Sunday, October 19, 2014

Incivility and misplaced confidence

In the connected world there has been a long running but fitful discussion about civility. Yes, it's nice, but is it necessary? Is there value to incivility? I am eager to see a higher degree of civil discourse but have to acknowledge that there are a lot of nuances. Noah Smith has an essay which I think is insightful, Don't Be Rude, You Loser . He makes a number of good points but it is this one that caught my eye.
That’s well and good. But there’s an important question that I think Bruenig fails to consider: What if your own viewpoint is wrong?

Sometimes, one of the parties in a debate is simply dishonest and unethical, and doesn’t really care if he or she is right or wrong. But more often, both sides deeply believe in the positions they take. The person in the wrong might be your opponent -- or it might be you. Or, more realistically, it might be both. Putting red-haired people in concentration camps is obviously horrible, but most of our arguments are over things like Obamacare, or antipoverty programs, or financial regulation-- issues on which reasonable people can and do disagree.

If you’re uncivil in this sort of situation -- if you call your opponent an idiot, or a liar, or a nastier name simply because you think his or her argument is bad -- you’re basically being overconfident. You’re assuming that there’s essentially no chance that you’re in the wrong, so it’s in the public interest for you to rail against your opponent and score points with the crowd. If you do this, there’s no chance that you yourself will learn anything from the encounter. People usually argue to win, but many times it’s possible to argue to learn.
I think this a usefully true observation. It also raises the idea that uncivil discussion reflects low self-awareness of the contingency of all knowledge and facts and low self-awareness married to overconfidence are probably good indicators that there is likely low value in the possible debate. The more dogmatic, the less valuable.

No comments:

Post a Comment