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When Civility Matters

Paul Krugman thinks that civility in discussion is not that important. Roughly stated, the idea is this. Sure, we should be polite and civil to our interlocutors, he writes, but some interlocutors are beyond the pale. To those, you can be as rude and dismissive as you’d like. The difference is whether the other is seriously interested in finding the truth.

 When there’s an honest, good-faith economic debate — say, the ongoing controversy about the effects of quantitative easing — by all means let’s be civil. But in my experience demands for civility almost always come from people who have forfeited the right to the respect they demand.

Krugman’s stated target is a kind of stereotypical Austrian economists. (Of whom we have a few here.) For the sake of argument, let’s say he is right about this, and that these people are not serious scholars. Most stereotypes have a grain of truth to them. If so, that would be a tremendous indictment of these people. As you know, I take honestly searching for the truth pretty seriously.

But Krugman calls their ideas cockroaches and zombies. The implication, of course, is that they should not be taken seriously, but eradicated. Brian Leiter seems to agree. In response to Krugman’s post, Leiter linked to one of his essays. It contains the following (important) passage:

Understanding is impeded by uncivil language from the teacher towards the student. Insults, disparaging or derivise (sic) remarks, or expressions of contempt make their targets defensive, alienated, and angry. It is hard to see how such a response is conducive to learning and understanding.

The point is “to insure that the student is, both cognitively and affectively, maximally able to understand and learn”.

Leiter is right, and the point is very important. Civility in the classroom is required to facilitate effective learning. If you ridicule or dismiss people’s beliefs, or the people themselves, you make them shut off. When we think poorly of our teachers as persons or thinkers, we stop taking their ideas seriously. We dismiss them out of hand. Such are the workings of psychological bias.

The significance of this point goes further than that, however. True, civility is important so that other people might continue to learn and discuss with an open mind. But it is just as important for us to learn and discuss with an open mind. When we ridicule or dismiss other people’s beliefs, we shut ourselves off. And no responsible thinker should want to do that, ever.

This is especially true of political views, where the temptation to ridicule and dismiss views with which one disagrees is much, much greater than in other areas of inquiry. When we can either face up to hard questions and admit to some confusion or uncertainty, or dismiss the other as a moron and continue to feel good about our having our hearts in the right place, you can count on our minds taking the latter option almost all of the time.

The problem here is that we judge who is beyond the pale in terms of the moral, political, and social scientific views we already accept. And it is all too easy to put more and more people beyond the pale – especially those with views that, if they were somehow right, would be real threats to our most cherished ways of thinking.

Far too often, libertarians attack egalitarian ideas, philosophers, and politicians as thinly veiled Stalinists. If they do not explicitly defend full-blown socialism, they say, that is only because they do not fully explicate their ideas. It is safe to say that the egalitarians themselves do not feel like this criticism really addresses their views, or even takes them seriously. The combination of the two is no coincidence.

Those who attack libertarians – including Krugman – often attack them as dumb, insensitive, cold-hearted, gun-waiving morons. (Just Google “Slate.com and libertarianism”.) Needless to say, most libertarians do not think these attacks puts much pressure on their views, or even them seriously. The combination of the two is no coincidence.

It is tempting to think we can be rude to those who are beyond the pale. But that is exactly the problem. It is with them that should our hardest to be civil.

  • Michael

    “Just Google “Slate.com and libertarianism””

    Do you mean Salon?

  • Fritz

    Krugman is beyond the pale.

  • chiarabrown

    Amen. I fear you are mostly speaking to a brick wall, but it needs be said, and repeated, again and again, anyway.

  • Kevin Vallier

    AMEN!

  • Les Kyle Nearhood

    The main problem I have with Krugman is not that he is rude, or dismissive, or pedals snake oil it is that he is just simply dishonest.

    • Sean II

      A great example, right there. Is it uncivil to say “snake oil”? Krugman wouldn’t like it, so it must be right? And what about calling him dishonest. Surely that’s uncivil.

      See the point? There is no civil way to call a dishonest snake oil salesman what he is, so how is one supposed to describe such people?

      The civil answer, it seems, is: describe them any way you like, just for god’s sake don’t describe them accurately. ‘Cause that would be rude.

