Suspending the Rules of Civility

When Hayley asked me to write a counterpart to her essay–mine to take as its subject “rural” social responsibility, I was all ready to extol the virtues of the Town Meeting; to poll (polling being the word of the day) my friends and acquaintances on how much time it really takes to run a town; to measure the amount of gas it takes me to drive into Northampton to work. All sorts of interesting stuff.

But something has happened to change my mind, and has had me return to something I wrote a couple of months ago after an exchange about civility and politics on this blog. What has happened is this: Someone has posted an uncivil and wholly reprehensible reply to Hayley’s blog. (Not to worry– if more than two people read my original post I’d be surprised. If they had, it would obviously have become a classic of humanist literature. )

Hayley is being a perfect humanist and has left it up (as moderator, she could have taken it down, and she probably would have if the essay it was in reply to wasn’t her own). A humanist blog is not a right wing talk show. However, the going philosophy at Mass Humanities for dealing with “intellectual bullies,” is, to quote David Tebaldi, “one of the fundamental precepts of good parenting: Ignore bad behavior.” I did not agree with David when he wrote that in December, and I do not now.

If it is hard to define the “humanities,” it is almost harder to define the practitioner. Perhaps “scholar in one of the humanities” comes closest. Whereby we put “scholar” in quotation marks. What seems to set us apart from the rest of the pack, is that, though not scientists, we believe in the scientific method. It tells us how to find truth, or at least how to find that which gives us enough sense of the real to be able to stand and walk–and talk.

And that means that reason is at the heart of how we interact with the world. As people, we may be miserable or emotional human beings, sniveling cry-babies, howling baboons, or bickering bitches, but we reason to find out what rules we live by, what our relationship is with the world.

This draws a pretty significant distinction between humanists and much of the rest of the American people: by definition, we do not believe in revealed truth. We have to see, learn, reason. We cannot walk with the crutch of religion, exist on predigested philosophy, or even simply stick our heads in the sand (that is, we can stick our heads in the sand, but only if we don’t know we are doing it). That doesn’t mean we cannot be wrong or ignorant. It does mean we cannot buy into someone else’s truth.

And that is what makes us argumentative, ornery, and, yes, sniveling, even. And also what gives us vocabulary to do all those things. Because if you have vocabulary, you own the world. Pray do not forget the first thing the god creates in the Christian book of revealed truth: the word.

Which brings me to ranting, the misuse of words to hurt other human beings (dogs aren’t hurt by ranting. They are hurt by yelling). A timely topic, I’d say, since our political system has just delivered up the promise of a fine dose of ranting and raving for the next few months. And so the question at hand is: do you rant back at the ranter, or do you ignore him entirely?

I won’t rehash my entire story of the bottle-and can-man (my reply to David Tebaldi’s post on December 6), but I think a gulf yawns between name-calling between bullies, and ignoring them entirely. Silence, being what it is, may stem from fear or politesse as much as from a wish to ignore the obviously rude or bigoted. Without the accompanying huff or upturned nose of person-to-person contact, it’s hard to tell which is which.

The word-bully relies on our grace and politesse, on our wish not to participate in his game. However, the true danger of not speaking out or not talking back lies in the mundane, polite, day-to-day exchanges between people who know each other, not so much in the polarized world of public speech. As a middle road between rude language and silence, there is the option of plain speaking and saying what you think without being rude, but without being polite, either.

Sometimes, you have to suspend the rules of civility in order to do your civic duty: You don’t have to wait for someone to finish her sentence, you can say she’s being rude. If you wait for the bully to finish, (s)he will be the only one who’s heard. You don’t have to have drinks or dinner with “nice people with appalling opinions,” to borrow a phrase: you can and I would say you have to refuse or walk away. But you cannot ignore them because they will walk in without permission and take more than they need.

And so I say to the man who did not deign to explain his reasoning for dismissing Hayley’s call for conscious living in the world: you have no place here if you do not give a reason. You may choose to ignore the signs that all is not well. You may choose to think, with Madame de Pompadour, “Apr s nous le deluge,” and you would be right. Entirely so. And you would also be about as self- involved as Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson herself, who was blamed for causing the Seven Years or French and Indian War, which as a result caused untold misery hereabouts, to natives and settlers alike.

–Pleun Bouricius, Program Officer, Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities Humanities

Author: Pleun Clara Bouricius

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