Civility Is Never Neutral

post by ozymandias · 2017-11-22T16:54:06.248Z · score: 88 (38 votes) · LW · GW · 15 comments

[Crossposted from my blog with minor edits, mostly to get rid of culture war stuff.]

There are a lot of people I know who say something like “the free market of ideas is really important and we need to seek truth. It’s important to let everyone have their fair say and share the evidence that they possess. So what we’re going to do is not shame anyone for expressing any belief, as long as they follow a few common-sense guidelines about niceness and civility.” I am very sympathetic to this point of view but I don’t think it will ever work.

I do not mean to say that it won’t work to personally decide to be as nice and civil as you can. I think that’s a good idea and more people should, and certainly I have met many extraordinarily nice people over the course of my life. The problem is when you make niceness and civility a social requirement, the sort of thing you will be punished for not adhering to.

First, it has been a commonplace observation since the day of John Stuart Mill that civility rules are almost always enforced unfairly. If someone is making an ineffectual and stupid argument, you’re unlikely to take much offense at it; in fact, those arguments are usually just funny. But if someone is hitting you at your actual weak points, pushing you hard on exactly the points you find most difficult to answer, then you’re going to get really upset and triggered and you’re probably not going to respond rationally. Incisive questioning of a locally unpopular view is called “being insightful”; the proponent of a locally unpopular view being triggered by it is called “letting your emotions run away with you in a rational discussion” and “blowing up at someone for no reason.” Incisive questioning of a locally popular view is called “uncharitable” and “incredibly rude”; the proponent of a locally popular view being triggered by it is called “a reasonable response to someone else being a jerk.” It all depends on whether the people doing the enforcement find it easier to put themselves in the shoes of the upset person or the person doing the questioning.

There are lots of tactics that are sometimes civil and sometimes not. Sometimes a cutting satire sums up an entire point more eloquently than anything else; sometimes it misrepresents other people’s viewpoints or is just mean. Sometimes anger is an appropriate way to convey exactly how you feel about an injustice; sometimes anger is cruel. In general, people tend to cut more slack to viewpoints they agree with and viewpoints that don’t threaten them or make them feel defensive. If you like someone, it’s righteous indignation; if you dislike someone, it’s being an oversensitive jerk. If you agree with it, it’s witty and biting; if you disagree with it, it’s strawmanning and misrepresenting others.

Civility norms will always be enforced disproportionately against viewpoints that the people in power don’t like. This is why a lot of free speech advocates are cautious about campus speech codes and other attempts to enforce civility on campus, but I think it’s worth considering even in a social setting.

Second, people’s differing opinions often lead them to have different conclusions about what is and is not civil.

Consider the concept of radical honesty. Radical honesty means that you should not say or withhold information to manipulate someone’s opinion of you. For example, proponents of radical honesty hold that if you think someone is being obnoxious, you should say that without even trying to be tactful. The proponents of radical honesty would argue that radical honesty is (to quote the website) “the kind of authentic sharing that creates the possibility of love and intimacy”, and for that reason calling people obnoxious when you think they’re obnoxious is, in fact, the nicest and most civil thing to do. Conversely, the mainstream opinion is that if you are trying to be nice to people you probably shouldn’t insult them at all even a little bit.

Or imagine that your Great-Aunt Gertrude and your Great-Aunt Bertha are trying to work together on Thanksgiving dinner. Great-Aunt Gertrude is a proper Southern lady. She thinks no one should curse in mixed company (in fact, she’s rather suspicious of the word ‘goshdarnit’). She believes it is unconscionably rude for children not to say “sir” and “ma’am” to their elders.

Conversely, Great-Aunt Bertha skipped school in the fifties to go get drunk with sailors and was the first woman in the Hell’s Angels. Great-Aunt Bertha thinks it is very rude that Great-Aunt Gertrude keeps saying “a-HEM” five times a sentence just because she’s talking the way she normally talks. It’s not polite to interrupt what people are saying by getting offended and storming out. And that whole “sir” and “ma’am” business is actually offensive. Children are people and it is wrong to treat them as if they are subservient to adults.

Great-Aunt Bertha and Great-Aunt Gertrude will have some difficulty agreeing about what is polite behavior at the Thanksgiving table.

One could resolve these problems by taking some authority on etiquette, perhaps Miss Manners, and then saying that civility is officially now defined as doing what Miss Manners says to do. On the other hand, many aspects of etiquette have nothing to do with being nice to people but instead are ways of signalling that one is upper-class, or at least a middle-class person with pretensions of same. (Most obviously, anything about what forks one uses; more controversially, rules about greetings, introductions, when to bring gifts, etc.) You wind up excluding poor and less educated people, which people in many spaces don’t want.