  • Sean II

    You make a good case for civility as a form of mental hygiene that helps defend against confirmation bias/epistemic closure, but you seem to be ignoring the costs of civility.

    Like, to start with, it’s incredibly dull. Humor and vividness of language are often the first casualties when civility goes out on campaign. Clarity suffers too, as people seek to soften or conceal the edges of disagreement by needlessly fuzzying up their thoughts.

    Ever listen to a Blogginheads podcast? Those people often go out of their way to be civil and the results can be quite ridiculous. You hear a lot of sentences that sound like…”So there’s a sort of tradition within what I guess you might call liberalism or maybe neo-liberalism that privileges – I mean, despite arguably doing some good, of course – that privileges a sort of, I don’t want to say…fetish for, um, private desires over, you know, shared social blah, blah, blahs.”

    A simple way to look at debate civility: it’s a way of courting your enemies, at the expense of anesthetizing your friends.

    • adrianratnapala

      Much of the bloggingheads waffle is because it is live. When a highly educated, more-or-less articulate person doesn’t have the time to perfect her sentences, she produces complicated ones with big words.

      • Sean II

        I know what you mean too. But most humbly and beseechingly, in the spirit of deepest civility, I’m afraid I must disagree.

        When I speak live, I don’t sound like that. Much as I’d love to believe this has something to do with exceptional talent, I’m sure it doesn’t.

        The more likely explanation is that an everyday smart person can speak quite sharply when speaking sharply is his goal. But add in an ulterior motive like, say, the desire to avoid giving offense at all costs, and you turn an everyday smart person into a mush-mouthed supplicant. Why? Because when your thoughts are opposed to someone else’s, the simple act of stating them clearly, confidently, convincingly can be quite offensive. People hate that.

        But don’t take my word for it. Compare the Blogginheads waffle with some other source of live talk where giving offense is less of a risk. May I suggest…Porcfest?

    • TracyW

      I think one can be rude, or at least uncivil while making good arguments, which is quite different to not engaging with your opponents ideas at all.
      It’s like the difference between saying
      “Your argument is wrong for reasons X, Y and Z. Consequently you’re being stupid”,
      versus
      “You’re stupid so your argument is wrong.”

      The latter is an ad hominem. The former also says “you’re being stupid” as like it’s a choice, as opposed to dismissing the entire person as fixedly stupid. The former is taking them seriously, if aggressively, the latter is being dismissive. The latter, as a style of argument, blunts the mind of the person who is making it.

      (In part, I think this because some people regard any disagreement with themselves as rude and I seldom see much point in arguing about definitions.)

      • Sean II

        That’s the funny thing though, isn’t it? As libertarians the people we oppose are conservatives and liberals (oh sure, you meet an avowed fascist now and again, but…).

        Apart from your top-of-the-line intellectual models, liberals don’t make arguments. They just form consensus and then roll their eyes and gasp at anyone who dissents. Once they’ve adopted a position, it becomes self-evident…and after that, only an evil or stupid person would disagree.

        A good example to see this in action is transgender awareness. 20 years ago it hardly existed beyond a small number of directly involved people. 10 years ago it started to become fashionable among left intellectuals. 5 years ago it made it’s way down to the foot soldiers of leftish political awareness. And today, there is one right answer which any decent person must know and that’s that. Anyone who even hesitates now is a vicious piece of shit.

        Thus do we arrive at a point where millions of people are willing to ruin someone’s life and career for saying something they wouldn’t have noticed as odd just 5 years ago.

        And the punch line is: we’re supposed to be civil to them?
        Riiiiiiiight.

        • TracyW

          Actually I find many of them pretty good at arguing in the early stages of the process you describe.

          The temptation, once the political majority has been achieved, to respond to anyone who differs as a “vicious piece of shit” is indeed noticeable, but it’s hardly confined to leftists. To quote J. S. Mills:

          “With regard to what is commonly meant by intemperate discussion, namely invective, sarcasm, personality, and the like, ….against the unprevailing they may not only be used without general disapproval, but will be likely to obtain for him who uses them the praise of honest zeal and righteous indignation.”

          http://www.bartleby.com/130/2.html

          • Sean II

            Nah…it really is confined to leftists now. I don’t know why, but their team just somehow got a monopoly on creating taboos, banishing offense-givers, etc.

