On Civility

Look at this network map of twitter accounts that tweeted about Israeli shelling of a palestinian school in July 2014:

The density of connections is strong within interest groups. The connections between them are frail. Each group is mostly an echo chamber.

This is not surprising. People like to talk to people who are similar to them. Most of us seek out partners with similar political beliefs. Life constantly throws us opportunities to select into environments that are politically homogenous, we have to choose firms to work for, neighbourhoods to live in, flatmates, friends etc. Each of these choices is an opportunity to insulate ourselves from difficult and challenging opinions.

I am no saint in this regard – but I try pretty hard. As a Socialist working on a dealing floor, I enjoy a daily bracing confrontation with conservative groupthink. I spend a lot of my social media time engaging with people who disagree with me. For me, it’s an essential part of understanding my own beliefs, being able to express them cogently, and of course discovering which of my beliefs are wrong. The last part can only happen if you are challenged – and I like being right about things so I actively seek challenge. In this spirit, I asked a prominent pro-sex worker, anti nordic model activist on Twitter for her response to my post on the Nordic model. Our discussion started well:

StartThis is a snippet of what started out, I thought, as a pretty reasonable conversation. I am doing my best to propose syntheses of our arguments – find points of agreement and disagreement, and reflect on the different arguments on what is quite a complex subject. However, from the start, there is an air of mistrust:

PanicI specifically talked in my post about how I thought it was important to stay away from “Bad-Faith” arguments, and re-iterate it here, because I don’t think it’s productive to get into slagging matches about who is lying and who is not. However, this isn’t shared by Laura, who happily throws out this “bad faith” assertion early on. Also interesting is the spirit in which she replies to a perceived ‘keyword’ in my reply, focussing on the fact that I mentioned pimping. This assertion about pimping not being a significant problem does not contradict what I said – and makes assumptions about my beliefs that she does not need to make.

Anyway, the conversation was carried on in what I thought was a spirit of civility – and should have ended in that spirit:

End1The trouble is however, that people have a lot of tribal instincts and unfortunately I triggered one of Laura’s:


blockedThis is a really disappointing end to what should have been an opportunity for both sides to discuss an interesting and contentious issue. Linking someone to an £80 book and insisting they read it as a condition to continuing a conversation, then blocking them when they ask to borrow it, was pretty shocking to me. One can bend over backwards to accommodate a civil discussion, but ultimately it’s often true that people are not really interested in having one.

This is not a cautionary tale but a call to action. We all of us need to do more to reach out to people who disagree with us, and increase the background level of trust and civility such that it’s even possible to have proper conversations about divisive issues. Splitting off into tribal camps and barely talking across the divide is no way to have our public conversation.


One thought on “On Civility

  1. Darius Wilkins says:

    Oh, I’m pretty familiar with this dynamic. Issue does boil down to bad faith (on her part), sorry. Lots of people out there that want to make prostitution easier to invest in.

    Here’s the thing. Continuing illegality, decriminalization, legalization, can all work, at least as viable policy proposals. When dealing with this topic, understand this dynamic can be present–legalize the industry but not legalize the women (in the sense that women have greater and more acessible rights themselves). If it all smacks a little too closely to “Right to Work”, then…well, try another topic…

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