Robert Boyle on the Intimate Relationship Between Civility and Reason

By Chris Mooney | September 29, 2009 10:13 am

Here at Harvard and MIT, I’m getting to read more history of science–and from the introduction to the classic scientific work The Skeptical Chemist of 1661, I find this great passage that has much bearing on how we discuss contentious issues like science and religion today:

…I am not sorry to have this Opportunity of giving an example how to manage even Disputes with Civility; whence perhaps some Readers will be assisted to discern a Difference betwixt Bluntness of Speech and Strength of reason, and find that a man may be a Champion for Truth, without being an Enemy to Civility; and may confute an Opinion without railing at Them that hold it; To whom he that desires to convince and not to provoke them, must make some amends by his Civility to their Persons, for his severity to their mistakes; and must say as little else as he can, to displease them, when he says they are in an error.

The writer is the man after whom Boyle’s Law is named; he was also a devout Christian.

I think there is something pretty profound in what Boyle is saying. If we follow his perspective, it may be the case that you can’t really have reasoned discussion, at least among those of different views, without a precondition of civility, acceptance, and a lack of condescension. Otherwise, the arguments, however well-based they may be, won’t get through, but will only offend; defenses will go up and nobody will give ground–none of which is what we want in reasoned discourse.

In other words, no matter what kind of reason-based arguments it contains, discourse might not truly be “reasonable”–in the sense of being meant to promote the spread of reason–unless it is also civil. The two may be inseparable.

Granted, I know full well that there are many other reasons for, in Boyle’s words, confuting an opinion while also “railing at Them that hold it”–it can be very entertaining, or very motivating to those of us who agree. But does it spread the power of reason to those who do not? That I find hard to believe.


Comments (52)

  1. Erasmussimo

    I’ll go a tad further than you and explicitly declare that incivility is inimical to rational discussion. My reasoning is straightforward. Incivility consists of any kind of derogatory comment directed against a person. But the topic of a rational discussion is never the person: it is an issue. Thus, incivility is at the least divagatory from the issue under discussion.

    In plainer terms, if you want to talk about the issue, then talk about the issue. Talking about the person is NOT talking about the issue!

  2. Michael McConnell

    Thanks Erasmussimo! Well stated…

  3. Jon

    That comment you posted a while ago by Neil deGrasse Tyson on the subject of teaching–that seems really relevant. In order for learning to take place, there has to be listening. And you’re not going to listen in a quality way to someone who offends you and mobilizes your defenses.

    I keep thinking of the fact that the earliest pieces of effective public reasoning were *dialogs*– two people ostensibly listening to one other. Eventually you got Aristotle and his empirical approach, but Aristotle was a *student* of Plato–the dialog guy.

    I think in politics, sometimes, it can get a bit tricky. You might not be as interested with dialog with the other side, but more organizing your own side, as in Paul Krugman’s call for a “bold smart populism” a couple years ago. But these types of things have to be deployed by grownups who have really thought through what they’re doing.

  4. Sorbet

    True. But incivility may occasionally be used to startle a person out of his sleep of intransigence and make him take notice of what you are saying. Civility can then be employed for actual persuasion.

    For instance on October 21 1939, physicists Eugene Wigner, Leo Szilard and Edward Teller among others went to the Navy Department to ask for funds for investigating nuclear fission. The old walrus of an Admiral at the table went on mumbling, apparently impervious to what the four were saying. Then Wigner made a sharp and sarcastic remark. The walrus awakened with a start; Wigner then patiently explained their case again with civility and the three scientists got their funds.

  5. Woody Tanaka

    This is all well and good, but only effective if both sides are actually open to rational discussion. However, when one side is immune to rationality or employs special pleading for their own unprovable assertions which they believe should be granted special license, then rational discussion is endangered if not impossible. If the person is sufficiently irrational, then they, themselves, do become the issue.

  6. Jon

    “…employs special pleading for their own unprovable assertions which they believe should be granted special license, then rational discussion is endangered if not impossible.”

    I think that’s true in some cases. But the move to cynicism on the part of New Atheists is just too quick and sweeping. It’s like, “You believe in non-rational symbols? Now I know you’re completely beyond hope and I will treat you with contempt on every matter of interest. And I will proselytize others to do the same.”

    This is no danger to rational discussion?

  7. Oded

    I pretty much disagree. If the other person is truly open to rational discourse, it should not matter to either the amount of civility. In fact, in this situation, I advocate to always maximize *fun*, not civility. The two sides can decide for themselves what kind of discourse is most fun.

