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The Uses and Uselessness of Civility

One of the recurring arguments in the political blogosphere is over civility. My impressionistic estimate is that 75% of blog posts and 90% of comments involve heaping either vitriol or ridicule on those who disagree. So it's inevitable that there will be periodic pious calls for civility, to cut out the swearing and ad hominems and respect the arguments of those who disagree. Various arguments are made against civility -- we need to fight fire with fire, civility is an instrument of oppression, it's important to express the rage we feel, etc. -- but the arguments for civility boil down to the pragmatic. The proponents of civility charge that the only way to make political progress is to state one's ideas in a calm and logical way, thereby engaging in real dialogue with the other side and winning them over by the force of reason.

The argument for civility is either "a steaming load of crap" or "inconsistent with what we know about human psychology," depending on what your civility preference is. Let me put it this way: have you ever seen a blogger state that their mind was changed on an issue of importance because they read one or more reasoned arguments from the other side? I've been reading political blogs for four years, and I can't recall a single example. There are some superficially suitable cases, but upon deeper examination they quickly collapse into one of several alternative cases -- 1) the blogger in question had been on the fence, not really committed to a position on the issue at hand, or 2) the change of opinion was due to other, non-rational causes (e.g. a desire to stake out an identity as a contrarian, or a wholesale ideological conversion), and their new compatriots' civil arguments (as well as their vitriolic ones!) are invoked as a post-hoc rationalization, or 3) the thing at issue was not a major question upon which very much was staked, and thus there was little to lose or gain by switching sides.

By and large, one's receptiveness to arguments is based not on the merits of the argument, but on what kind of a person one wants to be and who one wants to be allied with. One side -- even its "civil" memebers -- is not going to really listen to civil arguments coming from the other side. Arguments are rejected first, and then that rejection is justified. Rejection of a vitriolic argument will be based on its ad hominems, while rejection of a civil argument will be rejected on the basis that the opposing side must not have any logical foundation, since its best attempt failed to convince.

Does that mean civility is pointless, and that those bloggers that practice it should give up and join the rest in mockery and brow-beating? No. Civil blogging may preach to the same choir, but it has a different sermon. A civil post tells like-minded thinkers that their side's views are rooted in ironclad logic. They reassure the vitriolic crowd that their positions could be justified were they ever to find that elusive creature, the openminded opponent. The lack of response to civil posts goes to prove to likeminded partisans that the other side will listen only to force.

And of course there are those of us who just enjoy writing and reading civil posts. They play to our skills and flatter our self-concepts. But I -- and those who already agree with me, or who may come to agree with me for non-rational reasons -- recognize that the show of appealing to the other side's logical capacity is just a show.


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