I am posting this here for my friend Amy Charles: it’s a comment she made on Janet Stemwedel’s recent civility post, where it hasn’t (won’t?) make it out of moderation. You can find Amy on Twitter under @amycharles_inIC. (I am posting this here because I am not a fan of people/voices being ignored, and I agree with Amy. Please also make sure you read Athene Donald’s comment on the post.)
I cannot for the life of me, Janet, see how this squares with a Twitter life which consists so much of rapid-fire attacks, and “are you with us or agin us?” and talk about being disappointed to find out that supposed allies aren’t allies. And indeed I have wondered how a professional ethicist carries on that way. An activist yes, an ethicist, no. It also shocks me that a supposed ethicist has so much trouble defining civility. Civility is not, at its core, about earnest respect for individuals. Civility — which shares its root with city and civic — is to do with the ability to live together, and the common presumption that it is better to live together than it is to have to go wandering and foraging in the wild. And living together requires, above all, mutual tolerance. Respect is nice, but tolerance is essential. Belgrade and Sarajevo, both multiethnic cities, fell into war and became unliveable when that mutual tolerance evaporated.
In crowded places that extends to not starting fights, because they turn so quickly into brawls and possibly more destructive things. People talk about how rude New Yorkers are, but if you take public transit in New York you’ll see that the biggest crime on public transit is to stare at people, particularly in the eye. People have myriad mechanisms for not getting in strangers’ way, not antagonizing or threatening them.
Your friend drugmonkey is at least honest when he says “civility is a lie”. That’s the cry of the revolutionary, self-styled or not, and he sees himself as a revolutionary. He’d be happy, possibly even thrilled, to burn Atlanta on his way to a win. This is also why so few people who are not young single men care much for revolutionaries, particularly once the revolution moves beyond the theoretical. The revolutionaries themselves like to think that the dislike stems from horrible retrograde notions that deserve burning (along with the brains entertaining them), but that’s not why people dislike them. People dislike revolutionaries because they’re extremely destructive, and feel entirely justified in being destructive, on their way to whatever it is they’re after. And the damage to other people’s lives — real lives, real people — is shrugged off. Most people care greatly about real people and real lives, particularly their own and their families’, and recognize how expensive and sometimes impossible it is to rebuild.
Speaking of which, something I’ve found particularly ghastly in this bit of business: Mere days after terribly earnest outrage over how Caleb Hannan’s journalistic prying drove Dr. V to suicide, Henry’s open and rather risky talk about his own struggles with depression, and how Isis’ ongoing sniping and nastiness contributed to them, is met by “allies” with “you still suck, and besides you lie and are intolerable”. What can it mean? Only that sympathy for the depressed and suicidal, for God’s sake, is extended only to those on the right side of some stick-figure privilege spectrum. Which is horrible to both V and Henry, and dehumanizes both. It means that V gets sympathy and defense not because she was a tormented, frightened, unstable person who’d been driven into a corner by a clod who apparently didn’t know any better, but because she sorted into a box that’s been marked “TO BE DEFENDED” in certain circles in the last few years.
TH White wrote about that kind of thinking, with the ants. You ought to go back and read that part. It’s in both the first and fifth books of The Once and Future King, as I recall. Pay attention to Arthur’s reaction, and to what the ants do, most of the time, when not “eating”. Melissa is so done. Henry is so not-done.
(Probably I shouldn’t have said anything, we’ll now get the world’s worst literary criticism as a form of defense. I’m short on time, we can fast-forward to the part where you find literary writing elitist, offensive, degenerate, and deserving of the stake/gulag/etc.)
Playing war is by definition uncivil. A dark and paranoid mental landscape of allies, enemies, camps, teams (check your own second paragraph), sinister attacks — none of this is conducive to civility. Sustained violence, physical or verbal, is similarly against civility. And it’s why in the end, if we have to have weekly ally-demanding feet-to-fire campaigns against offenders, there won’t be a science writing community. Instead there’ll be little gated enclaves where people can get on — though not as well or easily, and certainly without as much happiness as in a large, open, and tolerant community — and from which they can be banned on a whim. Then, I suppose, you and drugmonkey and pals can really gin up the shouting-about-privilege machines.
Speaking of privilege, by the way: I am not a tenured professor, I do not have a husband either bringing in income or helping me to raise my child, and I do not have ongoing time or job security for this. I find it absolutely outrageous that someone who can go around mummering about privilege so often can fail to see how her own position allows her to go sallying forth and attacking and living another day in ways that very few people in the world can afford. I suppose if the idea is that you’re by definition on the side of the right and the true, it’s all good and everyone should applaud your willingness to use tenure that way, but again I’d think it would behoove a professional ethicist to entertain, perennially, the notion that she and her band of allies have made a mistake, and that perhaps hesitation and failure to join in battle would be a good idea.
Now I am going to go and do some fucking work so that my kid continues to have a house to live in, and then I’m going to pick her up from a Girl Scout cookie rally, something that was a more civil affair before GSA decided Glengarry Glen Ross was the appropriate model for little girls selling cookies. I am not likely to have time to come back here to argue with those on the shining path, so go ahead, Revolutionary Allies, make with the spray paint, tag that fucker. Pick up a copy of Koestler while you’re at it: it’s where you’re headed.