    If the other side is not open to rational discourse, then.. I’m not sure what to do. I think even civility will not be enough in this case. You would need to woo them in some better way, possibly by triggering an irrational reaction (“if you don’t vaccinate your kids, they WILL die!!”), or, slowly show the power of rationality…

    I know that at work, we constantly argue passionately, and frequently call each other names (endearingly..), and in the end we are always persuaded by the arguments and by the facts. Everything else is decoration, and I say it should be as fun as possible!

  8. Jon

    “I say it should be as fun as possible!”

    This is where the collegiate kind of attitude doesn’t travel well into the public square, where there are people who may not share your attitudes, but you still need them as allies…

    If you’re on the quad having a debate with your friends, there’s a certain assumption of good will, and to borrow from Henry Kissinger’s old joke, the stakes are very low, so it doesn’t matter if you tear each other apart…

  9. gillt

    Chris Mooney: “In other words, no matter what kind of reason-based arguments it contains, discourse might not truly be “reasonable”–in the sense of being meant to promote the spread of reason–unless it is also civil. The two may be inseparable.”

    Eric Fromm: “What the majority of people consider to be ‘reasonable’ is that about which there is agreement, if not among all, at least among a substantial number of people; ‘reasonable’ for most people, has nothing to do with reason, but with consensus.”

  10. Davo

    Does Boyle also say something about the fine distinction between civility and excessive accommodation? Let me also say that in the world of academic science that I inhabit, most of my colleagues don’t regard incivility to be much of a roadblock in the way of productive scientific discussion. In fact most of them would rather have their colleagues be rude and right or clear rather than polite and wrong or vague.

  11. --bill

    Read Stevin Shapin’s `A Social History of Truth’ for an analysis of Boyle’s explicitly elitist construction of science.

  12. Erasmussimo

    The defenders of incivility have offered the argument that incivility can be useful when dealing with irrational people. I reject this claim. If the other party is irrational, then they are beyond the reach of verbal influence.

    I urge personal honesty here: incivility is in truth nothing more than an expression of anger. Primitives that we are, we are angered by opposition. In earlier times, we expressed that anger by reaching for our club, sword, or gun. Nowadays, such behavior is illegal so we grab our verbal weaponry and have at the “enemy”. The enemy responds in kind, and you get the classic flamewar so common to all Internet discussions. Nowadays, people are a bit more sensitive to the problem of flamewars so they instead engage in flamealtercations. Same concept, just less obvious phrasing.

    Speaking of which, I’d like to offer a handy phrase to all you flamepeople: accuse your enemy of being in dire need of laproscopic cerebellar neurosuction. 😉

  13. Anthony McCarthy

    While civility has its limits, especially in politics, especially in the United States since c. 1968, it’s preferable when it can rule discussions. You waste so much less time off topic.

  14. MadScientist

    And that would be as opposed to uncivil people like R. Dawkins, J. Coyne, H. Mehta, C. Hitchens and their ilk I suppose? I heard that somebody heard that a friend of a friend said they’re all incredibly uncivil all the time.

    As for me I choose to call the willfully and proudly ignorant ‘stupid’ because that’s what they are and there is no reasoning with them; only a fool would waste time in civil discourse with imbeciles.

  15. JMW

    Call me a snob, call me elitist…but as far as I can see, most of the most flagrant transgressors against Boyle’s Law of Reasoned Debate would not be able to read that passage and understand what in the world Boyle was saying…

  16. bilbo


    So if one side of a discussion is being “uncivil,” the civil thing to do is be uncivil ourselves?

    And, more importantly, is this even a discussion if incivility its base?
    Sounds more like a worthless snot-throw to me.

  17. Anthony McCarthy

    14. MadScientist, Hitchens is close to all uncivil, all the time. Coyne is except when he’s acting within his professional discipline. Dawkins is occaisionally incivil, thought he’s ususally well behaved in particular cases, though quite a bigot, generally. Back when I used to read Hemant’s blogs I didn’t find his posts particularly civil or friendly, though he was less bad than many. I didn’t feel constrained to be any more civil than his fans were, which wasn’t civil at all, with a few exceptions.

    I’m finding that it’s a pattern that new atheists explicitly reject civility, on what they call principle, then deny that they’re being uncivil when it’s brought up to them. I don’t mind their incivility, which is easier to take than their hypocrisy when they deny that’s what they’re doing.

  18. “If we follow his perspective, it may be the case that you can’t really have reasoned discussion, at least among those of different views, without a precondition of civility, acceptance, and a lack of condescension. ” Eh — I think this moves too quickly.

