Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The lost art of civility

There's an interesting article up in the Times today regarding the decline of "Southern Manners". Interesting due to where it starts off:

One August night, two men walked into a popular restaurant attached to this city’s fanciest shopping mall. They sat at the bar, ordered drinks and pondered the menu. Two women stood behind them.

A bartender asked if they would mind offering their seats to the ladies. Yes, they would mind. Very much.

Angry words came next, then a federal court date and a claim for more than $3 million in damages.

The men, a former professional basketball player and a lawyer, also happen to be black. The women are white. The men’s lawyers argued that the Tavern at Phipps used a policy wrapped in chivalry as a cloak for discriminatory racial practices.

And where it ends:

“I will not give up,” she said, firm in her belief that Southerners still want to raise children who are kind and well-mannered.

“They must,” she said, “or my classes wouldn’t be full.”

I'm not sure how you start off with the use of civility/chivalry for racist means and then end in a wistful tone about how the South is fighting to keep this culture alive. Anyway, Amanda Marcotte tears down this bullshit quite well, so I've really nothing to add to that aspect of it.

But I have encountered the "civility" argument time and time again, and after being accused countless times of being uncivil myself (I'm pretty blunt. I swear. All of which, I'm informed, is quite unladylike), all I really have to say to that is, you know what? Fuck Civility.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not talking about this in the sense of just being decent to your fellow human beings (this is a good thing). Not in the sense that we should just be inconsiderate as hell to everyone (although this seems to be the trend). Just that civility, as we commonly define it, is quite meaningless. I find that overall, it's not about being a decent person, it's about appearing to be a decent person while being kind of a scumbag.

Once upon a time at a site I wrote at I decided to run what I thought was a clever experiment. This was back when the John Edwards affair scandal broke, and as usual, Republican pundits had some very trenchant analysis of the situation. Rush Limbaugh, for example, speculated that perhaps if Elizabeth Edwards used her mouth for other things other than talking, poor Johnny wouldn't have had to bang the assistant, or babysitter, or whomever he was banging at the time, I forget.

This is what we would call an offensive statement. Now, I don't care much about Rush Limbaugh, he does what he does. Nor am I an advocate for censorship (I prefer to let things like this stand as starting off points for discussion). But keep in mind that during this time on the site, we were lucky to have the "conservative coalition outrage patrol", who felt their main purpose was to find offense at swear words on the site written by liberals and would shriek and scream about them until the article was changed or pulled down.

So I thought I'd do a little light trolling with this one. As someone that is aware of all internet traditions, I pulled a shorter, and although I went into detail in the article as to why Rush Limbaugh's statement was offensive, my title was fairly direct:

"Rush Limbaugh to the Ladies: Less talking, more dick sucking".

Oh god, the outrage. You'd be amazed as to what a title like that can do for your page views. Naturally, many folks came on to tell me that wasn't what Rush Limbaugh was saying at all, that I was putting words in his mouth to make him look worse then he was, that the title was vulgar, that it needed to be changed. It was actually one of the few articles that the site pulled from me (although it was reinstated). And for every complaint, I just asked the same question - is it the words that you find offensive or the idea behind them? Is your beef actually with me, or with Rush Limbaugh? Because let's face it, "Less talking, more dick sucking" and "Perhaps you would keep your man if you used your mouth for other things besides talking" are very similar statements - so much so that they are actually the same statement.

So I asked the outrage police - if I change the title to reflect Limbaugh's actual quote, can we then talk about why what he said was offensive? I was assured that we could. If I just took "dick sucking" out of there, we could have a nice, "civil" conversation about it. So I changed the title. As predicted, once that happened, no one came back. Tumbleweeds. The offensiveness of the statement that women need to shut up and sexually pleasure their men because that's all men really want from them anyway was magically eradicated with the removal of the words "dick sucking".

Anyway, I just bring it up because when it comes to civility, this seems to be the pattern time and time again. This is not to say that there aren't things that people say that are offensive. Just that I find what they are actually saying is to be more offensive then how they say it. I can't even begin to tell you how many "civil" debates I've sat through with some folks pontificating the inferiority of certain biological traits that some other folks have. And I guarantee you, even if there's not a racial slur or blatantly misogynist statement or any disagreeable language to be found anywhere, they are some of the most vile discussions I've ever sat through. They are usually worse for the fact that the folks discussing them assume somewhat of a intellectual superiority over everyone else merely for their ability to not swear, they'll gather in a circle jerk, grab out their thesaurus and discuss why members of group X are weak, or morons, or illogical, or violent, or whatever other negative trait you can muster up in such an educated and civil tone, and then it's back pats all around because of how civil and rational and totally objective the discussion is and aren't they all just awesome for being so intelligent and discussing these sorts of "touchy subjects" so civilly?

At which point the observer is pretty much tearing their hair out and wondering, in all caps, WHAT THE FUCK JUST HAPPENED THERE? There really is no other response to this situation then to tell these folks to fuck off. But that's the other nifty thing about pretending to adhere to a standard of "civility" - Would you like to take a guess as to what you are called when you go that route? Yep, that's correct. If you dare to actually take on a certain "tone" when responding to people that have just talked about how your biological traits automatically make you inferior to them, well, then you are just being totally uncivil and are not worth listening to. Perhaps you should choose your words more wisely next time if you want to be taken seriously, thanks for proving my point about how I'm totally better then you (snicker snicker nudge nudge).

And this really hits to the heart of why I find the whole civility debate tiresome. It's never about civility. Instead, it's about shutting down conversation. It's about getting away with being a douchebag while still coming off as a good person. It's a way of dismissing someone without ever actually addressing what they are saying. It's about what benefits you, and only you, not about what is beneficial to others.

Which I don't find civil at all, really. Good riddance.

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