So what’s the solution? There isn’t one that works literally 100% of the time. If you just give up on socially enforcing civility at all, then you get 4Chan. Not to bash 4Chan, but I for one am pretty happy about the existence of social spaces that are not 4Chan.

I think it’s important to think carefully about what your space is and is not for. Maybe this is actually just Great-Aunt Bertha’s Thanksgiving, and Great-Aunt Gertrude will have to suck up the curse words or organize her own Thanksgiving.

Sometimes you do want civil dialogue to occur between two groups who disagree a lot about what civility is. If everyone involved has good faith and is willing to compromise, that can happen okay. For example, maybe Great-Aunt Gertrude really cares about not hearing sex jokes, and Great-Aunt Bertha really cares about being allowed to swear, and they can have Thanksgiving together both feeling only a little bit uncomfortable.

If the rules are explicit (for example, in an online group with moderators), it’s a good idea to make sure all sides are equally represented in the group of people who enforce the rules, so everyone has their concerns respected. If the rules are implicit (for example, in a group of friends), it’s a good idea to focus mostly on correcting the behavior of people you agree with and not the behavior of people you disagree with. If you ever feel scared or defensive, take a break from the conversation: online, this might mean stepping away from your computer, while offline you might ask for a change of subject.

15 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Rob Bensinger (RobbBB) · 2017-11-22T19:52:08.140Z · score: 28 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with this. If you're more concerned about false positives than false negatives, the closest thing to neutral might be something like "treat a thing as violating local civility norms iff the trusted third party who most agrees or sympathizes with the content believes that it violates local civility norms."

comment by ChristianKl · 2017-11-22T19:59:59.428Z · score: 17 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think that your description of Radical Honesty matches the ideals of the people I meet at Radical Honesty workshops and seems to me like a strawman.

comment by ozymandias · 2017-11-22T20:47:47.488Z · score: 13 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for pointing this out! I was working off articles like this one, but I certainly don't want to misrepresent the community.

comment by ChristianKl · 2017-11-23T11:27:05.023Z · score: 15 (7 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In general if you take a mainstream media article for as an explanation for what a community is like you are at best going to get a view of the most superficial aspects of a community.

Then a newspaper article has to serve the culture of it's audience and has to make a good story.

comment by tcheasdfjkl · 2017-11-23T06:44:57.157Z · score: 11 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would be really curious to learn about what happens at Radical Honesty workshops! Can you share?

comment by ChristianKl · 2017-11-23T12:04:10.988Z · score: 19 (9 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

As far as misconceptions go, the Esquire article and also the represenation here suggest that there's the idea that "You should tell the truth". Brad Blandan comes from Gestalt Therapy and isn't into should.

On his website he writes:

Q: Is there one central point that you would like people to know about Radical Honesty?
A: I think the focus of what I have to say is not so much some moral taboo against lying as it is that I am in favor of people having fun in their lives, and having joyful, playful lives, serving each other. I’m not morally condoning telling the truth or saying that it’s immoral to lie. I’m just talking about a pragmatic thing. If you go out and tell each other the truth you’ll be happier. You’re better nurtured in a world in which you’re telling the truth than you are in a world in which you’re cowering, hiding and lying.

This idea that the person who proclaims Radical Honesty doesn't consider it immoral to lie is strange enough that it can't be easily written about in a mainstream newspaper article who's audience doesn't really care about the Radical Honesty community but that does care about a Judeochristian idea that one shouldn't lie.

Radical Honesty workshops frequently end with the Gestalt Prayer.

There's a lot of relating games. In contrast to Circling that doesn't have theory, Radical Honesty has it's theory.

If somebody is angry at the workshop they are encouraged to actually say "I'm angry. I resent you for X".

Clearly expressing bodily sensations and emotions is an important part and as a result there's a lot of physical sensation at the workshops (and I'm not expecting that most people reading this, will be able to follow that thought).

comment by Viliam · 2017-11-25T22:46:55.379Z · score: 2 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
Clearly expressing bodily sensations and emotions is an important part and as a result there's a lot of physical sensation at the workshops

The radical honesty quickly escalates to physical fighting? (Just kidding.)

comment by bendini · 2017-11-26T04:02:02.420Z · score: 8 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree with the idea that civility norms as they are currently implemented are never neutral, but not that it is humanly impossible.

