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August 28, 2014

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.

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October 10, 2009

Obama’s dignity

Robert Fuller has a good post at DailyKos that speculates that the Nobel committee was rewarding Obama for his “dignitarian” politics. “Dignitarian politics represents a modern synthesis of libertarian and egalitarian politics.”

Dignitarianism is Robert’s political philosophy. I don’t know the specifics of it, but I like the word it’s based on.
The term has come to connote someone who remains polite and proper, no matter what the occasion, because of a sense of self-worth and confidence. That’s part of what Obama manifests as “coolness” — not in the hep cat sense (yes, I just said “hep cat”), but in the way he refused to rise to the bait the way many of his supporters were hoping he would during the debates with McCain.

Even more important than being dignified is treating others with dignity. Being dignified can be a trick of manners or a technique for self defense, but consistently treating others with dignity is a profound statement of what you think matters in this world. That is what many around the globe are responding to when they hear Obama, especially when they remember the cacklin’ cowboy who came before him. (Pardon me. When it comes to GW Bush, I make an exception to the rule of dignity. I am no Obama.) It is also what many in our national political scene respond to negatively about Obama, confusing it with compromise, appeasement, weakness, or triangulation.

Treating people with dignity is an acknowledgment of the equality of worth aspirations. Your life and values are as serious to you as mine are to me. Dignity is thus hope’s social self. But, for peacemakers, it is also highly pragmatic. If you will not accord opponents dignity, then your only alternative is to conquer them. Sometimes that is required. But a peaceful world is built on dignity accorded to others.

That is what President Obama brings. Coming from the leader of the world’s most powerful nation, it is worth a Nobel Peace Prize if only as a legacy to be fulfilled.

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