    I would agree that it is obviously true that civility of some sort is required for reasoned discourse. This involves certain virtues of temperament, relative open-mindedness, of being reasons-, evidence-, and welfare-responsive, relative charity in interpretation, and so on. What I, and evidently others, emphasize that confrontation can — and, in some cases, must — happen in civilized contexts. For in general, a culture that is better able to deal with civil conflict is a culture that has a more autonomous citizenry. This is an essential skill for anyone who lives in a social system that pretends to be a democracy, not to mention an essential rite of passage into adulthood (a rite of passage that many of my generation, it seems, are being denied).

    However, specific agreement is not a presupposition of reasoned dialogue. That puts the cart before the horse. The aim is mutual agreement on some specific proposition, which we may or may not get. If we presuppose prior agreement on some proposal, we are likely going to be blindsided.

    Also, it is true that it would be a better, more rational world if speakers weren’t condescending and mean. No doubt about it. But on the other hand, if your listener is not interested in listening and comprehending, then they’ll interpret you in the worst possible ways, leading them to either think you’re free associating or making absurdities. To the degree the speaker can avoid making these foul-ups without substantive self-censorship, they (we, I) should. But it’s on a curve. Once you pass that threshold, an interlocutor’s claims regarding incivility are more and more realistically classified as distractions and indications of insincerity. Just as it isn’t any good to be bellicose, it isn’t any good to tolerate trolls either.

    Though of course, people are fantastically bad judges about who is sincere and who is an agent provocateur, who is bellicose (“strident!”, “shrill!”) and who is merely showing candor. Hence, for example, women who are assertive are deemed “cold” and “angry”, that sort of thing.

    So when people say stuff like “Disagree without being disagreeable”, while it is certainly the ideal, it can inflate itself to the level where it becomes an unwritten law in favor of self-censorship. With a mind to the very real and very serious problems involved, it’s useful to also come at it from the other direction, by stressing how it is unacceptable to create an intellectual culture that trivializes real debate.

  19. Boyle’s excerpt is salient.

    I wonder why you felt the need to mention he was a Christian. It was 1661, for crying out loud. I think you can assume that any European in 1661 was at least nominally Christian; the exceptions are the only ones that need to be noted.

    I also wonder was what your point of bringing this up? Are you implying that certain people with whom you have recently engaged in a few online disputes with were being uncivil? I can’t help but think that is the case. Indirect insults are not altogether conducive of civility either.

    Consider what Boyle was talking about. While not challenging his religion, his book did upturn the traditional theory of 4 elements that traced all the way back to Plato.

    Consider also Boyle’s biting humor directed at alchemists: “[their theories] either like Peacock’s feathers make a great shew, but are neither solid nor useful; or else, like Apes, if they have some appearance of being rational, are blemish’d with some absurdity or other which makes them appear ridiculous.” How’s that for civility?

  20. Anthony McCarthy

    — I wonder why you felt the need to mention he was a Christian. It was 1661, for crying out loud.

    The religious identity of a famous scientist of the past is made relevant by the, most often uncivilly, made denial that Christianity, Judaism and Islam are compatible with science when history and biography conclusively refute that.

    It’s the exact parallel to the necessity of noting the gender or ethnicity of scientists who disprove things like James Watson’s assertions in those areas of life. Which makes the relationship of his fame to the work of Rosalind Franklin entirely relevant to his subsequent sexist remarks about her. I’ve wondered how Barbara McClintock’s work might have been impinged on by his bigotry, of if her priority was enough to mitigate some of it.

    When that’s not relevant to the matter, it’s not relevant. Though Chris Mooney would have to tell you why he chose to, that would be my reason to ever bring it up.

  21. ponderingfool

    What is civility though? Who gets to define it? Historically what is civil is defined by those in positions of power in society.

    It should be noted that that Robert Boyle was the son of Sir Richard Boyle, a nobleman. He and his family helped to suppress the Irish Catholic opposition to minority protestant rule over Ireland. Robert Boyle spent great resources on combating Christianity against atheists, deists, Jews, pagans, and Muslims. Calls for civility are nice when you get to set the terms of what is civil.

    It should be remembered white clergy thought Martin Luther King, Jr. was pushing for too much too quickly and too disruptive to civil society. MLK Jr’s opinion that what would continue the oppression of African Americans in the US was not the KKK and such groups but rather white moderates who valued a sense of order/civility over justice.

