Essay/
Virtues and vices

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Righteous incivility

The temptation to be uncivil grows as public discourse gets nastier and more aggressive. Can rudeness ever be righteous?

Amy Olberding

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Amy Olberding

is the Presidential Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma. Her latest book is The Wrong of Rudeness (2019). 

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Edited by Sam Dresser

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Public discourse is in an accelerating downward spiral of coarse insult, free-flying contempt and general meanness. We will surely soon reach bottom, an inevitably inarticulate resting place where we quit wasting words and just mutely flip each other off. Since bemoaning our uncivil culture is almost as prevalent as incivility itself, let me forgo any ritual handwringing. I register the culture here because it so influences me: as public discourse grows crueller, nastier and more aggressive, my temptations to be uncivil increase apace, and I don’t like that.

My growing temptations to incivility are diverse and predictable. When one encounters disrespect, the desire to answer in kind is strong. Likewise, with so many pitched to provoke anger, one wants to give them just the outrage they invite. More basically, I find it ever harder to like people and so to act as if I like them – misanthropy does not seem so unreasonable as it once did. But incivility’s most powerful appeal is that it can seem downright righteous.

The desire to be civil, in its cleanest and most robust form, is a desire to be moral, to treat others humanely, with respect, toleration and consideration. But if one wants to be moral, one must also know that, in order to be good, sometimes one cannot be nice. The imperative to treat others civilly is never responsibly total because sometimes a moral good is won in rudeness. To display disrespect or enmity, to mock or shun, to insult or shame – these can be moral gestures. For even as we need to respect humanity, valuing human beings can sometimes require disrespecting some of them, precisely the ones who deny or damage our shared humanity. To show such people respect and consideration might let them have their way a bit, let them continue in their destructive ways.

My sneering contempt for your terrible moral outlook might not stop you, but maybe my disdain can slow you down or discourage others from doing like you do. This, then, is where temptation is at its greatest. There are many who do not so much succumb, but actively embrace it. The world at present is not just full of rude people, it is full of people being rude because they judge it to be righteous. I feel the pull. But I have doubts.

I believe that righteous incivility is sometimes better than civility and that it can indicate a pattern of reasoning we morally need. Civility typically requires conformity to social conventions that symbolically signal prosocial values; we follow customs of courtesy to display respect, consideration and toleration for each other. But, as the philosopher Cheshire Calhoun observes, morally mature people don’t just run on conformity – they also reason. They will have a ‘socially critical moral point of view’, she writes, an ability to develop values independently of social customs and conventions. When we experience a tension between conformity to convention and individual moral conviction, we will sometimes resolve it in favour of conviction – we decline to conform because we judge it morally better not to.

Having a strongly held, independent moral conviction does not inevitably prompt incivility – I can civilly disagree with what I judge wrong – but sometimes moral convictions can make more seem necessary. I need not just to object or dissent, but to disrespect and show it. Civility would have me shake your hand, but my conscience can revolt and rebel. If I in fact refuse to shake your hand, I won’t just be rude: I will take myself to be righteously rude. I disrupt the usual civil patterns because I morally judge they need disrupting, whether because integrity demands it or because some greater social good is won by it, or both. This pattern of reasoning is one we certainly need, lest we become unthinking conformists to superficial forms of niceness that would sacrifice higher values.

My doubts about righteous incivility are not about whether it’s sometimes best but about how to tell when that would be so. The abstract case I make for it leaves out the gnarly mess of how my motivations work. I can tell myself I want what’s good and right, but there is often more that I want as well. Civility entails restraint and this alone can make one want to fail it, for failure here is sweet release, a liberation one can like, and like too much. Awful people are just awful and there is a giddy, triumphal pleasure in announcing just how low they sit in my opinion. If I really don’t respect you, it feels quite good to deny you the conventions that conceal disdain. In short, the pleasure of incivility is a heady part of its appeal. Other parts of its appeal are discovered best in hindsight.

What I tell myself is righteous incivility is sometimes little more than ugly mood or bad attitude. I alibi my uncivil crimes by claiming to sit in a moral space of reasons while I am really elsewhere – perhaps revelling in foul temperament, swimming in annoyance or joyfully putting a boot on your neck simply because I dislike you. Later reflection will expose the ruse and I will see that the mood I called ‘righteous’ is better called ‘angry’, ‘irritable’, ‘impatient’ or just ‘tired’. There was no commanding moral good I sought through incivility. That was just the story I told myself so I could set my inner junkyard dog off the leash.

My mixed motivations make me distrust my ‘righteously uncivil’ impulses. One need not be puritanical or precious about what can motivate moral action to be suspicious when the ‘righteous’ brings pleasure and relief or lets me lash and thrash where I can’t like. Episodic self-deception will likely always be a risk when I am rude – I sometimes know better what I do only once I’ve done it – but I lately find myself prey to self-deception of a more systematic sort. I am encouraged to righteous incivility by forces greater than my own messy internal workings, by both other people and our public culture.

