economics).

I think Jim says eloquently above what I tried to say tersely. I read some voices (see Tom Hulsinger's link above or David Brooks's recent colunmns) arguing that [now that our guys are in power] we should be civil. Shorter Chaftez: don't assume the other guy is stupid until he proves it. I don't find this objectionable or enlightening - and it would be much more interesting if he had not just spoken in generalities (for example by taking on the "if you opposed the war, you were for Saddam" crowd or whatever the opposite-side-of-the-aisle equivalent is.)

Anyway, Dan is preaching to the choir here - perhaps he should try to convert rowdier corners of the b-sphere.

posted by: rilkefan on 10.30.03 at 09:03 PM [permalink]


Having read, and re-read art's starting post, i dont see where he's guilty of what you accuse. First, it looks like humor to me, and second he looks like he means that the comments will be on topic.

maybe you should apologize, huh, what with the whole civility thing you are pushing.

actually, if hes being honest, and i'm right, he'll scold me for correcting you.


posted by: tommyg on 10.30.03 at 09:03 PM [permalink]


I think what rilkefan is reacting to is that Art implies that it's only the anti-Bush folks who are uncivil or intolerant. It's actually pretty amusing that even partisans can read a post like Dan's (er... Josh's) and nod their heads, thinking of all those close-minded people on the other side.

posted by: KenB on 10.30.03 at 09:03 PM [permalink]

Based on my experience writing for a rowdy right-wing college newspaper eons ago, I am wary of lectures on civility. At the ivy league school, you were deemed to be uncivil the moment you made a statement that challenged the then current stifling orthodoxy, or showed any William F. Buckley influences in your political thought.

Civility simply means treat other people with good manners and the respect that your Southern mamma would have taught you. Don't assume they are stupid, racist, or Saddam lovers just because you do not share their beliefs. But don't be afraid of strong or colorful langauge if that is appropriate. (Refer to the post entitled Camille Paglia's Grandstanding Narcissism below.) Just don't, as a now famous collegue of mine once did, refer to an opponent as "allegedly syphlitic", because he was intoxicated with pasting nasty multi-syllabic words together.

posted by: appalled moderate on 10.30.03 at 09:03 PM [permalink]

"There may be suitable occasions for vitriol in the forum. These may be not so rare, and their suitability may derive from reasons other than the subjective fact that the other disagrees with one. There is wisdom in mildness and charity, but there is often wisdom, even duty, in showing hatred, publicly, to those who espouse ideologies which in fact are evil. Shall we dig into Aristotle and "hating the things we ought"? Sometimes digging out the evil opinions that rilkefan mentions requires a certain vigor, a hatred."

The rationale you're offering, Jim, is roughly all it takes to get us back to the meaningless angry shouting matches that pass for "discourse" in the blogosphere.

Suppose I believe an argument someone is making to be "evil", or that person to be "malevolent". Or suppose I just think they're stupid. It's uncommonly easy, in that case, to demonstrate what's wrong with their point of view.

In other words, if someone goes totally off track in their arguments, it's easier to criticize them than if they only went partly off track.

Furthermore, if I use calm, clear rhetoric to illustrate what's wrong with their views, I make a stronger impression than if I get angry and start spewing hate-filled rhetoric.

More people actually believe my side of it if I manage to remain level-headed and offer clear, precise reasoning. And maybe they like me better too.

Anger and emotion are traps most bloggers and blog commenters fall into every day. We neatly divide ourselves into two camps and throw spitballs at one another all day long.

Which makes the whole thing meaningless, except perhaps as a form of entertainment for some.

A few blogs admirably fight this trend every day -- Drezner, Tacitus, OxBlog among them. Just a few places, really, where discussion might end up having meaning or substance.

posted by: William Swann on 10.30.03 at 09:03 PM [permalink]

Jim's rationale seems to provide an exception for hatred if you deem the other side as evil, which is obviously a subjective measure.

As example, there are sites on the blogosphere where the mere critique of Sharon's policies will quickly earn you the title of anti-semite. There are others where the suggestion of defendent rights in rape trials will similarly induce an explosive outburst.

I'm finding that many sites end up being 'circle-jerks' (sorry for the crudeness) where they shut out any opposing views to wallow in the supposed superiority of their own side.

posted by: Kismet on 10.30.03 at 09:03 PM [permalink]

This is not a subject likely to be advanced by considering it in the context of the whole blogosphere. Individual bloggers, or other sites with comment sections can uphold their own idea of standards for civil discourse, either through exhortation or by vigorously pruning posts they find offensive.

The Canadian Flit site does this, and is able to sustain a remarkably elevated level of discourse in its comments section. It also has a fairly small readership. The online magazine Slate has a far larger readership, and edits its Fray section very loosely. Consequently the Fray is only occasionally worth reading anymore. Where one strikes the balance is a judgment call -- if you want to insist on keeping vitriol (or lousy writing, or profanity) out of a specific forum you are putting a ceiling on the size of your audience; if you are intent on maximizing the size of your audience the tone and context of your comment section is likely to decline.

posted by: Zathras on 10.30.03 at 09:03 PM [permalink]

I'd be curious to know how much pruning Dan or Tacitus have to do, really. My impression is that it's not that much. I think the contexts wherein people can have generally productive discussions are by and large unconsciously self-policing. The biggest factor is the tone of the host. Drezner posts calmly, lays out straight facts, isn't afraid to part with his traditional ideological buddies, and generally exudes an aura of intelligent deliberation. Same with Tacitus and to some degree Calpundit. This draws good commenters, which sets an example for the others.

I think people underestimate how much their environment dictates behavior like this. I know I'm more inclined to be an ass in discussions where everyone is being an ass. And there's a reason you'll see graffiti all over an abandoned buildings and none on the bank across the street.

Another implication of this is that the tone can change at any time, and the new environment will invite more flamewars, which will degrade the environment even more, and so on. I think this is starting to happen at Calpundit, and Tacitus has rubbed the border a few times. I'm guessing the best solution would be swift, objective, and merciless moderation at those times, and general lassez-fairity otherwise.

posted by: sidereal on 10.30.03 at 09:03 PM [permalink]

All of this precludes the notion that there are some things about which a civil response is neither required nor desireable. The question being argued, then perhaps is, which?

posted by: Bithead on 10.30.03 at 09:03 PM [permalink]

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