On the twitters a few days ago, I asked why Eugene Volokh’s excellent post about responsible behavior following the J-Law hacking wasn’t the target of the usual ad hominem attacks by anti-revenge porn advocate Mary Anne Franks. David Ziff responded that it was the tone, an answer that failed to account for the many other “civil” reactions that were viciously castigated as “blame the victim” misogyny. Still, it seemed to be a great excuse.
But the complaint of tone, of civility, is one that not only permeates discussion amongst the self-proclaimed intelligentsia, but is now manifested in the sort of manipulation of the concept of expression seen from Berkeley’s Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and the Cyber Civil Rights folks. It’s being reflected in laws criminalizing bullying, revenge porn and, indeed, discussion on any matter of controversy. It was, as lawprof Bernie Burks explained to justify ignoring the arguments of law students that they had been burned, the toxic tone.
There are a lot of people who feel more comfortable with discussion characterized by a gentleness, a civility, that they embrace this idea. The debate is more pleasing to their sensibilities, even if each of us draws the line of propriety in a slightly different place. To indulge our own sensibilities, we willingly go blind to the fact that what is happening is that we relinquish a piece of our own argument for the benefit of a more pleasant discussion.
This is a terribly unsound practice, but a hard one to convey. People are willing to give up a lot to avoid unpleasantness, and they are particularly happy to do so when they ask that someone else give up their ground for pleasantness. Fredrik deBoer, a doctoral student in rhetoric, provided a very clear explanation in a post called “ah civility.”
If you ever needed proof that invocations of civility are deployed selectively as a way to quiet criticism and meet the needs of establishment power, here it is.
Elizabeth Stoker Bruening wrote a really sharp essay on the notion of civility recently. As she writes
It’s not an accident that civility forces you to adopt the framework it is premised upon — the one which preferences no values, which automatically considers all arguments potentially equal in merit, the one which supposes the particular aesthetics of the afternoon salon produce the richest debates, and that the richness of a debate is really its goal. It’s not an accident because — as even people who argue for civility will tell you — civility is about, at some level, establishing common ground. Supposedly this works the arguers to a mutually satisfactory resolution.
But there simply isn’t always common ground, and to be artificially placed on common ground is necessarily to lose some of the ground you were holding. So if you are arguing, for instance, that poor people are being mistreated, should be angry about it, and should lobby for change — civility will force you to give up the ‘angry’ part, or at least to hide it. But that was part of your ground! Now you’ve been muzzled.
That’s what civility is, in real life: the powerful telling us that we must speak to them with deference and respect, while they are under no similar responsibility to us.
If this sounds at all familiar, it’s because Mark Bennett made a similar point in his discussion of mitigated speech. The peculiar phenomenon allows the antagonist in a debate to do what he is accusing the opposition of doing. He attacks the tone, which is an attack on the person rather than the argument, to dismiss the argument because the person making it as characterized negatively.
Mark uses “‘angry’ and ‘acrimonious’,” a fairly typical reaction when someone makes an irrational argument that evokes a reaction that is less than supportive. For the anti-revenge porn crowd, it’s misogynist, pervert and rape apologist. What this reflects is an effort to control the language, ideology and rules of engagement so that challenges can be dismissed by tone rather than substance.
But what distinguishes the problem is that it doesn’t stem from an imbalance of power. Rather, it’s the product of an insidious trend that’s been building for a while, where people, particularly young people, have been brainwashed into believing that civility and respect are not merely virtues, but rules.
Even those on the south side of the food chain feel they can attack and dismiss those who don’t adhere to the rules of engagement, despite the fact that it invariably inures to their detriment. It happens here constantly, with young lawyers who have nothing whatsoever to offer attacking because they didn’t receive the “respect” they believe they are due.
While some portion of this stems from the sense of entitlement that permeates Millennial thinking, it’s also the product of their being manipulated to believe that the fuzzy virtue of civility isn’t something they get because they have earned it, but their right to demand. Those in power are responsible for making the young, vulnerable to such nonsensically warm and fuzzy ideas, give away their authority to make their point any damn way they please, and to understand that everyone else has that same right whether it soothes their fevered brow or not.
When the ability to argue one’s cause is lost in the fog of civility, it’s like a game of musical chairs ends. Those in power remain in power. Those left standing are out. The shame is that those who will most assuredly be left standing are the ones who are clueless enough not to realize that they are being manipulated into playing the game of power, a game they are destined to lose.
Don’t let anyone take away your ability to make your case by imposing rules that you only do so in words and ideas that please them. The controversies of the day will pass, and new ones will come along, but if we lose the ability to speak and think in any damn way we please because we have accepted rules of engagement designed to muzzle us, we are doomed.
When someone responds to your substantive point by attacking your tone, tell them to go fuck themselves, not because such language comes easily but because it is offensive. Refuse to play by their rules. Don’t let them put the muzzle on you. Don’t put the muzzle on yourself.
Update: Eugene Volokh has a post not quite supporting Berkeley’s chancellor Dirks, but extolling the virtue of civility.
But one thing at the heart of the e-mail (which I quote at the end of the post) strikes me as quite right: civility is extremely important to the work of the university — as it is to the work of other institutions — and it is quite right that universities stress this to incoming students. Universities shouldn’t have speech codes restricting uncivil speech; but lots of things that shouldn’t be forbidden should nonetheless be spoken out against, especially by institutions whose job is to teach. The skills and habits of civil, productive discourse are worth teaching, just as are other skills and habits related to the acquisition and discussion of knowledge.
No one suggests that people should not be civil, but the argument that universities should be engaged in training students in the “skills and habits” of civil discourse without indoctrinating them to ideological language and ideas of inherent compromise is rhetorical nonsense. Eugene’s playing both sides of the fence here. I call bullshit.