  22. Sorbet

    Seems the anti-science, anti-atheist bigot McCarthy is railing. As usual, let him have the last word. Roll on!

  23. Erasmussimo

    Ponderingfool, I think that you are conflating a number of things unnecessarily. We’re talking about civility as an attribute of speech; you are raising issues relating to political action. Dr. King was a paragon of civility in his speech. The political tactics he used have nothing to do with his civility. I agree that there is some more abstract concept related to aggressiveness in overall behavior — but that concept is not civility as we are considering it.

  24. ponderingfool

    Dr. King was not always viewed as being civil in his speeches and writings. That is how most of us now view him (a watered down version of Dr. King it should be added). It is retroactive. Boyle is arguing from a position of power in society. Civil discourse requires equity is power. Rarely is that ever the case. To insist on civil discourse usually favors those in power in any society. Maybe that is why Robert Boyle, an aristocratic white Protestant male, advocated for it. Race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc. all need to be thought of. Rarely are they in such discussions. They also need to be discussed in the context of an unscientific america but rarely do we really touch on those subjects.

  25. --bill

    Good point, ponderingfool. Boyle explicitly constructed science as an exchange between gentlemen. The excerpt above was directed at gentlemen, and at gentlement alone. People who were not gentlemen were to be frozen out of the conversation completely. And gentlemen, at that time, had the power to enforce that conception of discourse.

  26. --bill

    @Chris Mooney–Steven Shapin is at Harvard; if you’re interested in Boyle, you should stop in and talk to him.

  27. Jon

    On gentlemanliness, etc. I had a great American lit prof in college who used to talk about the Western table settings as adopted from weapons of war. Manners aren’t necessarily “nice”. They’re about showing a reasonable consideration for the people you are with. You use manners with someone who’s an adversary, not to bow and scrape to your betters, etc., but because they persuade that you’re someone to be taken seriously–that you’ve made some effort to know what’s expected, that you can put yourself in your audience’s shoes to some extent.

    Now there’s a difference between manners and etiquette. Etiquette tends to *exclude* (you don’t know you can’t put your purse on the table? What’s wrong with you?) Manners tend to *include,* because they’re about having consideration for where people are at. (I think one of the points in my prof’s lit class was that Americans tend to be more concerned about manners than etiquette.)

  28. Erasmussimo

    Ponderingfool, I disagree with your claim that Mr. King was not always viewed as civil. It’s true that there are a couple of speeches on record where he goes hyperbolic, but the vast majority of his public presentations were extremely civil. He was indeed fiercely criticized, but not for lack of civility. The criticisms directed against him ranged from standard racist nonsense to concern that he was demanding too much progress too quickly. That latter complaint has nothing to do with the man’s civility.

    Your basic argument seems to be that civility is merely a tactic used by the powerful to impede social progress. While it is true that in past times, there was a correlation between civility and power, that correlation was not causal and in fact nowadays the only relationship at work is the negative one: people with little or no power are sometimes vitriolic. Be careful here not to confuse correlation with causation. Civility provides the basis for the fastest resolution of disagreements.

  29. Anthony McCarthy

    — McCarthy is railing.

    Sorbet is irony made flesh.

  30. Anthony McCarthy

    — Dr. King was not always viewed as being civil in his speeches and writings. ponderingfool

    Quotes? I don’t think what he said was in any way uncivil, unless you mean that he upset people when he told the truth. But I don’t think that’s incivility unless you want to change the meaning of the word, as the more genteel racists of the time certaily would have. But it’s not a good idea to hand them the tool of altering the meaning of words.

    You do realize he called what he did “civil disobedience”. He explicitly favored CIVIL disobedience over incivility and he was quite explicit that he thought it was not only effective but morally correct for explicitly religious reasons. I’d give some quotes but there are those who would think it was uncivil to take him at his word.

    If you have any quotes in which he advocated incivility I’d really be interested in those and citations of where they appeared.

  31. ponderingfool

    Dr. King on Senator Goldwater:
    “Senator Goldwater had neither the concern nor the comprehension necessary to grapple with this problem of poverty in the fashion that the historical moment dictated. ”

    Basically calling out Goldwater as lacking the empathy, knowledge and intellect to wrap his head around the idea of poverty. That isn’t exactly “may confute an Opinion without railing at Them that hold it” but it is calling a spade a spade. It was Dr. King did as well in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail to fellow clergymen (in particular white ones):
    “Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.”
    The letter is calling out these white moderates. He is calling them cowards. Not exactly civil but very much correct, calling a spade a spade. He is not just showing how they are wrong he is railing at them for being cowards, comfortable in their safe positions in life. He is provoking, not just convincing them. He does both, which is why he Dr. King was so great.

