As I may have mentioned before, for my sins or out of masochism I’ve been discussing creationism and evolution at www.EducateTruth.com over the past couple of weeks. I’ve made every effort to be polite and civil, and though I’m sure I’ve failed sometimes, on the whole I’ve been perceived by others as being civil. Most of my interlocutors have been far from it. Someone took them to task for their abuse, and one guy responded with:
Thank you for calling me uncivil. Civility is an overrated virtue. It is what scoundrels appeal for when they are about to be unmasked.
Quite a few posts then ensued, including dueling Bible quotations, in which these guys supported their uncivility as truth-telling. I tried to point out the difference between tone and content, and suggest that it’s possible to disagree strongly with someone without attacking them, but the upshot seemed to be that politeness is seen as weakness and appeasement, while being as rude as possible is somehow virtuous.
I’ve encountered the phenomenon before among creationists and Christians who are very sure they’re right, and that therefore their opponents are not only wrong but active agents of Satan who must be opposed and resisted with all force. But it’s not confined to them: some of my atheist friends also see appeasement of any form of religion as weakness and feel the only appropriate response to religion and religious people is ridicule. Anything else wouldn’t be honest…
So, throw into the mix these excellent quotes from Andre Comte-Sponville (thanks to Glenn Weare for these, too!):
“Politeness is the first virtue, and the origin of all the others. It is also the poorest, the most superficial, and the most debatable of the virtues, and possibly something other than a virtue as well.”
â€œPoliteness thus rescues morality from circular causality (without politeness, we would have to be virtuous in order to become virtuous) by creating the conditions necessary for its emergence and even to some extent, its flourishing. The difference between someone who is perfectly polite and someone who is respectful, kindly and modest are infinitesimal; we end up resembling what we imitate, and politeness imperceptibly leads â€“ or can lead â€“ to morality… Every parent knows this; itâ€™s called bringing up oneâ€™s children.â€
I think perhaps the key to the whole issue of politeness lies in this fragment: “The difference between someone who is perfectly polite and someone who is respectful, kindly and modest are infinitesimal; we end up resembling what we imitate”.
There are a couple of ways of thinking about manners. One is as a code of things to be done or not done in particular situations. In that sense it’s like a book of rules (and perhaps also a social marker, a means to ‘pass’ in ‘polite society’). The other, though, is as the outworking of consideration for others in daily life. Everyone likes to hear ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, to not have people gross them out by speaking with their mouth full, to have their person and (to a lesser extent) their opinion treated with respect, even when there’s disagreement, and so on. As Comte-Sponville notes, someone with impeccable manners does a very good impression of someone who cares about those around them.
I think his point is that the first version of manners, above, can (but does not inevitably) lead to the second. “We become what we imitate”: if we act as though we care about others, some of us end up actually caring about others. The ground is prepared. I’ve talked here before about parenting, and about how this process can be helped along by making the moral foundations of politeness explicit for children: by explaining why, in terms of others’ needs and interests, a particular ‘rule’ of courtesy makes sense.
I’ve also talked here before about Kohlberg’s theory of moral development, and it would be that theory I’d rely on to argue that the ‘book of rules’ approach to politeness is morally inferior to the ‘concern for others’ approach. But it’s possible to go deeper: a concern for others can be motivated by enlightened self-interest (good manners can get me into a better job), by a social contract (if I’m polite to others, they’ll be polite to me) or by a genuine altruistic belief that others are owed respect (for their person if not their beliefs or actions) simply by virtue of being human.
Understanding the underlying moral foundation of politeness is also valuable because it allows better decisions to be made. When a value is known for what it is, it’s possible to make value decisions, to prioritise one value over another intentionally and explicitly… whereas with a book of rules, the only decision available is to obey or break the rule.
I guess one area in which this is useful is the value of politeness (or civility) versus the value of honesty. Is it more important to tell the truth or to be polite? There’s no absolute answer that is correct for all situations: someone who is unable to tell the ‘white lie’ in response to the ‘does my butt look big in this?’ question is in for a world of hurt! But recognising that neither politeness nor a rigid honesty is an absolute position, but rather that both are relative values that can be weighed against one another by their consequences (and this in itself requires a broader moral sense than simple self-interest), leads to better decisions.
That is to say, on both honesty and politeness, knowing something about what they’re for – the underlying moral (ack, that’s a whole other argument, but look to Kohlberg for at least a way in) force of them – we can apply them much better than if we are using a rigid book of rules for a game we don’t really understand.
I think I’d promised elsewhere to look at ‘political correctness’ briefly as well. Hopefully the application is fairly clear already: when ‘political correctness’ is actually the use of inclusive language to avoid implicitly excluding some members of society from speech, then I believe that has value. It’s a shock these days to read books from the 70s where all the pronouns are masculine, and I do think we’re better off with language that includes everyone. I do think we’re better off without the contention by an early religious leader in my church that there’ll be no racism in heaven – because everyone will be white. And so on. But of course, like everything, inclusive language can be captured by small minds and turned into a rule book that is then used in their petty political games. Understanding the underlying purpose is the antidote to that, I’d argue.