            When did the right last wield this power? Maybe for a little while after 9/11, but not much since. Don’t get me wrong: I’m sure conservatives would be happy to abuse that power if it fell into their hands. It just hasn’t for some time.

  • Under any blog post like this, David Henderson deserves a mention as being a paragon of civility. I think his kind of civility is something everyone can learn from, but especially libertarians. It’s good to be right, but it’s even better to be right and good. Importantly, many underestimate the persuasive power of simply being civil, kind, and decent. More of that kind of libertarian would be great.

    • Sean II

      “Importantly, many underestimate the persuasive power of simply being civil, kind, and decent.”

      If that’s true – if civility really is the path to persuasion – then how did Progressives/Liberals get where they are?

      For 50 years they’ve been calling their opponents greedy Scrooges, pigs, racists, baby killers, etc., while loudly impugning the intelligence, motives, character, and sanity of anyone who disagrees.

      This has not stopped them gaining near-total control of education & academia, nor from continuing to dominate arts and entertainment, along with a still-massive share of traditional media. So if there’s a penalty for being uncivil, why do they never seem to pay it?

      I grant you it seems intuitive to believe civility ==> persuasion. It’s just that the evidence suggests otherwise.

      • It appears we’re talking about two different things. I said civility has persuasive power, not that “civility is the path to persuasion.”

        • Sean II

          Interesting distinction there…although of course you realize that “interesting” is just a civil way to say “vanishingly small”.

          Don’t look now, but I’m getting the hang of this shit!

          • I definitely agree with your last sentence, especially the last two words.

          • Sean II

            2/5

  • anon

    I really hope Krugman is the last man alive to buy bitcoins.

  • Theresa Klein

    The whole “civility” meme got started because a paranoid schitzophrenic shot a congresswoman in the head and liberals blamed it on the “incivility” of the Tea Party.

    So now, a few years later and here we are with Krugman declaring that people who demand civility have almost always forfeited the right to it.
    Irony. LOL.

  • Irfan Khawaja

    For once I agree with Sean II. I find this post facile in the extreme.

    Most people don’t think that retaliatory force is morally equivalent to initiatory force. Is retaliatory rudeness, then, equivalent to initiatory rudeness? Morally speaking, doesn’t it matter who started the chain of rude assertions? Or are recipients of rudeness obliged to turn the other discursive cheek? My answers: no, yes, no.

    There is also such a thing as bullshit. As we all know, care of Harry Frankfurt, that’s a technical term now in philosophy. Does bullshit deserve civility? Yes, there are civil disagreements to be had about whether S’s argument that p counts as bullshit. But there are also paradigm cases of bullshit. Is it wrong to call them “bullshit”? My answers: no, no.

    What you think about Krugman’s rhetoric depends on who you think he’s going after. In some cases, I sympathize with him. Not all libertarians are civil. If incivility deserves rudeness, libertarians sometimes deserve retaliatory rudeness. (And vice versa, or mutatis mutandis, or whatever.)

    An enormous amount of supposedly “civil” discourse expresses tendencies to passive aggression and insincerity. I don’t see that civility in that guise is any better than overt rudeness. Personally, I prefer rudeness to either. You could say, “Why not avoid both extremes?” But there isn’t always a civil-authentic way of responding to everything, regardless of content and context. So sometimes one has to make a trade-off.

    While I’m on this subject, I can’t forbear from mentioning that one way of avoiding rudeness is to say nothing. But sometimes saying nothing betokens its own form of contempt, such as when X writes a critique of Y’s post and Y responds to X with deafening silence without being able to say out loud that he doesn’t regard X as worth responding to. So to paraphrase Mies van der Rohe, civility is not so simple.

    • Theresa Klein

      When it comes to people that deserve retaliatory rudeness, I think libertarian economists (Krugman’s targets) are pretty low on the list.
      There are all sorts of categories of pure bullshit out there that are so much more deserving. Anti-GMO activists for example, are such purveyors of unmitigated horsecrap, that they ought to be hounded out of polite society. I could say the same for the anti-globalization movement people. The vileness of the rhetoric in some parts of the left is just completely off the charts.

