Beware Twitter's civility police

Civility is for tea parties, not the public square. Let's stay outraged.

Twitter Rage
(Image credit: (Illustration by Sarah Eberspacher | Photos courtesy, iStock))

When you think of Twitter, you probably don't imagine a venue of suffocating politeness.

As a platform, Twitter is easy to exploit for abusiveness. Setting up an account anonymously is relatively simple, and interacting with other users is immediate and easy. Thus much destruction has been wrought via tweets, with the case of Caroline Criado-Perez as a recent high-profile example. After she argued that women's faces be added to British currency, Criado-Perez endured days of abuse on Twitter ranging from the simply vile to the deeply threatening. Her experience is not isolated.

And yet, it wasn't a lack of politeness that made Criado-Perez's harassers so dreadfully disgusting; their whole premise was terrible, anchored in misogyny and delusional levels of reactionary entitlement. Even if they had put their hate in genteel terms, there's nothing especially superior about politely worded statements asserting women's inferiority; indeed, politely worded statements about women's inferiority dominate some of the most brutally anti-woman literature in history. The trouble with cruel and abusive tweeting isn't, therefore, its structure but its substance. And if this is true of the vulgar and obscene, it's equally true of the gently phrased but ultimately evil.

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This puts the usual arguments about civility on Twitter in an awkward place. If we take the parity seriously — that it is the substance of an argument or claim that should interest us, and only secondarily its style — then the frequent prioritization of form over content seems an odd feature of modern discourse. Consider the case of Professor Steven Salaita, an instructor hired and summarily let go by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign due to tweets about violence in Gaza which university administrators deemed too uncivil. As news of Salaita's dismissal broke, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks at UC Berkeley sent out an email in support of civility, proposing the following argument: "Specifically, we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility."

Dirks' claim turns the content-over-form formulation on its head: by his reasoning, substance can only be encountered if the style is right. Otherwise, all debate is de-facto compromised by a nebulous sense of mistrust. Thus, Dirks suggests, unless a certain style is agreed upon, no argument can take place whatsoever — an implication that has the dubious side-effect of blaming interlocutors like Salaita for endangering free speech even as they try to engage in it.

But Dirks' placement of blame and Salaita's dismissal illustrate the very problem with elevating style over substance: it allows people in positions of power to target those they disagree with for punishment without having to reconcile themselves with power differentials.

The language of civility — always nebulously defined, but usually relating to something like respect or deference — limits the type of expression people can use, often forcing them to express in neutral or less-impactful terms what they experience in very sharp, immediate ways. It's therefore a special problem for people who find themselves with grievances that aren't widely shared or widely discussed: the kind of intensity that would focus attention on their experiences is mostly transformed into softer, gentler terms by the rhetorical demands of civility. In this way, civility is a unique issue for groups who find themselves with less influence or power over discourse.

Moreover, the elevation of civility to a central virtue enables the powerful to easily cut off debate. This, in turn, means that those with special reasons to air opinions in harshly critical or informally personal styles are then at high risk for being disciplined by those with the power to punish, locking them into their less powerful position. Either play by the rules of power or be dismissed from the game, the protocols of civility seem to dictate. Thus devotion to the style of speech preferred by the powerful actually becomes an avenue for them to enforce their dominance.

Now, if you see civility as valuable insofar as it is more convincing, more pleasant, or more useful in argument — I agree that it is sometimes all of those things. But this means a civil tone is just one rhetorical style among many, and we should no more punish or privilege it than we would its polar opposite.

The only way to give opponents an honest hearing — often claimed to be the goal of civility — is to consider style second to substance, and to resist systems of discipline that would enforce manners at the expense of the least privileged amongst us. On Twitter, this means choosing styles wisely, with sensitivity to the argument at hand: which sometimes means calling a bully a bully, a fool a fool, or a woman-hater just that.

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