Dan Fincke and I were chatting on Facebook last night about the civility pledge that he posted on his blog and that a few others have signed onto. Specifically, I was talking about the shortcomings of a particular paragraph:
When I am having a personality conflict that is making progress in understanding seem impossible, I will drop communications with that person–with or without explanation as seems most potentially constructive. I will not escalate unproductive arguments that are becoming interpersonally acrimonious. I will not participate in ongoing interpersonal feuds between other people but only participate in discussions that stay focused on what is true, what the best principles are, and how such principles may be most fairly and efficiently implemented in the world. I will correct injustices, bad principles, and bad ideas in ways that are maximally productive for changing minds and real world policies while also minimally likely to create or escalate distracting counter-productive interpersonal feuds.
I noted that walking away is not always an option, particularly in cases where one is being persistently harassed, often in public spaces one doesn’t control. As you might guess, I used myself as an example.
Then another friend of Dan’s interjected what I thought was a very good question:
It may be very ill-advised to chime in now, but I really wanted to explore the limits of a commitment to civility. Stephanie, I love your blog, and the abuse and harassment that you and others have suffered over the last couple of years has been unconscionable. It’s clear that a commitment to civility will not magically solve your problems or make your harassers stop their abuse, but neither will incivility. It’s also clear to me that you did nothing to “deserve” such treatment.
Dealing with this type of behavior is inherently difficult, and the fact that civility does not solve it isn’t a criticism of civility anymore than the fact that hammers make terrible saws is a fair criticism of hammers. If you could show how incivility or insults or ridicule does solve the problem of persistent abuse, then that would be a significant point in favor of rethinking such commitments, but very little if anything consistently works against highly motivated people seeking to continually abuse and harass.
I like the question because, in answering it, I was forced to describe the limits of the pledge itself. Recreated below with minor infelicities removed.
If the only thing we’re allowed to do with regard to harassment is solve the problem, we’re going to be doing a whole lot of nothing. We don’t individually have that power.
The problem isn’t with encouraging civility in debate. The problem is in asking people to pledge to treat everything, even being inescapably harassed, as debate. This is setting up a situation in which those who don’t pledge are then blamed, as Dan did to me above, for being harassed because they didn’t take the pledge.
As harassed people go, I have rather a great deal of privilege. I can write quite effectively. I argue effectively. I have a strong background in the kind of scientific and sociological topics that are relevant to issues of harassment. I have people who will take on responsibilities for me when I have to deal with harassment. I have good emotional support. My livelihood is not under threat by the harassers. I have a lifetime of experience learning how to understand that criticism isn’t necessarily based in things I’ve done. I can sit back and (relatively) comfortably point to the harassment and explain why it’s reprehensible.
But that’s me. I’m not the only person being harassed. If the next person in line doesn’t have all the resources I do, they’re not saying anything different than I am by being less than coherent, calling names, and “hitting” their abuser where it hurts. They’re just not expressing their reaction to being abused as usefully as I am. They still have a right to that reaction and to express it.
However, in this situation and probably in most situations of this sort of abuse, the abuse is disguised and apologized for as “disagreement” or debate by the abusers. The pledge–as a pledge–creates a no-win situation for the abused. Either they adopt the pledge and have it used against them when they aren’t debating, or they don’t adopt the pledge and get characterized as being unwilling to be civil, whatever their actual behavior when debating.
While much of the pledge is an excellent prescription for having productive arguments (and if you haven’t, read all the links to Chana Messinger’s posts below the pledge), I think its weaknesses are in not understanding or accommodating all the various sorts of interactions we have with those who disagree with us or dislike us. It is frequently not about debate. Nor does that make it necessarily “personal”.
The good news to come out of the discussion last night is that Dan wants to address harassment separately and directly, though he warned it might take him a few days. Who knew he didn’t crank out those 3,000-word posts on demand?