      • Irfan Khawaja

        Krugman doesn’t just target libertarian economists. He targets rank-and-file members of the Republican right, and they often deserve exactly what he dishes out to them. Of course, he himself often deserves the equivalent of what he’s dishing out, but that doesn’t affect the point I’m making. In those cases, he deserves it.

        Incidentally, I wasn’t being facetious when I said I was using “bullshit” as a semi-technical term. As I’m using it, “bullshit” isn’t just a highly implausible claim, or even a stupid or stupidly harmful claim, but a claim that combines those things with an independently-verifiable form of intellectual dishonesty.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_Bullshit

        What makes bullshit bullshit is not how absurd or harmful a claim is per se, but the bullshitter’s lack of concern for truth in asserting it. I don’t think incivility is called for *simply* because someone says something crazy. It’s called for when someone says something crazy AND they refuse to engage in any serious way with objections, OR defend their claims with obvious fallacies, etc., OR they give the impression that they simply don’t take their critics seriously because their claims are self-evident, etc. That behavior calls for an “uncivil” response, but personally, I wouldn’t infer from “X is a member of the anti-globalization movement” (by itself) to X should be hounded out of polite society. In my view, you need more than that before you move to Uncivil Mode.

        • Theresa Klein

          It’s called for when someone says something crazy AND they refuse to engage in any serious way with objections, OR defend their claims with obvious fallacies,OR they give the impression that they simply don’t take their critics seriously because their claims are self-evident, etc

          All of those things apply to anti-GMO activists, in my experience. The argument usually goes “I don’t believe the science because MONSANTO!!!!!”

        • Sean II

          “That behavior calls for an “uncivil” response, but personally, I wouldn’t infer from “X is a member of the anti-globalization movement” (by itself) to X should be hounded out of polite society…”

          I see your reign of awesome continues.

          If there’s something we should be on about, it’s not the quest for greater civility, it’s the pursuit of fewer taboos.

          • Irfan Khawaja

            Yeah. I would say that the essential question concerns appropriateness-of-response, not civility. Sometimes it’s appropriate to be uncivil. Evidently that’s a taboo that one can’t broach.

            The whole discussion is skewed by Van Der Vossen’s transferring the original context of discussion from political polemics to the classroom. Krugman wasn’t talking about behavior appropriate the classroom. He was discussing behavior appropriate to political polemics. They’re not the same context, and the same norms don’t apply. The relation between opponents in a polemical confrontation is not the same as that between teachers and students. It’s an adversarial relation, and an over-emphasis on civility sometimes (often) serves to gloss over the fact that adversarial behavior isn’t always civil.

            Incidentally, I don’t know how anyone can, with a straight face, link to a post by Brian Leiter in a defense of “civility.” Lesson: sometimes the strenuous pursuit of civility involves granting the unearned. If anyone in the profession deserves to be treated as the asshole he is, it’s Brian Leiter. But evidently one can’t say that. It’s uncivil to call Leiter an asshole, but fine to write as though Leiter is an authority on discursive civility. That’s a perfect exemplification of the problem here.

          • Sean II

            Yes, again. I’m really glad someone mentioned that, because Leiter is such a miserable piece of shit. At first I thought Bas was dropping his name in sarcasm, but incredibly…no.

            Leiter gives intellectuals a bad name. He’s the kind of guy who makes people root for the school bully over the nerd.

            He’s not a good example of either civility or uncivil invective. His stuff isn’t clever or creative or witty enough for that. He manages to forego civility without gaining anything worth while. Whatta tool.

