Civil Discourse and Ground Rules

Seeing Jack on twitter talking to Trump about how to improve the degree of civil discourse on their platform strikes me as utterly absurd. Asking the person who is one of the least civil members of your platform for advice on how to improve civility is like asking the wolf that keeps eating your sheep how to do a better job protecting the sheep.

That said, I think I understand what Jack is trying to do, and to some degree I do applaud him for trying. But he's going about it all wrong.

My feelings on civility

I'm a huge fan of civility, respect, and mutual discussion. I myself have talked to conservatives to have difficult conversations about how to respect their beliefs better. I think it's really important to be able to have those kinds of conversations with people with whom you disagree.


I think one of the things that's missing from the conversation about civility is the conversation about ground rules FOR those civil conversations. Basically, a conversation can only be civil if all participants in that conversation agree to rules on how that conversation is going to go. And I think it is here that we are seeing problems in the state of modern discourse online and elsewhere.

Well, Actually and other forms of “rational debate”

In the atheism/skeptic communities I sometimes associated with, I sometimes see this attitude of “I am always open for rational debate” with folks. The idea seems to be that they are open to discuss any subject at any time. I think the reality of this is that they are not actually open to any subject at any time, but any reasonable subject at any reasonable time, where “reasonable” is an unspoken set of expectations they have of the ground rules for the conversation.

If I woke you up at 3 in the morning to debate whether or not the concept of ownership extends to the house you're living in and how I think I should have it instead of you, you might have a problem with that discussion. This is uncivil because it wildly breaks the ground rules of civil conversation you generally expect.

Where civility actually comes from

Real civility, in my opinion, comes from a place of mutual respect for one another's boundaries and limitations. It arises from establishing explicit ground rules for a conversation, and editing those ground rules as the conversation continues and new boundaries and limits are realized.

Ground rules change between different people and different contexts, as well as different days. When I've gone to schools and taught my “Trans 101” discussion, I'm perfectly willing to entertain and discuss really sensitive parts of my identity and even to some degree the validity of my experiences and the experiences of other trans people. That's something specific to that context, though, and outside of that context, those discussions are off limits. I get to choose when I'm open to those conversations, not others.

Ground rules enables everyone to have control in the conversation. Everyone gets to consent to it. If any party doesn't agree to those ground rules, then we don't have that conversation. THAT is a lack of respect and civility, when we don't permit others to set the terms of conversations that we would like to have with them.

This is why jumping into someone's mentions to “well, actually” them or start debating them is absurd. When the discussion is CLEARLY violating the ground rules of the people you're trying to talk to, continuing to push that conversation is a violation of civility. Not wanting to have a conversation on a particular subject at a particular time is not unreasonable or “irrational” of a person. It's good and healthy boundaries. It's good ground rules for conversations.

To this end, that's why a person wanting to have a “civil debate” about whether or not trans people are legitimate is going to find themselves yelled at and shouted at. It's not because of a “difference of opinion.” It's because they are not agreeing to a set of ground rules with the trans people they are trying to communicate with.

When civility is inappropriate

There's another layer to this. Civility is nice and all, and I very strongly appreciate it and hope to foster it in more and more of my interactions. But sometimes, civility is completely inappropriate.

When someone with power uses that power to harm you or others, it is reasonable to break the rules of civility to resist or fight back. I would even go so far as to say it is more than reasonable, but frequently necessary and vital for fighting back against that harm.

Civility pushed for by people already in power, using the ground rules they alone have established, is not a call for civility but a call for subjugation and a refusal to respect their own ground rules for conversation. It is precisely the opposite of civil discourse to engage in discussion that others do not wish to have.

Conversely, when those that are not in power fight back against power, they are not beholden to the rules of civil discourse, because civility has already been removed from the table. You have no obligation to be polite to a person that is threatening to harm you.