Thursday, June 13, 2013

Brushes With Civility

"'The stroke is executed by cutting back, then down,' is the teaching given in an ancient scroll, 'followed by a swift, slight rise to the right like the movement of striking with a whip.'

Another scroll, almost equally antique, contains poetic, if enigmatic advice about the practitioner's state of mind, likening it to a 'flower scattering, falling without sound on moss, a flower scattering to be heard through the depths of mountains.'

Only those unacquainted with the paradoxes of art in Japanese culture would be surprised to learn that the first commentary is concerned with the gentle skills of calligraphy, the second devoted to the perfection of warriorship with the sword." -Dave Lowry, Sword and Brush: The Spirit of the Martial Arts

In the West, it is sometimes said that the pen is purportedly mightier than the sword. Yet, in medieval Japan, some warriors saw both calligraphy and marital training as arts that were not only a demonstration of character but also ways to center the mind and body.  And, in these ways, form and content were inseparable. The dedicated practice of each, Lowry concludes, could potentially result in reality being "reduced to a single unique encounter of perfect clarity."

Notable is the focus on clarity. Not winning, not defeat, not killing, and not demolishing one's opponent, but clarity.
Reflecting upon these concepts as they relate to blogging and debate, I believe that some of my most rewarding experiences in the blogosphere over the years have come from instances where I feel I've either expressed an argument with clarity or, due to a debating partner's clear expression, have finally come to understand someone else's position better. In debate, these moments are rare. 
For one, I think that a debating rule in which people have to clearly articulate their opponent's argument to their opponent's satisfaction prior to trying to rebut it could minimize many misunderstanding before things get to the "OMG you are the worst person EVAR!" stage of conversation.

And two, when I've been involved in experiments, so to speak, of civil debate in Internet forums, I've often picked up on frustration when the topic of civility is mentioned. Many people believe that civility is a means to "censor" people from telling certain truths, purportedly "politically incorrect" truths that need to be said no matter how brutal they are - even as some of these same folks readily admit that intimidating people out of conversations is the end goal of promoting "anything goes" policies in Internet forums.

I question the line of thinking that posits that truth is the enemy of civility. Form and content are, I think, often inseparable. 

If we think of the tone of a statement as its form, and the the meaning of the message as its content, oftentimes, for instance, a comment that is racist is called racist not only because it is hurtful (form) but because it is also inaccurate (content). It is the inaccuracy of prejudiced statements is what causes the sting, not the truth of them. And, the hurtful nature of such statements is amplified precisely because they are inaccurate yet also marketed by its utterer as a "politically incorrect truth that needs to be said."
Labels and the words we use can, and often do, actually distract from reality rather than describe it. 
I'm reminded of that upon reading an article in The New Yorker entitled "The Power of Names":
"...words carry hidden baggage that may play at least some role in shaping thought. What’s surprising, perhaps, is how profoundly a single word can shape material outcomes over time.

...What ancient mapmakers did unwittingly for north and south, lawyers do intentionally when they describe accident scenes. The defense might call a car accident 'contact'; the plaintiff might say one car 'smashed' the other. These labels really matter, as Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer showed in a classic experiment. After a group of students watched the same series of traffic accidents, they were asked how fast the cars were going when the accident occurred. When the cars were described as having 'contacted' one another, the students estimated their speed to be thirty-two miles an hour, whereas another group estimated that the cars were travelling at forty miles an hour when they were described as having 'smashed' one another."
I've long believed that the words we choose are reflective of the way we think. Word choice can be a way to articulate our thoughts, enhance or deflate our egos, as well as a way to maintain, or break, civility.

For instance, is someone on Internet calling a political opponents' article a "rant"? Sometimes the word is apt, but often it's used to deliberately and passive-aggressively dismiss a rational argument as being unhinged.

Does someone use the word "homosexual," the clinical, outdated term that references the historical baggage of homosexuality formerly being a DSM mental illness?

Does someone set the stage for debate by suggesting that their online Internet opponent might physically "clobber" them for sharing their opinion, or "half-jokingly" say they're going to "run away" after posting an opinion rather than deal with the purportedly-sure-to-come aggressive reaction?

Does someone refer to all human beings as "he," insisting that male pronouns are also oxymoronic "gender neutral" pronouns?

What is the consequence, in terms of implicitly reinforcing male privilege, of living in a society in which "God" is continually described with masculine pronouns?

How do all of these word choices reinforce and sustain a false reality?

Indeed, for all the poo-pooing that goes on about our alleged "PC Gone Awry" culture, I think many folks are protesting too much. I think that many people are very well aware of the implications of their language choice and so choose the words they use precisely to marginalize. That is why attempts to make even minor changes to improve clarity and accuracy, such as making statute language gender neutral, are often met with such resistance.

I also think that word choice can marginalize even if that is not the intent of the speaker.

Civility and truth are not diametrically opposed. Communications that some people proudly call "un-PC" are often failings not only because they are usually "bombs instead of scalpels," but because they also distract from reality rather than describe it.

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