A recent discussion has led me to think a bit more about civility. This was partly motivated by my own intention to maintain it when I started this blog (which didn’t always succeed) and by the other party being someone who has publicly discussed how to improve the overall climate debate, and who recently promoted a call for civility in science. I think it would be great if people were more civil, but I’m not a huge fan of explicit calls for more civility. This is partly because it sometimes seems to be motivated more by a desire to deligitmise one’s critics than by a genuine desire to promote more civility, partly because we sometimes seem to value civility even when the person is mostly talking nonsense, and partly because it doesn’t even really make much sense to me.
I can understand how we can define what is unacceptable; personal attacks, prejudice, blatant rudeness, verbal abuse, harassment, etc. How, though, do we define being civil? Is sarcasm allowed? Is it okay to be a bit snarky? Do we always have to say please and thank you? Is highlighting an error that will almost certainly embarass the person who made it acceptable? My own view of what qualifies as civil is essentially “not openly rude”. Others, on the other hand, seem to have their own definitions, often – as far as I can tell – to suit their arguments (i.e., the person they disagree with is somehow being uncivil, while those they agree with are not being uncivil because what they said was jusitified). I’m essentially not convinced that we could even all agree on what actually qualifies.
So, I’m not arguing against people being civil, simply suggesting that I don’t really see the merit of people openly arguing for greater civility. If some think there would be merit in people being more civil, maybe they should really just aim to lead by example. Maybe others will follow, maybe not, but it would – at least – be a start. It would certainly be nice if there were more of it, but I also think it can be over-rated. I, for example, tend to have more time for those who aren’t always civil, but who mostly talk sense, than for those who are religiously civil, but mostly talk nonsense. Others may have different preferences, which might essentially be the point: rather than trying to tell others how to behave, just do what you think is right, because you’re really the only person whose behaviour you can control.