What does civility look like?

Andy Rau

Fred Clark has a challenging post up at Slacktivist about what civility looks like in discussion.

This topic couldn't be more relevant: the internet is empowering people to discuss and debate like no medium on an unprecedented scale, and as regular readers know, we've wrangled with the question of "what is civilized online discourse" here at ThinkChristian more than once. I've even interacted with many of you via email when you've written with suggestions or disagreements about the way we handle comments and moderation here. What is the difference between civil and uncivil discourse? We tend to think of civility as "niceness"--but can a civil statement also be rude? Provocative? Insulting?

At any rate, Fred has an interesting take on what civility is:

Civility does not mean never having to say you're sorry. It does not mean baby-proofing all conversation to ensure its inoffensiveness for the most delicate of sensibilities. Nor does it mean couching all claims as tepid statements of personal preference that cannot be refuted, or defended, or cared about one way or the other by much of anyone since they don't actually claim to say anything about the actual world. [...]

Civility has to do with citizenship, which is to say it has to do with responsibility. To speak as civilized people, as citizens, requires that we be responsible -- to one another and to the truth (and the good, and the beautiful). It requires that we be responsible for our words, that we be willing to stand by them.

(Great discussion going on in the comments to that post, too--be sure to read it.)

He is particularly annoyed by the common practice of trying to create civility by using "I" statements--statements that can't really be argued or discussed and which thus aren't very useful. If I were to say that "I think Star Trek II is the greatest movie of all time," you can't really debate my statement. But if I simply state "Star Trek II is the greatest movie of all time," we've got something we can debate and discuss, even if feels less polite--or civil--than the first statement. A perfectly polite, couched-in-disclaimers statement might feel nice, but if it isn't something that can be debated or that contributes tangibly to the discussion, what's the point of saying it?

What do you think of his angle on civility? Is he onto something?

I generally agree with his point, although it's something I struggle with a bit--I'm always fighting the temptation to cushion potentially controversial statements in feel-good language to soften the blow, and sometimes that is more of a hindrance to civil discussion than a help. And as we all know, it can be awfully difficult sometimes to distinguish between a statement that is blunt but civil, and a statement that is simply rude and obnoxious. One man's hurtful tirade is another's simple statement of fact.

So I'd like to turn this over to you, dear readers: how do you discern what is a civil, useful statement, and what is not? When you post on your blog, or when you leave a comment on a blog like this one, how do you stay civil?

(Oh, and for what it's worth--Star Trek II really is the best movie ever made.)

Topics: Online, Culture At Large, News & Politics, Justice