I used to think that, were I self-deceived, other people would be my help – after all, when one is wrong about oneself or what one does, other people tend to work as a quick but painful check. This is why Jean-Paul Sartre claims that hell is other people: they’ll reject the fictions that you tell yourself or even announce plainly where you err. This lately happens less to me than I can trust. The hellish sorts are now too easy to evade. Let me illustrate my trouble.

Protesting incivility is weakness – pathetic whining or mewling infantilism

There are loads of people whose values and conduct I disdain. I could right now take this fact to Facebook and deliver it, fantastically, to others: These miserable assholes need to fuck right off and die! I know exactly what would follow: lots of ‘likes’, as well as comments that align with mine and escalate the ire. There would be humour in abundance – indicting ribaldry about them, fantasised rough fates that they deserve. If they chime in to protest, they’ll quickly be subdued with more and worse or I can always cut them off, unfriend them for their failure to accept the contempt I think their due. Any milder sorts reluctant to accept my claims or methods will of course pass on in silence. If they doubt my views or vehemence, they’ll keep that to themselves, lest they too become my target. So when the dust has settled, I will come away assured that I am righteous, that I have stood for good and justly trampled bad. The experience will flatter my self-perception and help me fit myself inside the stories that our wider culture tells, all the many ways we valorise that rudeness we think righteous.

Popular rhetoric often depicts the righteously uncivil person as the brave iconoclast, one who heroically refuses the dissembling and pretence that stand between ourselves and the true, the right and the good. The uncivil person will be lauded for ‘keeping things real’, exercising a gritty rejection of polite fakery in order to say exactly what he thinks. He might be praised as ‘politically incorrect’, resolutely free from any forced and false consensus to which the cowardly rest submit. Or perhaps he valiantly ‘speaks truth to power’, audaciously defiant of what power can do. The metaphors that suit him best are martial. Where others cushion criticism with softening tact, he ‘takes the gloves off’ to deliver truth bare-knuckled. He ‘calls out’ others’ errors as a duellist would, issuing a public challenge that will force their choice between open confrontation or humiliated retreat. He plainly ‘punches’, though always in a noble way, ‘punching up’ but never ‘down’, ever sure that he can sort the ‘up’ from the ‘down’. When I am righteously uncivil, I can cast myself in any of these ways. I become a fierce combatant righting all that’s wrong. And I have unappealing stories I can tell about any who object.

Incivility requires strength and valour, but those who dislike it are frail and fragile. The offended like apologies but what they really need is to ‘man up’, ‘toughen up’ and grow a ‘thicker skin’, one that can better stand a lashing. They’re as delicate as ‘snowflakes’, melting in the slightest heat. Protesting incivility is weakness – pathetic whining or mewling infantilism. Or maybe it’s a bovine nature, a sign you live inside that unthinkingly conformist ‘herd’. Perhaps most basically of all, if my rough uncivil truths about your bad character or actions injure your pride, you have yourself to blame. Err less and save yourself the pain of my correction; stop being awful and I will stop pointing it out.

This style of talk infects my temptations to incivility. I can be unfettered from restraint and speak as rudely as I find. That plenty of people will both like and ‘like’ it reassures me that I am right, that my blows land on targets that need a little roughing up. Temptation can grow total and I will think: Fuck civility – not just now but always. When you know what’s right and good and true, take off the gloves and punch for it. Make this your habit and your way – why not? We have enough of the potent awful, and of the impotent but ‘nice’. Let me be the virtuous, righteously uncivil hero. This, I think, is the siren song of systematic self-deception, of righteous incivility’s near enemy.

Those who aim for virtue try to steer away from vice. ‘Pursue the good, avoid the bad,’ we tell ourselves, but bad will sometimes look like good. The good can have what Buddhaghosa, the Indian Buddhist philosopher from the 5th century CE, calls ‘near enemies’. Virtues, Buddhaghosa argues, do not simply have corresponding vices, they also have near enemies – seductive, plausible counterfeits that closely resemble the virtues but are nonetheless distortions of it. This is why, he explains, we can mistake indifference for equanimity, or attachment for love. These can look alike, and the risk is that we aim for one but hit the other. Worse still, because of their resemblance, we can call a bullseye when we miss. I can think I have achieved the unperturbed poise of equanimity when in fact I simply fail to care enough – I enjoy the dubious peace that indifference to the world and all its woes can bring. The near enemy is a far more subtle form of error than plain vice, for it is moral failure taken as success.

Buddhaghosa does not speak of righteous incivility or what its near enemy might be. But my doubts about my uncivil impulses concern how an eager, open, pugilistic temper is read not just as righteous but as heroic. Was valour ever so easy or so fun? Since I have a taste for ‘keeping things real’, I best start being real with myself. Popular heroics are seductive but they are not reliably righteous. Incivility can quiet critics and earn praise from friends, but neither mean I’m right or righteous. The social feedback that I get might not only fail to point to good, it could just be my problem. Where is hell when you really need it? I am trying to find it in myself.

