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It’s not you, it’s me: the problem of incivility

We regularly decry this or that latest episode of incivility, and can thereby find temporary satisfaction. Maybe we feel heartened to see the uncivil criticized, the critique itself a reassurance that incivilities still meet some resistance. Maybe we find relief in collective condemnation of the uncivil, solidarity in shared disapproval. Or maybe we just experience atavistic delight – if the uncivil offend our sense of good and right, it can feel good and right to see them publicly pilloried for it. But these satisfactions steer our thinking about civility away from a better target. The incivilities that ought to concern us first and most should be our own.

The early Confucians were passionate advocates for civility. Contemporary readers may receive this fact with dismay. It is likely to stimulate associations with finger-wagging scolds condemning others’ uncivil crimes and rude misbehavior. But Confucian advocacy is framed firmly in the first person: I should be civil. I should cultivate in myself the habits of emotion, mind, and conduct to make respectful and considerate engagement with others my steady norm. This is an approach to civility sorely missing from our popular discourse. Perhaps one reason for this is that my own failures of civility are so much less satisfying to consider than yours.

The incivilities of others largely lie outside my control, but my own are problems over which I can exercise some power. To take myself in hand will entail sacrificing the fast, frenetic pleasure of saying just what I think in favor of slower tact and care. It will entail cultivating better habits and reflexes where others displease me. It will entail trying to hold fast to pro-social values that recognize our dependencies on each other even amidst our many differences. Most of all, it requires an unsettling, introspective honesty about what moves and motivates me.

When I consider what prompts my incivilities, I find a murky mess. Absent are the crisp explanations I give the incivilities of others. Where I can quickly count uncivil others naught but purely awful, I read my own motivations as complex and vexed. This is why Confucius upbraids one of his students for a tendency to morally judge others, wryly remarking that it must be nice to have time for such pursuits. For if you but turn that critical gaze upon yourself, you’ll find more than enough to consume a calendar of days and years. The explanations won’t be quick and the work of being better will be long and hard. At least I have found it so.

My impulses to incivility are many and diverse. Sometimes I act as what Confucius calls a xiaoren, or “petty person”. I focus on my own interests, caring not what comes of you as I aim at what I want. Sometimes I grow angry and want a chance to lash and thrash, ignoring or denying any damage to the one who feels my blows. Sometimes I want a bit of fun and, let’s face it, rudeness is more fun than restraint can ever be. Sometimes I want that fellow feeling when we together can despise some others, using incivility to build ourselves a bit of “them” so that the “we” opposing them are better bonded. Sometimes I want power in a world that would deny me. If I can take you down a peg with disrespect, your descent can work an elevation for myself. Sometimes I want to shut another up, to get relief from hearing you by making you not want to speak. Sometimes I am just tired and incivility brings a needed rest from taxing self-control.

There is much more than even this that works as spur when I am rude, but let this little bit suffice. The purpose here is not to catalog exhaustively, but to register the trouble. And of course the trouble does not stop with all these reasons I can have, for the trouble rarely sorts so simply as I here suggest. My motivations to incivility are many and diverse, but more vexing still is how they intermix and mingle. The flow of my incivilities is most often sourced by many streams at once.

None of this of course rules out that incivility may sometimes just be good. There may well be times when the best that I can do is deal a little disrespect. The challenge here will be to know when that is so, to avoid the self-deception that would have me tell myself I’m always in the right when rude. The self doubt this all induces is surely why even sage Confucius claimed he only got himself in order at the age of 70. It takes long practice to earn instincts you can trust.

Too often we treat civility as a second- or third-person art, a mechanism to decry what you or they have done. To take civility as a first-person project is to say that “the problem of incivility” is not first you or them, but me. And in this way, perhaps, the problem can more fruitfully be ours. For even as I see the mess I make of things, the ways I can be mean or low or cruel, I will see along the way the reasons you can be the same as well. We all are sometimes tired, angry, and needful of relief. As a Buddhist injunction would have it: “We here are struggling.” Perhaps if I struggle more with myself, we can against each other struggle less.

Featured image: Photo by Amy Olberding, 2019. Used with permission. 

Recent Comments

  1. Amanda Hill

    Amazing. Can’t wait to read the book. Amy demonstrates a depth of insight that challenges us to “first clean our own cup” and judge ourselves first. Our first work is to discover and master ourselves and then we better understand and order the universe. I love that when not “philosophizing”, she farms. :)

  2. […] It’s not you, it’s me: the problem of incivility | OUPblog […]

  3. Jerry Hempe

    I was just considering writng a book of similar theme but I appear to have been well beaten to the punch! I will buy this book ASAP.

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