On Civility

I note that one topic that often pops up in various postings and comments here and elsewhere is the issue of civility. A writer will fequently charge another with incivility, and there will be a riposte charging hypocrisy, since, after all, the first writer has occasionally vented…and so on. Of course, discussions of religion and irreligion tap into deep passions, and philosophical debate always risks bruised egos. So, small wonder that our missives occasionally get heated. Also, of course, there is the nature of the medium. People tend to be much ruder online than they would ever be face to face. On the other hand, I don’t think that blog postings and comments need to be as staid and prim as, for instance, articles in refereed journals. Remarks with a bit of a bite are fun to write and fun to read, and unquestionably one reason we blog is for the entertainment value. Still, too much heat does obscure the light, and gratuitous rudeness is not excusable in any medium. So, what sorts of rules of civility should we respect in our postings and comments? I suggest the following:

1) Start by being nice. Realize that someone who disagrees with you is another mere mortal, trying to make it through this vale of tears as well as he /she can, and that, given the severe limitations imposed on human cognitive capacities, might well have reached, rationally and in good faith, a conclusion opposite yours. So, try, at least initially, to express your disgreements firmly but politely.

2) Ignore most rudeness. Darwin observed that a big dog will scornfully ignore the snarling of a little dog. Be a big dog. Let the little dogs snarl and yap. You have better things to do than to get into a contest of bandying insults with boors.

3) If someone is persistently and gratuitiously rude and nasty, and you’re fed up, and you are not afraid to get into the proverbial pissing contest with the skunk, then go ahead. Let him have it if you feel like it. One of the best ways to let them have it is to point out their gratuitous rudeness, and this will sometimes shame them into silence. On the other hand, the really hard cases–like some of the various online “apologists” who have made a career out of scurrility–are incapable of shame. With these guys, no one can rightly charge you with incivility if you pay them back in kind since, after all, that is the coinage they themselves have chosen to exchange.