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The problem with civility

Talk about “civility” on the Internet always makes me a little nervous. For a bunch of reasons.

First, I generally try to be civil, but I’d hate to see a Net that is always and only civil. Some rowdiness and rudeness is absolutely required.

Second, civility as a word feels like it comes from a colonial mentality, as if there are the civil folks and then there are the savages. I’m not saying that’s what people mean when they use the term. It’s just what I sometimes hear.

Third, civility is so culturally relative that demanding that someone be civil can actually mean, “Please play by our rules or you shall be removed from the premises!” Which is I guess what gives rise to my second reason.

Fourth, civility seems to be more about the form of interaction, the rhetoric of the interchange. That’s fine. But given a preference, I’d be hectoring people about dignity, not civility. You can be civil without according someone full dignity. If you treat someone with dignity, the civility — and more — will follow. For example, you’ll actually listen. (Note that I fail at this frequently.)

Fifth, civility and dignity are not enough to make the Net the place it ought to be. I would love to see being welcoming taken as a core value for the Best Net, that is, for the Web We Want. Welcoming the stranger is one of the originary traditions of the West, from Abraham inviting strangers into his tent, to the underlying theme of The Odyssey. (Another of our originary traditions: killing or enslaving strangers.) In embracing the stranger, we accord them dignity, we recognize our differences as something positive, and we humble ourselves. So, given a choice, I’d rather hear about a welcoming Net than a merely civil one. (Here’s a shout-out to the new Pew Internet study that reports that we’re not welcoming unpopular views on social media.)

Point five-and-a-half is: Just as welcoming precedes civility, safety precedes welcoming. This is a half point not because safety is a half point but because the outstretched welcoming hand entails reassuring the stranger that she is safe. And more than safe. Safety is essential, but it is obviously nowhere near enough.

Let me be clear, though. When I talk about “the Net,” I’m being misleading. The entire Net is not going to be characterized by any one set of values. And we don’t need the entire Net to be welcoming, civil, and a place where all are treated with dignity. (Safety is a different matter.) But we do need more of the Net to be welcoming, civil, and dignifying. And we absolutely need the networks where power and standing develop to go far beyond civility.

3 Responses to “The problem with civility”

  1. I agree in part David … we don’t need the entire “offline” world to be “civil” either … and it isn’t.

    But, I would love to see a study done that compares the proportion of civil activity in the offline world versus the online world.

    My guess is online we aren’t as civil as one might think. Yes, some rowdiness, as you put it, is necessary … or we’re putting ourselves into inhuman boxes.

    But a disproportionate amount? I think we could be a little more civil with each other online overall.

  2. P.M. Forni’s book, “Choosing Civility: the twenty-five rules of considerate conduct “(https://www.worldcat.org/title/choosing-civility-the-twenty-five-rules-of-considerate-conduct/oclc/48100022) is my go-to resource for a balanced and instructive book on how to behave in an increasingly crowded world. Reading this book forced me to examine, and modify, my own behavior.

  3. “Civility” (like “freedom”, “liberty”, etc.) is today merely a euphemism for unaccountability.

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