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16.6.06

Learning to be Uncivil

We tend to think of incivility as a sort of natural state, an impulse of our id that must be, or at least can be, reined in by the superego's insistence on civility. Incivility is seen as a sort of "letting go," dropping a culturally-imposed restraint in order to show your true self. Working from this model, I've tended to see my own penchant for civility as being a result of having less of the dreaded uncivil id. I "naturally" fail to be uncivil because I just don't have the feelings that drive incivility. This conception, however, seems dangerously self-congratulatory -- I, the enlightened white man, have perfected my inner nature, while the rest of you sods have to be allowed to vent now and then.

Luckily, there's another explanation -- incivility is a learned skill, just as much as civility is. Neither is more primal. Looking back on my life, it seems that every time I let someone have it (even if just in my own mind), I've come to regret it. This is not an indicator of the intrinsic badness of civility -- most succcessful bloggers could probably point you to a dozen posts where they are proud (even during their most civil moments) of how uncivil they were. But neither is my regret at my past incivility just a guilt trip based on the idea that incivility is ipso facto wrong. What's really happening is that I'm no good at being uncivil. I haven't learned and internalized the rules for what situations are worth being uncivil about, and what kinds of incivility are effective. So when I give it a try, I do a poor job of it, see rationally that I messed up, and retreat to an across-the-board civility whose failures are less obvious. I can't say how I got started down this road -- perhaps some degree of intrinsic disposition is at play -- but once I did, it became self-reinforcing.

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