A righteously uncivil person would, I think, care to make a difference. Where she finds wrong, she’ll want it righted. But that is rarely how the ‘righteous’ incivilities I see and practise work. The language that we use itself reveals the challenge. I can uncivilly punch but, for this to work a change, the one I punch must come to understand both that she deserved it and why – the punched must be persuaded. In my more reflective moments, I recognise the psychological implausibility of this posture. It takes a hardy moral character to receive a slap as a summons to be good. But why would I think that one so low in my opinion will not just rise but soar to heights of circumspection, receiving disrespect as a provocation to be better? If she’s bad enough to need a punch, she’s not likely good enough to take it well and change. The far more likely outcome is that she’ll answer like with like, return the punch, and we together will descend at speed into a gutter war for social dominance. ‘Victory’ will come when one of us is cowed enough at last to quit – no one changed, all bloodied.

If my pugilism won’t change the punched, perhaps the difference I can make lies with those outside the ring. This at least is the reasoning that we sometimes give. When we ‘speak truth to power’, for example, we lay claim to helping those without it – the punch is not aggression but defence. The righteously uncivil would here indeed seem to be heroic, but that’s the rub where my motivations are concerned. Using incivility in defence of others is reasoning I can like, but maybe what I like is how it honours my pretensions. The risk is that I valorise myself as specially righteous where power is concerned, all the while neglecting what a form of power righteous posturing can be.

What if the incivilities I call righteous are a way to seek approval and esteem?

If you will ‘speak truth to power’, it will help a lot if you also speak from power. Some of us, let’s face it, cannot really pull this off. We might get fired from our jobs or alienate people that we really need. Some of us can try for righteous incivility but fail because of who we are and how our incivilities will read socially. Uncivil black men will not be taken as refreshingly ‘real’, but instead as threatening or dangerous; the economically poor might well be taken as ‘punching’, but that’s because they are, as we’d expect, trashy, brutish and coarse. All of this is but to say that the fine and noble qualities I can claim in righteous incivility – my independence and my courage – are qualities not really mine or earned. They are instead propped up by a social system that lets those most free be freest with their rudeness. Because of this, my roaring impulses to deliver righteous punches are haunted by the whispered thought: Just look at what I get to do. And then self-doubting questions come: when I count myself the righteously uncivil warrior, have I challenged or changed the hierarchies of power? Or have I just enacted them? That some will see me as I wish, as the hero I would be, is no help with this.

Alongside the heroic stories I might tell about my boldly uncivil defence of the powerless are other, less attractive stories. The philosophers Brandon Warmke and Justin Tosi offer one that makes me squirm. ‘Moral grandstanding,’ they write, is a distinctive form of communication that ‘aims to convince others that one is “morally respectable”.’ It transpires when we advertise our moral convictions to others, hoping thereby to gain greater regard or to secure in-group belonging. Moral grandstanding – related to ‘virtue signalling’ – need not of course be uncivil, but I expect it often is. Uncivilly punching at the wrong and bad can well display that I am right and good. Indeed, that I show outrage so intense it overmasters all civility is potent proof of this, a way to pose as so distressed by vice that my virtue must show as rude.

‘Moral grandstanding’ and ‘virtue signalling’ are of course most often used as weapons in the wider wars – they are handy accusations I can hurl at others when they morally opine in ways I don’t like. A far better use of these concepts, though a use no one can like, is to turn them, weapon-like, upon oneself. What if the incivilities I call righteous are a form of self-promotion, a way to seek approval and esteem? What if they merely confess insecurity that I belong among the moral? If I really would be righteous, I need to ask this of myself, I think. Therapeutic cynicism about my motives might help me see when I don’t really act on conviction but instead seek to parade it. Worse still, it makes me reconsider just what might form my aversion to the civil.

Civil persuasion is a nasty sort of business, one that offers few heroics. It takes patience, care and work. It entails getting my hands dirty by trying to reason long and hard with others I often cannot like. It draws little admiration in an age like ours, little I can celebrate as triumph over all that’s bad and wrong. It could even lose me the esteem of those who share my values – they might well find in my politeness a tolerance for wrong. At the very least, I’ll lose the ribald joys I often get when me and mine take down you and yours, the atavistic satisfactions of the brawl. Civility is not at all seductive as a habit or a plan, yet I think the pull of the seductive is my problem. Near enemies exercise appeal. They take the superficial signs of goodness for the thing itself – bathetic, cheap heroics that others cheer stand in for whatever it might really mean to win some better world.

I doubt I can enumerate what genuinely righteous incivility would require, though I still believe it to exist. I doubt that it will match what I am often like when I think my rudeness righteous. I doubt it will be joyous or triumphal, that it will summon up attention and approval, or that it will show up dressed in self-valorising, violent language. I doubt it will find satisfaction in the pain and shame provoked in others. Most of all, I suspect it will involve regret.

Truly righteous incivility would issue from a deeply moral wish against its own necessity. It would come about as forced, a sorry step one feels reluctantly obliged to take. Morally good people want to respect others – they want a world in which we can, in all good conscience and effect, treat each other humanely and kindly. They do not want to signal disrespect even when they see they must. They are people who perceive a moral need to be rough and inconsiderate as distressing or at least a disappointment. Perhaps my disappointment in myself, in my too-eager impulse for the punch, can be used to turn me toward this better form of disappointment.

Amy Olberding

is the Presidential Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma. Her latest book is The Wrong of Rudeness (2019). 

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