    As for civility over all, I am with Dr. Isis.
    Civility I

    Civility II

  32. Erasmussimo

    Well, ponderingfool, I don’t see those quotes as significantly uncivil. Actually, as I recall, Mr. King had some stronger words earlier in his career, when he was addressing groups of blacks. But this is quibbling. Mr. King was so thoroughly civil in his behavior that his success cannot possibly be attributed to incivility.

  33. Anthony McCarthy

    Dr. King on Senator Goldwater:
    “Senator Goldwater had neither the concern nor the comprehension necessary to grapple with this problem of poverty in the fashion that the historical moment dictated. ”

    That’s it? That’s your example of Reverend MLK jr’s incivility? And you frequent blogs?

    Re Dr. Isis, here’s what I said at another goddess blog almost a year ago.

  34. Jon, that’s an interesting distinction, I’d never heard it made in quite that way before.

    As I suggested above, the key trouble is that people think they’re terribly good at manners, but they’re not. They can’t be. For, to a large extent, people don’t have the knowledge of each other required for good manners. Without some appeal to norms, people are subject to the arbitrarily delicate sensibilities of strangers, which isn’t at all conducive to reasonable discourse.

    Explicit rules of etiquette are generally a more useful tool, because the substance of them isn’t itself outside of the realm of discussion. For example, I’ve been explicitly told that as a rule one ought to say no more than two things in every classroom discussion, and ask only one thing at a conference. (Ostensibly, this rule applies to men in particular.) Now, I think that’s nonsense in every conceivable way. But at least it’s an explicit guide, so that I can publicly denounce the norm with reasons at hand.

  35. ponderfool, you are a darling and I <3 you too!

    MLK said things much more uncivil than that! Read his most famous speech, a portion of which has been coopted for Hispanic Heritage Month.

    We can continue to talk about civil discourse among “gentlemen,” but bear in mind that by definition that excluded women and racial minorities. I’m not so sure I would prefer a discourse among “gentlemen.”

  36. Jon

    Benjamin– I think that prof of mine mentioned she was a reader of Letitia Baldridge (a reader of a lot of other things too, Eric Auerbach, for instance, but that’s another subject). Anyway, I just did a search on etiquette and manners in Letitia Baldridge, and they’re in there:

  37. Jon

    It doesn’t mention manners when you’re in a conflict with someone, but that’s something my prof went into. (Again, manners aren’t necessarily being nice, it can be just demonstrating that you have class.)

  38. Erasmussimo

    Isis wrote: “We can continue to talk about civil discourse among “gentlemen,” but bear in mind that by definition that excluded women and racial minorities. I’m not so sure I would prefer a discourse among “gentlemen.””

    What do you mean “we”, Kemosabe? I didn’t talk about gentlemen. Boyle didn’t talk about gentlemen. Chris didn’t talk about gentlemen. Only one person spoke about gentlemen. The rest of us talked about civility. What are you talking about?

  39. Anthony McCarthy

    Isis, if you think that passage of the Dream speech was a model of incivility, I can’t imagine what you must think of the normal discourse of today.

    Reverend King was arguing against passively accepting injustice but he called the major tool of his movement ‘CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE’ . Civil, as opposed to uncivil. I really do think he was able to survey the nuance of that range of behavior and to truthfully announce which part of it he occupied.

    I never said anything about “gentlemen” who often wear a patina of civility over the most vicious and avaricious piracy and murder. Someone once said the devil is a gentleman but no one would have accused Jesus of being one.

  40. ponderingfool

    Erasmussimo go read Isis’s blog. Civility has and continues to be used to mitigate the feelings of women when they express their anger at sexist behavior, not to mention as an excuse for men not to act to call out sexist behavior, calling a spade a spade. The excuse of civility places the burden of dealing with sexism upon women while also restraining their ability to be heard. Civility is defined by the gentlemen class by the Robert Boyle’s of society.

    As for Anthony, I am sorry I don’t have time to spend reviewing every quote of Dr. King’s. Two popped in my head quickly and quoted them. I do scientific research, I teach, I help care for a grandparent who is nearing the end of his/her life, I am involved in community works, I cook meals, balance the household budget, and I support my spouse whose job is far more challenging than any scientists that I know of (teaches in an urban area and let me tell you the work of Dr. King, the whole of Dr. King’s work and not the watered down version that is taught, is far from over and calling our society out over it is very much needed because the civil approach just is not cutting it).

