Saturday, June 8, 2013

Civility: Scoffed at, by Paul Krugman

Tony initiated a good discussion with me, Xan, and Kevin via e-mail on civility in response to this column by Paul Krugman, and I thought I'd post my thoughts that I shared with them, and expand a bit on them.

I am saddened by where Krugman decided to end the column:
But bad-faith arguments don’t deserve a civil response, and if the attempt to be civil gets in the way of exposing the bad faith, civility itself becomes part of the problem.
I do agree with Krugman's initial claim that one can deduce someone isn't likely honestly discussing something (though his blue sky, green sky example is a little bizarre).

The question then becomes what you do about it. There are two options: disengage discussion or continue civilly. Disengaging may in fact be (morally) wrong if the issue is important enough, so sometimes one must civilly continue. I disagree entirely with Krugman's conclusion that civility itself can be part of the problem. It can never get in the way of exposing the "bad faith" -- almost by definition.

Referring to some of the points I summarized about Civility, Paul could benefit from reflecting on points 1, 5, 6, 7, 8, and especially 10).

In contrast to Paul's claim that civility is part of the problem in politics, I would argue that civility is most important in politics where arguments are had between people with fundamentally different core beliefs and values -- even if one of those people doesn't even value civility. By not even acknowledging the possibility that we may be wrong, smearing them because we don't like or agree with them, and attacking rather than civilly criticizing them, we close our minds and open ourselves to the possibility of making major blunders.

In fact, it looks like Paul committed a pretty major blunder supporting some uncivil behavior by a Senator the day before the column cited above. (Though I link to Landsburg, he is not the epitome of civility by a long-shot, either. It's almost ironic, actually.)

This is a downside of the internet. For some reason, it is much easier to become uncivil when interacting with people or writing on the internet than in other forms of communication. I have not quite figured out why, but I find myself falling prey to the lure of incivility much more often than any other form of communication. Is it anonymity? Lack of nuance through limited characters in text communication? Cross-cultural clashes happen more often? I don't really know.

But it's a problem that shouldn't be contributed to by Nobel Prize-winning economists in such a public forum as the New York Times.

UPDATE: Related Dilbert cartoon. 

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