Civility is not passivity

In reply to my previous post, Lauren asks

“civility is … nice but what about ‘virtues’ like sarcasm, parody, anger, grief or silence.  Do these characteristics also have a space in discourse and debate?”

This is a really good question and, indeed, the potential problem with an emphasis on the virtue of civility is that it comes to serve the status quo, that it forgets that sometimes a harsh response is necessary. In my recent trip to Voices for Justice, one of the participants in my session noted that Jesus was not always civil, e.g. Turning over the tables of the money changers at the temple.

In response to both these observations, a few things are worth noting:

  1. Virtue ethics should not be applied in any absolutist sense. Morality always requires the wisdom to know how to deal with conflicting norms – potentially even conflicting virtues. The virtue ethics tradition argues that wisdom/prudence is needed to determine in any particular instance which virtues to exercise and how to exercise them. So, for example, Augustine and Aquinas include “justice” as one of the Cardinal virtues (of more significance than civility). The just person is the one who gives each person they’re due; and in the social setting, distributive justice insists upon fair distribution of resources and just treatment of minorities etc. In the face of distributive evil, the civil person will not be precluded from anger; which leads to my second point
  2. Civility is not passivity. On the contrary, the person exercising the virtue of civility may well be best equipped to carry forward an agenda in the social realm. As recent riots by (a minority of) Muslims in the Sydney CBD have shown us, uncontrolled anger is self destructive and self-defeating. Civility is the social expression of self-control and when embodied by the wise person, parody can be used to potent effect; and, finally a little bit of nitpicking.
  3. A virtue is a habit of character, a pattern of attitudes and dispositions to act. Sarcasm and parody are modes of communication. Anger and grief are emotions that might be expressed by silence or sarcasm (or by rioting or in any number of ways). So I can envisage many a time where the just and self-controlled (civil) person may need to turn over tables, to stand in front of tanks, to refuse to speak, to give a speech.

At this point I realise I am sounding like a teacher (or a pompous git). Perhaps I should simply have said, “yes, Lauren, sometimes we need to get mad!”


PS I am not really sure about sarcasm. I wonder whether it is ever a useful device. By its very nature it tends to belittle opponents and entrench division. Having said that, intelligent sarcasm is capable of getting to the heart of an issue.

PSS of course in reality virtue often falls over into vice. If virtue is the midpoint between two vices (per Aristotle) then the border between the vice of passivity on the one hand and rudeness on the other is not easily achieved. The sad truth is that I tend to the latter.