    Civil discourse as described by Boyle was about critiquing ideas, opinions, and pointing out facts in manner that did not personally critique the other person. Dr. King did all of it. His Letter from a Birmingham Jail is not just a critique of the opinions/actions of many white clergy but also admonishing them as cowards and naive/ignorant but in a very eloquent manner. He is “railing at them” as well as “confuting an opinion”. It is civil in tone but not civil in the manner Boyle was speaking of.

  41. Anthony McCarthy

    ponderingfool, if you are that familiar with academic life you certainly know that if someone makes an assertion about the character of an historical figure, and at odds with that figure’s clearly stated intentions, it’s their burden to back that up.

    I think you might mistake the concepts of civility and gentility. Maybe even with hypocrisy, since that’s what so much of the “gentleman’s code” is based in, up to and including it being a cover story for mass murder and enslavement. That is what I’d assume you mean by this gentlemanly “civility”. But that’s no more civil that George W. Bush’s “democracy” has anything to do with rational government of, by and for The People. It’s a pantomime and a cover story, told by and on behalf of people who are, at bottom,violent, thieving, thugs.

    Real civility has to have uniform application as a goal, though that’s dependent on cooperation among different parties. When some, such as today’s far-right wing Republicans, refuse to be civil, relying on the standards of civil conduct puts their adversaries at a disadvantage. In our politics today, though, it’s not possible to remain civil and defeat them. When telling the truth and preventing violence from the far right are made a disadvantage by the corporate media and the rest of the power holders, civility will not last. Civility in speech is a lower priority than telling the truth and resisting violence.

    Civility isn’t an end in itself, but it’s a desirable rule of conduct which makes solving problems easier by removing secondary and lower status problems. It also makes life more tolerable. Some of the most civil people I’ve known have been dirt poor people who no one would mistake for ladies and gentlemen. Their civility included impartiality based on class, gender, etc. They gained a sense of respectability through treating other people well, even as they resisted what was wrong. I think The Reverend King would have identified with those people.

    I’d suggest a little book called “The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr” selected and introduced by Coretta Scott King, published by Newmarket Press.

  42. ponderingfool

    Anthony the civility you speak of is not the one Boyle discusses. He is talking about “confuting an opinion” and not “railing at them that hold it”. Dr. King did rail at others as well as pointing out flaws in arguments.

    From my experience, many times those that are oppressed do tend to be very civil. That is part of the problem. My spouse has found that the parents who are not so civil tend to get the best outcomes for their children (getting the right assistance, getting administrators to do their jobs, etc.). Those that remain civil tend not to get the same action. Anger and directing it at a person is effective. Making it personal sometimes doesn’t cause someone’s defenses to go up but makes the situation matter to the other person. Being civil is very handy when you have very little to be angry about in society. It is oppressive when you do and follow being civil for too long.

  43. Jon

    Incivility on the part of oppressed people doesn’t offend me. I think it’s often *ineffective,* but it doesn’t offend me. Back in the 60’s you didn’t only have MLK, you had Stokely Carmichael. I don’t think there’s any question who was more a more effective spokesman for civil rights.

    Over the summer, I read Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, which covered a lot of the civil rights struggle, including the things Stokely Carmichael did and said. I think the way he went about things was understandable, but not effective, and probably counterprodictive. This is Perlstein a couple months ago talking about his book:

    I think one of the untold stories of our era is how effectively Democrats have matured as a party, and liberals as an ideology, since the 1960s. 1960s radicals come in for a lot of abuse in my book for their frequent childishness (though of course they also deserve a lot of moral credit);

    This I think fits pretty well what the guy upthread said about “having fun.” Ridiculing and making fun of all “the religious” (a mindless generalization if there ever was one) for what they choose to do with their religious consciences, is *childish.* It’s one thing if you engage people seriously–that is, study the assumptions of the people who disagree with you instead of sneering at them. Sneering in place of actual engagement with different intellectual assumptions from you is “fun”, but it’s not much in the way of discourse.

    One last thing: the New Atheists are by and large people with an education and good jobs. So I’m not sure the parallel with the civil rights struggle quite works. In fact, a lot of “the religious” are then people without education and good jobs, so this needs to be taken into consideration when we “have fun” at their expense.

  44. Anthony McCarthy

    ponderingfool, I think our disagreement is on the word “civility”, what it is and why it is better than incivility. Now it looks like we’re going to have to disagree on the term “rail” as well.