Incisive questioning of a locally unpopular view is called “being insightful”; the proponent of a locally unpopular view being triggered by it is called “letting your emotions run away with you in a rational discussion” and “blowing up at someone for no reason.” Incisive questioning of a locally popular view is called “uncharitable” and “incredibly rude”; the proponent of a locally popular view being triggered by it is called “a reasonable response to someone else being a jerk.” It all depends on whether the people doing the enforcement find it easier to put themselves in the shoes of the upset person or the person doing the questioning.

It does, if the enforcers see themselves as adjudicators of good taste rather than the people who execute the rules other people have agreed on. I suppose this is one of the few situations where not questioning authority would actually be beneficial.

It's also worth stating that if you want more than just the pretense of civil discourse, a person who retaliates against a harsh but true critisism of their idea has to be reprimanded, not in spite of but because the audence is sympathetic to their emotional reaction.

Conversely, Great-Aunt Bertha skipped school in the fifties to go get drunk with sailors and was the first woman in the Hell’s Angels. Great-Aunt Bertha thinks it is very rude that Great-Aunt Gertrude keeps saying “a-HEM” five times a sentence just because she’s talking the way she normally talks. It’s not polite to interrupt what people are saying by getting offended and storming out. And that whole “sir” and “ma’am” business is actually offensive. Children are people and it is wrong to treat them as if they are subservient to adults.
Great-Aunt Bertha and Great-Aunt Gertrude will have some difficulty agreeing about what is polite behavior at the Thanksgiving table.

I'm not particularly sure if this is true of your tyical Aunt Bertha, but it is my experience that everyone, including the more Bertha-ish types such as myself, agree that politeness means something approximating Aunt Gertrude. The counterpoint is not that politeness is completely subjective but at what point along the continuum between blunt honesty and hyper-politeness is best in a given situation.

This isn't the same for respect, as that is an internal reaction, rather than a consensus based social norm. Many hacker-types will only take the time out of their day to poke holes in an idea if it at least has some parts that are worth saving. This makes critisism a mark of respect in those subcultures, in opposition to almost everywhere else.

On the other hand, many aspects of etiquette have nothing to do with being nice to people but instead are ways of signalling that one is upper-class, or at least a middle-class person with pretensions of same. (Most obviously, anything about what forks one uses; more controversially, rules about greetings, introductions, when to bring gifts, etc.) You wind up excluding poor and less educated people, which people in many spaces don’t want.

I'd like to use this to register an informal complaint that the norms in the rationalist community, including the ones on discourse contain a large proportion of things that suit the aesthetic sensibilities of WASPy middle class intellectuals rather than what's instrumentally rational for acheiving most of our stated goals.

comment by ChristianKl · 2017-11-22T20:24:11.092Z · score: 5 (8 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
If someone is making an ineffectual and stupid argument, you’re unlikely to take much offense at it; in fact, those arguments are usually just funny.

I actually do get a bit offended by posts like https://www.lesserwrong.com/posts/c5ubuEN32hFCTaCs7/fire-drill-proposal or https://www.lesserwrong.com/posts/PqzoEQhxJZ5WgFcvR/a-proposed-measure-of-sanity-for-nations

comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2017-11-23T22:56:39.952Z · score: 18 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I actually think those posts are reasonably valuable, and while I think the current site setup is more geared towards arguments than random idea generation, I do really want to see more random idea generation and am hesitant to discourage it.

comment by Rob Bensinger (RobbBB) · 2017-11-26T03:14:54.950Z · score: 15 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The site interface strikes me as not well-designed for one-sentence posts, because you have to click through in order to receive a very small amount of additional information, and there's no indication before you click that you're spending that effort for so little gain.

MrRobot's posts also strike me as low-quality by the standards of comments (ignoring whether posts do or should have different standards), because a short effort could make it much clearer what the purpose and meaning of the post is. I have to re-read them a few times to figure out what they're saying.

The kind of super-low-effort post I'm interested in is usually more like "here's a snapshot of an unusual or rarely-noticed reasoning process" than "here's a blurted-out hypothesis or assertion."

comment by DragonGod · 2017-11-24T06:27:38.883Z · score: 8 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)
reasonably valuable

That's surprising. I do agree that it's not necessarily beneficial to discourage those posts, but I'm not going to bet on discouraging those posts being a bad idea.

comment by Viliam · 2017-11-25T22:49:20.740Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

The proper place for "I have an idea, and I don't bother writing more than one sentence about it" is the Open Thread.

comment by lahwran · 2017-11-26T00:24:21.831Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I dislike this and want to ban open threads and require that these ideas be made into posts. I don't use lesserwrong much now because this feature is missing.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2017-11-28T08:30:42.590Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe a floor below which someone can't be downvoted would be helpful? Like, did MrRobot's cryopreservation post really destroy so much value that he deserves to lose 31 karma for it, just like that?