          • Irfan Khawaja

            The absurdity of the whole conversation is that if you read the Leiter piece that “Bas” linked to, it makes a case for exactly the opposite of what Bas is arguing for. Not that that comes across in anything Bas actually says in the post. Hence the guarded/tortured/too-clever-by-half locution about Leiter’s paper: “It contains the following (important) passage.” Yes, Leiter’s paper “contains” that passage, but as a whole the paper argues for the reverse of everything Bas is prescribing here. Evidently, the Leiter passage was so blindingly original, and so beautifully written, that it had to be quoted for everyone’s delectation. In other words, Bas went out of his way to quote Leiter from a paper whose intention was to attack the very conception of civility Bas was defending, but he made sure to do it, and made sure not to let on that that’s what he was doing. The most uncivil question to ask here would be, “Why?” But at this point, I find it hard to care about either the topic or the answer.

          • Irfan Khawaja

            Yeah. I would say that the essential question concerns appropriateness-of-response, not civility. Sometimes it’s appropriate to be uncivil. Evidently that’s a taboo that one can’t broach.

            The whole discussion is skewed by Van Der Vossen’s transferring the original context of discussion from political polemics to the classroom. Krugman wasn’t talking about behavior appropriate the classroom. He was discussing behavior appropriate to political polemics. They’re not the same context, and the same norms don’t apply. The relation between opponents in a polemical confrontation is not the same as that between teachers and students. It’s an adversarial relation, and an over-emphasis on civility sometimes (often) serves to gloss over the fact that adversarial behavior isn’t always civil.

            Incidentally, I don’t know how anyone can, with a straight face, link to a post by Brian Leiter in a defense of “civility.” Lesson: sometimes the strenuous pursuit of civility involves granting the unearned. If anyone in the profession deserves to be treated as the asshole he is, it’s Brian Leiter. But evidently one can’t say that. It’s uncivil to call Leiter an asshole, but fine to write as though Leiter is an authority on discursive civility. That’s a perfect exemplification of the problem here.

          • jdkolassa

            I find the timing of this post and discussion to be fascinating, because it’s at the same time someone posted this “Authentic Man” comic to Facebook, and more articles about the Satanist Temple popped up in my feed, which caused me to go read up on LaVeyan Satanism again, which dovetails pretty well with what’s being said here.

            Makes me wonder if I’m a gerbil in a simulation being experimented on by aliens.

            http://existentialcomics.com/comic/46

          • Sean II

            By you by any chance mean LeVeyan Satanism…with theistic tendencies?

          • jdkolassa

            Specifically I was looking at the atheistic LaVeyan Satanists, but I have no idea what subtype the Satanist Temple down in Florida is. I am aware there are theistic Satanists beyond just your average rebellious teenager, to the point where there are a couple of different subsects (like the Luciferians) but I don’t really know much about them.

          • Sean II

            May I suggest goggling the phrase “Satanist chicken”.

      • jdkolassa

        Don’t forget the anti-vaxxers, either.

    • Sean II

      “For once I agree with Sean II…”

      Hey, um…thanks, I think. The important thing is you’re right on so many counts. To pick a couple favorites:

      1) Bullshit should be called bullshit. If it’s called anything else, then something important is lost.

      2) A lot of alleged civility really is passive aggression and/or holier than thou posturing. Sometimes the pose of civility is like a form of gaslighting designed to make one’s opponent look nutty for the sin of saying what he actually thinks in candid, natural language. One hears in such “civility” the icy voice of Nurse Ratched: “That’s a very challenging observation, Randall…” Ugh.

      But most of all, 3): I’d rather be called an unreadable hack (as you once called me) than get the silent treatment. I know when I’m being a dick and when I’m not, and I find it very interesting that my most conspicuously ignored comments are NOT the most dickish. They’re usually my best.

      • Irfan Khawaja

        Thanks, man. Hugs.

      • WraithKenny

        The phrase “well, we will just have to agree to disagree” is the most dickish example of your point 2. It seems to be the slogan of a certain political group.

    • adrianratnapala

      The analogy between retaliatory rudeness and retaliatory force doesn’t hold. Indeed, the most vital use for civility to prevent a retaliatory cycle that leads to violence. Once violence has started, then at least sometimes the right thing to do is to retaliate back so hard that ends the fight.

      • Irfan Khawaja

        None of that explains why the analogy doesn’t hold. As far as I can tell, all of it confirms that it does hold. Sometimes holding back prevents a retaliatory cycle, but sometimes striking hard deters those who initiate. The same principle applies both to incivility and to rudeness, and requires judiciousness in the application of retaliatory responses in both cases.