    Looking at what The Reverend King said, I don’t see railing. I didn’t hear railing in his persistent and reasoned moral discourse. I heard an assertion of truth refusing to allow gentility to override the insistence on universal justice. Gentility is, in practice, so notably partial to those who get that treatment, it distinguishes between those who begin within its practice and those who begin by being outside its practice. That is so basically at odds with what MLK held throughout his adult life that it shouldn’t be confused with the Civility of his civil disobedience.

    You might find a lot in Boyle’s life to criticize in terms of consistency and the application of the concept of “civility”, you’ll notice I didn’t defend him, in view of some of the relatively little I know about his activities. I don’t think you should conflate his statement about the usefulness of civility in learned discourse with the more general value of it in normal social and political interactions.

    I’m mostly interested in politics and I’ve held that politics is a dirty brawl. I’d like it to operate as an honest discourse of reason in the interest of the common good and egalitarian democracy but that’s not the way it is. MLK knew that, he experienced its violence up to and including his own murder. There’s an enormous amount to learn from him and what you have to be prepared to sacrifice in order to achieve the kinds of change he knew was necessary. His kind of civility was notably not soft-handed and self-deluding. It was hard and rigorous and fully prepared to take the violence of the reaction that he knew would come. It’s not pretty. Neither is it the various distortions of it that have been made ever since his death. It’s a challenging religious and political program, it’s dangerous and it’s often dirty. But he knew that if you let that get into your mind and your soul you were lowering yourself to the level of those who you oppose. Telling the truth and refusing to objectifying your opponents [as the genteel habitually do even as they strike a courtly pose] will end up destroying you and corrupting the results you might achieve in the short term.

    I won’t claim to be able to live up to that or even to have the patience to try. But I can at least stand up for what he said and did and to at least insist on the intellectual integrity of it and against its distortion.

  45. See also Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump. They suggest that the scientific method Boyle advocated (and argued about with Hobbes) crystallizes a particular social organization and form of interaction. Given the highly divisive context in which he was writing, Boyle advocated that the “natural philsosophers” focus on the facts (those items to which everyone could assent) and to avoid metaphysical or causal claims–natural philosophers were to spend their time cataloging facts about nature.

    But Boyle had in mind a particular type of natural philosopher–a Christian gentleman. Only men of a certain class status could be considered sufficiently “modest” (i.e. disinterested) to engage in this discussion about facts. The Royal Society excluded women and viewed less “gentlemanly” members (like Robert Hooke) with suspicion.

    The point is that any conception of an ideal speech situation depends on some basic assumptions about the social order–who is valorized to speak, who isn’t, who is considered reasonable and who isn’t. And usually these conceptions (see also Habermas) cast out emotion, which is considered to conflict with rationality. Antonio Demasio has demonstrated that we don’t make decisions on the basis of rationality alone (see his book Descartes Error), but that emotions also play a necessary part.

  46. Anthony McCarthy

    — One last thing: the New Atheists are by and large people with an education and good jobs. So I’m not sure the parallel with the civil rights struggle quite works. In fact, a lot of “the religious” are then people without education and good jobs, so this needs to be taken into consideration when we “have fun” at their expense. Jon

    Oh, that doesn’t work at all. Especially considering that atheists have been a covered class under the civil rights laws since they were passed, without even struggling for it.

    I think the new atheists are about as oppressed as the “christian” fundamentalists who portray themselves as put upon when they can’t have everything their own way all the time.

    I don’t necessarily agree with you about Stokley Carmichael. I think he and MLK were a lot closer on many things than is generally admitted, though they did have their differences, especially about whether or not non-violence was a tactic or a basic moral principle.

  47. Erasmussimo

    Ponderingfool, you argue that incivility can motivate people to do one’s will. There is truth in your comment: sometimes people who merely follow the path of least resistance will tread the path you desire if you make inaction on their part very unpleasant. So, yes, incivility can be effective in some individual cases. Be warned, however, that incivility can also be extremely counterproductive. Unleash some incivility on the cop who’s giving you a ticket and you might find yourself in jail on trumped-up charges, only to be released twelve hours later. Unleash some incivility on that harried bureaucrat and you might find your reasonable request obstructed. Statistically, incivility is less effective than civility. Sure, in a few cases it works, but in most cases it doesn’t — and you don’t know in advance those situations in which it will work.

    There are only three basic strategies for getting people to do your will: 1. get them to do it because they themselves believe it right and proper to do it; 2. make a deal with them so that it is in their material interest to do it; 3. use the threat of violence to make them do it out of fear. This third strategy is the basis for war.

