The meaning of civility.

Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse both argue it is only indirectly to do with tone:

[C]ivility in argument is not a matter of being nice, calm, or even polite.  It instead has to do with being a sincere arguer.  Civility is consistent with sharp tones, raised voices, and other forms of adversariality that would in other contexts be inappropriate.  But our model of civility also holds that name-calling, impoliteness, and hostility are to be avoided when they would obstruct or undermine properly run argument.

So employing provocative language and assuming your opponent’s intentions are evil and so on is not in itself uncivil. But it does tend to cause an atmosphere in which rational argument cannot proceed, and since this is uncivil, those things are related to it.

I’m puzzled by this. It seems to me that they have it entirely wrong. To argue sincerely and to respond to your opponent’s claims and reasons isn’t to be civil. That’s just what it means to argue well. Civility looks like it’s an entirely separate property that is all about tone. To characterise pro-choicers as murderers in abortion debates, for instance, when the question of whether a foetus constitutes a person is precisely what is up for dispute and is so contentious – that is the type of extreme language that epitomises the absence of civility.

Cartoon by Glenn McCoy.

There’s a chance that these two things, though – striking a decent tone and listening and arguing rationally – are so inextricably tied up that it makes little sense to distinguish the two. An abortion debate will never prove fruitful if one side insists on labelling the other murderers. And, similarly, pro-choicers who insist that categorical pro-lifers are cold anti-feminists, rather than people struggling honestly with the question of whether a woman’s rights should include the ability to discard of a developing life, is equally uncharitable and unhelpful.

Minette Marin received some stick yesterday for her Sunday Times column on the recent rape debate, but beyond the headline I think she makes (£) a hugely relevant and salient point:

[I]t’s understandable that many people, especially feminist activists, should be so angry. But anger does not trump freedom of speech. It is or ought to be possible to say that while rape is always wrong, and should always be a crime (as in English law), there are grey areas and degrees of rape.

She notes that Louise Mensch labelled Roger Helmer ‘loathsome’ for daring to suggest statutory rape is less severe than ‘classic stranger’ rape, before concluding:

What is loathsome about that? It is a point of view, however much one might disagree, and it does not make Helmer an unforgivable rape-denier, any more than Ken Clarke was, when he clumsily tried to suggest some rapes were worse than others. His arguments were, in fact, reasonable. But anger stifles reason. Anger stops people listening and reflecting. It convinces them they are always right and their opponents always hateful. That is dangerous.

I agree wholeheartedly.

Gilbert Ryle once said of Bernard Williams that:

[He] understands what you’re going to say better than you understand it yourself, and sees all the possible objections to it, all the possible answers to all the possible objections, before you’ve got to the end of your sentence.

To aspire to penetrate another person’s perspective that deeply is surely to learn to be civil in argument. It can be enormously difficult, but we’d all do well to try it.


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