A plea for politeness; or, a call for kindness

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?

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15 thoughts on “A plea for politeness; or, a call for kindness

  1. Yeah! Everyone should just be nice to everyone all the time. Like, I thought it was super nice, friendly even, of white feminists to shield Hugo Schwyzer, a known abuser who has a particular penchant/obsession with treating women of colour like garbage, from critique. I mean how kind of them to boost his career and their own careers on the backs of women who STILL cannot catch a break from the feminist movement that claims to be theirs, too.

    Gosh, white feminists are just soooooo nice and anyone thinking or feeling otherwise, or worse, actually HARMED by their actions, should just go away. NO JUDGING-BACKS. Meanies.

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  2. Where’s the humanity in pretending that vast sectors of the population don’t exist while you monopolize the bullhorn? Where’s the politeness or civility in feigning respect and equality when you are the one controlling the dais and thus seizing the power of free expression? You don’t have the right to be polite or to be respected until you demonstrate through your actions that you thoroughly comprehend the privilege that others are rightfully calling you out on and are genuinely interested in abdicating your platform for a time. The true scoundrels in “civil” debate tend to resort to the logical fallacy of “feeling hurt” over carefully listening to other arguments, responding in kind, ensuring that other speakers are equally facilitated, and ideally coming to some middle ground so that others can pick up and participate in the debate. “You should be polite to me”? Man, I wish you could have said that to the late great Stokely Carmichael’s face.

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  3. Jennifer, may I ask – you use “white feminists” as if that was an easily defined group, or as if there was some set of beliefs or attributes that white women who are feminists all share. Could you unpack that a little bit? Did “white feminists” indulge/cover up for HS because of something inextricably connected with their whiteness? And who exactly are you referring to with that description – could you name names?

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  4. How about instead of calling on your “opponents” to be polite/kind in order to save your, apparently, very fragile feelings – you resolve to not let your feelings get hurt. That it is your job: to listen, absorb, and think and not to make demands and insist on civility during a discussion of one of the most uncivil things about this country.

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  5. LT the things Jennifer refers to which you ask about are widely accessible via google. There are many descriptions of him, his actions and the racism of white feminism in perpetuating his power, already on line. You can find answers to your own questions if you look.

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  6. It would appear you have already given the reason for the lack of kindness. Since it was historically associated with respecting those in a superior social position it remains a powerful tool of subversion. Perhaps the screamers and shouters are using the only tool they have to assert the equal humanity? In which case perhaps we owe them kindness and compassion because they feel so powerless or threatened. Maybe we need to let them vent and get it out of their system and that would be kindness

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  7. Thank you all for your comments.

    Something I feel I should clarify – from these comments, and from some comments I’ve had on twitter, it would seem that this post is being interpreted as a contribution to a debate about issues of race in feminism, particularly US feminism. This is absolutely not my intention. I don’t talk about either feminism or race in the post. I am not a feminist activist, and as I am relatively ignorant about a lot of the issues that are currently at stake in contemporary feminism, I would never try to wade into that debate. Furthermore, I’m British, and a lot of the issues being mentioned by commenters here – for example, the inclusion of Hugo Schwyzer in feminist circles – are especially unfamiliar to me. (I will confess I had never heard of Hugo Schwyzer until about a week ago, and I haven’t yet familarised myself with what went on there.) I’m a moral and political philosopher, and this post was primarily intended as a semi-philosophical discussion of possible foundations of the idea of civility, rather than a contribution to feminist discourse, on which I’m admittedly quite uninformed.

    I do admit that the thoughts in the post were motivated by some trends I’ve seen in online feminist discourse lately, particularly among UK feminists. But nothing in the post was designed to target feminists specifically, let alone women of colour. Please don’t read this post as an attack on #solidarityisforwhitewomen, or as any kind of an attempt to defend white feminists from charges that have been made against them. That is not my intention and I would never dream of attempting to contribute to a debate on which I’m ill informed and ill qualified to speak.

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  8. I agree with you that it is a bad idea to withhold compassion until that compassion has been demonstrated to you. By default, one should be compassionate. Moreover, on a moral level I think it is vital that we should treat people as universally worthy of consideration. And, I agree that in message board circles the expression ‘tone police’ is used too much, since trolls be a-trollin’.

    That said, I do not agree that one should even strive to be respectful as a rule. That is because I do not think it is possible to adopt a general rule of respect without thereby losing the ability to communicate effectively.

    Often, we will find ourselves in the company of people who have genuinely different opinions. Moreover, in many cases of that kind, the discursant actively self-identifies with certain opinions (since the opinions reflect some important life project or other). In many of these cases, your peer can and will feel legitimately offended when their opinions are challenged by mere criticism. All the same, it is occasionally both right and good for us to both offer the criticism, and to be forthcoming about how the criticism counts as a challenge.

    Here is an example. Suppose if I am speaking to a fan of the Yankees, and I know I am speaking to a fan of the Yankees. I might offer a searing criticism of the Yankees and hence offend the fan. In such cases, it seems fine to say that I have been disrespectful towards the Yankees, and plausible to say I have disrespected the fan in doing so. But on the face of it, it is not plausible to say that I can be faulted for what I have said. If I am held to a standard where I must be as anodyne as possible in expressing my opinions about the Yankees (so as to count as respectful), I shall be held to a standard that hinders my ability to communicate criticism effectively. For while there are ways of defusing arguments by putting them in the most neutral terms possible — adopting euphamism and technical language — these roundabout ways of speaking often masks and distorts the significance of what has been said.

    In short: so long as reason is led by passion, disagreement will run the chance of disrespect. I agree that we should not strive to be disrespectful, since that is very bad stuff. But we cannot be held to a standard where we are expected to be respectful, because sometimes respectfulness is the enemy of sincerity and truthfulness. It is our job, as civil and productive people, to protect Cordelia from the likes of King Lear.

    * (As an aside: in my experience of activist circles, quite a bit more care is taken to be able to speak on points of personal privilege when one is being egregiously attacked. But that’s neither here nor there.)

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  9. “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.”

    I find this part problematic for a couple reasons.

    First of all is the fact that many instances of people whining about “tone policing” involve the whiner feeling that their rights have been denied by the “tone policer”, or that their identities have been attacked by the “tone policer”, or that they’ve been insulted and abused by the “tone policer.” Obviously there are times when these perceived slights are little more than delusions, but one cannot deny that these perceived slights are often what causes the whining about “tone policing”

    Secondly, and more to the point, it’s clear to me that we need to maintain compassion even towards those deadset on doing us harm. Compassion does not mean tolerating abuse, but it does mean that you recognize that your attacker is acting out of delusions and that it’s in everyone’s best interests to appeal to their better nature.

    We can call out people’s toxic behavior and toxic words without insulting them, or demeaning them as fellow human beings, even if they have chosen to insult us or demean us. Always take the high road

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  10. “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.”

    Just today I did a workshop with colleagues about “Transactional Analysis” – what you’ve described above would fit in the “adult-adult” state. So much of internet trolling/abuse etc seems to be domineering “parent” trying to force the other person into “naughty child” role. There is an awful lot of acting out going on!

    On the “virtue of anger” – this may be of interest.
    http://dwighttowers.wordpress.com/2013/08/24/the-virtue-of-anger-aquinas-raymcgovern/

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  11. Just yes please to this idea. In London these last couple of days it has been umbrellagedon – with a tiny bit of such intuition or the dance steps of politeness you suggest (as in, hey, I’ll lify my umbrella so you can pass by) all would have been wellish. Or at least bearable.

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