        • Irfan Khawaja

          Sorry, i meant, the same principle applies both to incivility and force.

  • “If you ridicule or dismiss people’s beliefs, or the people themselves, you make them shut off.”

    Well, you MIGHT. It depends on how open-minded they are. If you have and try to retain a critical (including self-critical) attitude, seeing yourself held up to ridicule, though embarrassing and even painful, can really bring it home to you just how silly you have been. There is a sharp contrast between middle-class and working-class culture (in the UK at least, though I suspect elsewhere, too) with regard to the matter of ridicule. Middle-class friends and acquaintances tend not to ridicule each other, at least not in each other’s presence. But working-class people tend to send each other up terribly, at almost every opportunity; though, amongst friends at least, it is done in a friendly-critical way. As a consequence, working-class people tend to be more ‘down to earth’ because, as soon as one of them starts putting on airs or otherwise making an ass of himself, some of his interlocutors will start making fun. I am grateful to some old friends who have ridiculed me, because I learnt from it.

    “When we ridicule or dismiss other people’s beliefs, we shut ourselves off. And no responsible thinker should want to do that, ever.”

    You should speak of people’s theories rather than their beliefs, since peope often hold theories that they do not believe – they hold them as hypotheses. But the real concern should not be people’s theories, but their procedures. One and the same theory may be held critically by one person and dogmatically by another. The latter either ignores criticism or responds to it with ad hoc moves. That is what should be ridiculed. Krugman comes close to saying that, but he repeatedly fails to keep theories and procedures separate.

    “This is especially true of political views”

    Indeed.

    • Sean II

      Yes. Especially that first point*.

      I suspect many people, if they merely look back at their own lives, will find cause to be grateful for some painful ass-chewings that backed them off a bad position. The fact is that being wrong is usually what stings in those experiences.

      We libertarian are supposed to believe in incentives, right? Well the desire to avoid ongoing humiliation is one of the things that makes us change our minds when we’re wrong.

      The advocates of civility – especially unilateral civility – propose to remove that pain penalty from the question. As a result they should expect to see less accomplished persuasion, not more!

      * In the ‘hood over here, that lower class practice of (often friendly) put-downs is called “joaning”. It’s considered an important part of childhood, learning both to joan and by joaned upon.

    • adrianratnapala

      But working-class people tend to send each other up terribly, at almost
      every opportunity; … As a consequence, working-class people tend to be
      more ‘down to earth’…

      This is perilously close to the “tall poppies syndrome”, which is a well loved Australian tradition. It is indeed good at deflating pomposity, but it has an ugly side. This is the kind of social pressure that discourages some kids from doing well at school and going to university. Not all kids will succumb to that pressure, but many do.

      • Yes, anything that can be done well can be done badly, anything that can be used can be abused.

        The difficulty in this case, as in so many others, is that of demarcating the good from the bad. ‘Am I being conceited or do I really have a talent of kind K?’ We only find out by trying.

        Further, someone’s motivation for ridiculing you may be base (envy, general nastiness, or whatever); but the comment made might still reveal a truth.

        • Sean II

          “…but the comment made might still reveal a truth.”

          And it’s almost always the true comments that hurt.

          Which means…the low-hanging fruit of civility is to refrain from saying things which are true. You’re never gonna make a big dent in the civility problem just by holding back false gibes.

    • WraithKenny

      “But the real concern should not be people’s theories, but their procedures.” The dogmatic application of this sentiment is a summary of everything wrong about libertarian politics and Austrian economics. Valid logical structures can follow from impossible premises. “If unicorns, then anything.” Absurd conclusions will be upheld if the logic argument is valid, since the procedure was the “real concern.” The counter-argument to “If unicorns, then the best system is laissez faire” is “no unicorns” but libertarians always say, “but my logic/procedure is correct!” Of course real libertarian theory is far more complex, endlessly complex, and depending on the strain, logically valid, it’s all just vacuous truth, and of no value. The complexity just masks its vacuousness, making it nearly impossible to unpack, and who has the time to politely do all that work for free…hence libertarianism survives.

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