    We often use #2 to accomplish our goals, but in some cases, especially those involving large groups of people, deals cannot be made. This is usually the case with injustice, such as sexism. So we are forced to choose between #1 and #3.

    In terms of preserving one’s options, #1 is clearly preferable. If you choose civility, and it doesn’t work, you can always turn to verbal or physical violence later. But if you choose #3, then you eliminate the option of using #1 if it doesn’t work, because you have tainted your objective with the stain of evil. Using violence (verbal or physical) creates antagonism; antagonism makes it more difficult for the other party to see the rightness of your position.

    My greatest objection to incivility, though, is that it is destructive to social capital. This term “social capital”, was coined just a few decades ago and represents an important concept. Social capital is the sense of togetherness within a society. It’s the degree to which people in society consider themselves akin to each other; the degree to which they trust each other and defer to the needs of the group.

    Social capital endows a society with efficiency and power. People work together more readily; less time and energy is expended protecting one’s property from others. People make sacrifices for the good of the group, and everybody thereby prospers. Social capital is the magical glue that makes civilizations work. Loss of social capital initiates the disintegration of society.

    Each and every one of us, in every social act we commit, either contributes to our net social capital or detracts from it. Every time a driver honks angrily at another driver, social capital is lost. Every time one driver waves another drive ahead, social capital is increased. Every act of incivility diminishes social capital. Bit by tiny bit, incivility erodes the glue that holds us together.

    Injustice is an manifestation of low social capital. In a society with high social capital, injustice doesn’t exist. If you seek to combat injustice with incivility, you will surely reduce the social capital of the society even if you succeed, at least temporarily. And if you fail, you will permanently reduce the social capital. So it all boils down to the question of whether incivility works.

    The problem that few people appreciate is that each pejorative act encourages worse pejorative acts. The guy who holds a sign that calls Mr. Obama a tyrant may not be racist, but he opens the door for the guy who screams a racist epithet at Mr. Obama. At that guy’s racist scream encourages the guy who has been thinking about building a bomb. It is so much easier to encourage viciousness than goodwill.

    So your incivility may not by itself do much harm. But it encourages people more vicious than you, and discourages people inclined to sympathize with you.

    This conflict between irenicism and antagonism has tormented humanity since the beginning of history, as far as we know. One lesson from history is clear: it’s always the old sages who counsel irenicism, and it’s usually the young hotheads who scream for blood. That’s because it takes a few decades of adulthood for a person to learn the hard way that anger is usually counterproductive. We really should know better; in a contest between anger and reason, we should always prefer reason. But too many young people cloak their anger behind rationalizations, and charge down the path to confrontation and failure.

  48. Jon

    But too many young people cloak their anger behind rationalizations, and charge down the path to confrontation and failure.

    You nailed it.

  49. Although the great George H W did say that he didn’t think atheists should be considered either patriots or citizens.

  50. Jon

    Sure, there’s no shortage of red meat lying around, Curious. However, identity politics and public reason don’t always mix. Remember the PC people who heckled at lectures during the early 90’s? A lot of this stuff gets awfully close to that…

  51. Brian

    Some thoughts.

    I basically agree with the notion that civility is often linked to power differentials in society. In the monarchial societies of old it was routine that all the people of the realm would be obsequiously civil to the King/Queen of the day. Why? There were obvious consequences to being uncivil for one. For another, you made it more likely to get your way, and that was important when the monarch had no obligation at all to do anything for you.

    An extreme example for sure. However it’s instructive to examine extreme examples for broader lessons. We often see analogous situations in organizational structures, where there are larger power differentials between the people at the top and the lower members.

    The danger with these situations is that the powerful get to determine the standard of civility. They have freedom to decide that not merely is the style uncivil (if they so choose), but the substance is uncivil too. You’ll know this if you ever get dressed down by an authority figure angrily saying something like, “Are you calling me a hypocrite??”.

    When the power differential is low and the risk/rewards are low, incivility carries a very low (immediate) cost. Online discussions have this characteristic. In fact the only advantage to be won may be to escalate a verbal conflict, unilaterally declare yourself a winner, and perhaps walk away without even giving your opponent an opportunity to respond in kind.

  52. Anthony McCarthy

    Haven’t you ever experienced poor people who treat each other civilly? I’m wondering if some of you have ever known poor people or been one yourself. Civility is also a part of real maturity. It’s something that makes life tolerable and a lot less dirty.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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