In Defence of Civility

I often find myself disturbed by the reaction of some public commentators, unfortunately those who can be generally described as being on the ‘right’ of the political divide, when the way in which they seek to make their point, and often the language they choose to use, is called out for being disrespectful towards the target of their commentary.

The response of the commentators when challenged, sadly, is to label those who challenge their behaviour and their language as being members of the ‘political correctness brigade’, thus dismissing the objections by appeal to the commentators’ right to free speech and cementing a refusal to submit to the limitations supposedly demanded by political correctness.

I would like to mount a defence of those who call out inappropriate behaviour and language not on the grounds of ‘political correctness’ (a term which I believe is ultimately meaningless and concocted in order to be dismissive) but rather on the grounds of civility.

Civility is sadly lacking in much of public discourse at the present moment, being increasinly replaced by anger, virtriol and behaviour that tends towards the belligerent. Uncivil discourse is ultimately unedifying and does not permit participants to engage with ideas and opinions because they are too concerned with defending themselves rather than seeking to convince other participants of the truth or correctness of a particularly held position.

To be civil in discourse – public or private – is not to self-censor one’s behaviour and use of language because of the kind of external standards that opponents often label as ‘political correctness’, but rather because one recognises that discourse involves another human being who, like me, is entitled to a level of basic respect for their existence, their opinion, and their right to engage in the same discourse that I claim for myself.

The question that civility demands I ask myself when considering my contribution to discourse is not ‘can I say this’ but rather ‘should I say this’. The second question recognises that it is entirely possible to say something, though saying it might be unwise and unhelpful in general or in a specific set of circumstances.

Focussing on the question of civility is not surrendering one’s right to free speech, but rather a recognition that my right to free speech is not unlimited, that the rights of others necessarily limits my ability to say whatever I wish whenever I wish. And that is a good thing, because it also means that I must give serious consideration to how I am going to frame my argument to convince others rather than simply dismissing their position as wrong or erroneous or unworthy of being spoken.

Being civil in public or private discourse is the harder option, certainly, and rightly so. It is all too easy to fall into the kind of poor discourse that we see far too often; it is much harder to engage in respectful dialogue that is aimed at convincing others of the value of my position.

And that is not a question of ‘political correctness’. It is a question of politics, the way in which the people of a particular nation or group engage with each other for the common good of the whole nation or group.