civility

Civility is not the same as affect

Having a civil conversation is about mutual listening and mutual respect.

Sometimes that gets conflated with affect — people act like the defining feature of respectful conversation is things like the position of your body, the volume of your voice, and whether you’re using polite words.

Sometimes things like that can be involved in what makes a conversation respectful, but they don’t define it.

The rules of politeness allow people to be dismissive and cruel. Similarly, it is possible to have a mutually respectful conversation that violates the rules of politeness.

For instance, it is often possible to have a mutually respectful conversation with raised voices and cuss words. It is also often possible to use a lot of I-statements and gentle-sounding language to have a conversation that is fundamentally disrespectful and cruel.

Conflating affect with respect ends up drowning out a lot of voices, and privileging people who are good at manipulating the rules of politeness.

(Affect matters, and it’s ok if some kinds of affect are dealbreaking for you in terms of your ability to have conversations with someone. I’m not saying that everything should be acceptable to everyone. All I’m saying is that affecting politeness is not the same as treating someone respectfully.)

tl;dr Body language, tone of voice, and affect can be part of what makes a conversation civil and mutually respectful, but they don’t define it.

Conversations between people who disagree

Conversations between people who disagree with each other can be really difficult. They can also be tremendously valuable.

One reason that it’s hard is that it takes two to have a conversation.

Each person has to be prepared to listen to the other and be prepared to think about what they have to say. Each person has to respect the right of the other person to think for themself, and be prepared to accept the possibility that they will not be persuaded.

Without mutual willingness to listen and think, it’s not really a conversation. It’s just somebody (or multiple people) presenting demands. (There’s a time and a place for presenting demands, but they don’t generally lead to good conversations.)

Another difficulty in conversation between people who disagree is that some opinions can hurt to hear even if someone is expressing them completely civilly. This can be confusing in two directions:

It can be easy to think that someone is being mean when they’re not. If someone’s opinion hurts to hear, it can feel like cruelty even when they’re being completely civil.

What to do about this varies. Sometimes the right thing is to bear the pain for the sake of listening and learning. Sometimes the right thing is deciding that you’re not ready to hear this yet. Or any number of other possibilities. But it’s always important when this happens to recognize that it’s not the other person’s fault that the concept hurts to think about.

At the same time — it can be easy to make this mistake in the other direction. Sometimes people you disagree with are jerks. Sometimes, when you really want to be open to other opinions, it can end up being hard to tell that people are being mean. (And hard to remember that you don’t have to talk to mean people in order to be receptive to disagreement). Blaming yourself for someone else’s decision to be mean to you won’t lead to good conversations either.

I think it’s really important to learn to tell the difference, in both directions. I think important questions to ask are:

  • Do I feel ok about having a conversation with someone who disagrees with me on this topic right now?
  • Am I willing to listen to this person?
  • Am I willing to explain my views in a way this person can understand?
  • Does this person seem to be willing to listen to me?
  • Do they seem to be willing to explain their views in a way I can understand?

If the answers to any of those questions are no, it’s probably not going to be a very productive conversation. In some situations, it’s possible to fix this by changing your attitude and deciding to hear someone out. (And sometimes trying that is a really bad idea.) Often, the best thing to do is either find a new topic or a different person to discuss the topic with.

All of the skills involved in having conversations with people you disagree with get easier with practice. It gets easier to find disagreement bearable. It gets easier to tell the difference between people being mean and people expressing a difficult opinion. It gets easier to listen. It gets easier to tell when people are listening. It gets easier to explain things in a way that can be understood. It gets easier to learn from others.

These skills can be hard to acquire — and they’re really, really worth it.

Conversations get better when you focus on the conversations that you can have productively — and the range of possible conversations gets broader as your skills get better.

tl;dr Discussing ideas you disagree with with people you disagree with is hard for a number of reasons. It’s also really worthwhile. Part of having good conversations is finding contexts in which they can happen productively. It gets easier with practice.

Having good conversations on the internet even though it's full of jerks

On the internet, there are a lot of people. There are massive numbers of jerks. There are also massive numbers of nice people.

If you focus on the jerks, you’ll never run out of jerks to talk to. If you engage with everyone who is mean to you, your life will be full of conversations with mean people.

This is true in reverse as well. If you seek out people who want to listen to you, you can have good conversations. If you reply primarily to people who respect you, then your life will be full of conversations with people who are treating you well.

Focusing on people who treat you well is a choice that you have to keep making, over and over again. It won’t happen automatically, and many people will try to push you into interacting with mean people. Some of them will be mean people who devote a lot of time honing their skills at demanding attention so they can hurt people. (Eg: 4chan trolls.) Some of them will be people who basically have good intentions but think that you have to reply to everyone. Some of them will be people who try to draw you into every fight they have.

Focusing on respectful interactions can be very difficult, but it’s worth it.

I think these are some basic principles for how to do that:

Talk to people who are listening.

  • If someone is making a serious attempt to understand what you are saying, they’re likely a good person to talk to
  • If they’re mocking it, twisting your words, or telling you that you’re a terrible person, they’re probably not a good person to talk to

Talk to people you want to listen to.

  • If you think that what someone has to say is worthwhile, they’re likely a good person for you to talk to
  • If you have active contempt for someone and their opinions, you’re probably better off talking to someone else

It is possible to have respectful conversations with people who you disagree with about important things:

  • In a respectful conversation, they listen to what you are actually saying and respond to it
  • In a respectful conversation, you respond to what they are actually saying
  • Neither side makes personal attacks
  • (Explaining why an idea is harmful is not a personal attack. Calling someone who disagrees with you human garbage is.)
  • Neither side engages in language dickery
  • (One or both of you might be angry, vehement, passionate, or heated. None of those are the same thing as contempt).

It’s ok to publicly explain why you don’t respect an idea, or have contempt for a particular person’s worldview:

  • It’s best not to do that as a conversation with that person, though
  • Conversations with someone you don’t respect tend to go poorly (especially if they don’t respect you either)
  • It’s much more effective and pleasant to discuss those ideas with people who want to listen to your perspective on them

tl;dr: The internet is a much more pleasant and productive place if you focus on interactions with people you respect and who treat you well.  Conversations go better when both people in them are listening and responding to content. If someone has contempt for you or you have contempt for them, it’s probably time to find someone else to talk to.