Politeness has been getting a bad rap lately. While there is widespread consensus that sending people threats of violence is unacceptable, the idea that we should also be polite to one another is a lot more controversial. In a piece on Comment is Free today, we are told that recent responses by high-profile writers to online abuse and trolling are “less about combating abuse than reasserting their role as gatekeeper”, and that “campaigns against trolling…are less to do with concerns about civility than they are about exercising control over public debate”. Anyone familiar with online social justice activism will be familiar with the objections to “tone policing” that arise whenever one party to an argument asks for a little more politeness or civility. The thought here is that by requesting civility, or refusing to engage until others are polite, those with power and privilege stifle dissent and silence their detractors. In turn, less privileged or marginalised people are dismissed as trolls, their justified anger falsely portrayed as harassment or abuse.
There is a genuine and legitimate worry about the potential for norms of politeness and civility to be exploited by the powerful in this way. For much of history the idea of politeness has performed exactly this function, preserving existing hierarchies and shielding the powerful and privileged from critique. This is because on one possible interpretation of the idea, politeness means something like “deference to authority” or “respect for one’s superiors”. Politeness here is something that is owed to people by virtue of their place in the social hierarchy. It is the fact that I am above you in the pecking order, that I have power or authority over you or am in some sense your superior, that makes politeness required when talking to me. This view of politeness is closely linked to conservative notions of decorum or etiquette – you ought to be polite to me because that is the done thing, given who I am and our relative positions in the social order.
Now if this is all there is to politeness, I think we would have good reasons to jettison the idea altogether. This “deference to authority” view is, as the recent critics of politeness point out, inherently conservative, operating to preserve power and privilege and to prevent those who have traditionally been marginalized or oppressed from getting too uppity and attempting to disrupt the current social structure. But what I would suggest is that this is just one possible interpretation of what politeness is, and that there is another much more progressive and egalitarian way to interpret politeness. And it is this alternative meaning that many of the people currently calling for more civility are actually appealing to.
On this other version of the ideal, politeness is something you owe to me not in virtue of my natural superiority over you, but in virtue of our equality. You should be polite to me, not in deference to my authority, but in recognition of our shared humanity, according to which I, like you, am a human being with feelings, weaknesses and frustrations; I am vulnerable and capable of being hurt, just as you are. On this notion of politeness, we should be civil to one another in our interactions not in order to preserve privilege and stifle dissent, but to protect one another’s fragile natures from unnecessary hurt and cruelty. It is an ideal of civility grounded in equality and shared humanity, rather than hierarchy and deference. Perhaps the terms “mutual respect” or even “kindness”, might be more accurate than politeness then, with all its stuffy and outdated conservative baggage. Requesting this kind of politeness and respect is not an attempt to maintain my superior position in the status quo by silencing your dissent. Instead, it is asking that you recognise my weakness and vulnerability, and behave with kindness, compassion and charity towards me; and promising to treat you in the same way, because I recognise that you share these human frailties with me.
This egalitarian notion of civility as mutual respect does not entail that those with less power and fewer resources cannot express their justified anger about the injustices they have suffered. Nor does it mean that there is no room in political discourse for passionate expressions of outrage and indignation. Many of those who rail against civility and “tone policing” do a disservice to the valuable tools of anger and outrage, by falsely equating these with insult and abuse. Anger has always been a powerful weapon in the armory of movements for greater social justice, and we should not seek to stifle or neutralise this. But even if you’re angry – even if you’re rightly, justifiably, boiling with rage and fury – this doesn’t mean you should blind yourself to the humanity of your opponents. They may be misguided, and they may be ignorant. But insofar as they are not actively hostile or disrespectful towards you – insofar as they refrain from denying your rights, attacking your identity or insulting and abusing you – they remain deserving of your kindness and compassion.
So I want to issue a plea for politeness, or more accurately, a call for kindness. I believe that all of us ought, in our interactions with each other, adopt a norm that says we will treat people with mutual respect, kindness, charity and compassion, provided they do the same for us. We should assume they will do the same for us until they give us good reason to believe otherwise. And this norm applies regardless of who we are talking to; even those more powerful and privileged than we are, are entitled to this mutual respect and kindness. The only alternative is that in every interaction, we withhold our compassion until the other person has proven to us that they are vulnerable enough to be deserving of it; that they present us with a detailed account of their weaknesses and frailties, for us to assess whether they are sufficiently fragile to be worthy of respect, kindness and concern. And really, who of us is in a position to make that kind of judgment?