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Posted by on Feb 14, 2013 in Culture, Debate, Law | 17 comments

The Camels With Hammers civility pledge

Dan Fincke has published a useful post about civility, inviting us all to take a detailed pledge. In turn, I invite you to have a look at it and consider whether you’d like to sign on.

I’m good with just about everything Dan says in the post. That doesn’t mean I’ll sign the pledge myself. I think that I’ve largely conformed to it in the past and am likely to do so in the future. However, to be honest, I’m not big on this kind of detailed code of conduct.

In the comments, someone says that “there are a lot of words there” and offers a paragraph which is much simpler. Dan replies that he wanted to make it as precise as possible, since there are a lot of would-be lawyers online.

I want to respond to that exchange because, as an actual (though non-practising) lawyer, as a seasoned courtroom advocate who has encountered many real-world situations, and as a philosopher of law, I’ve had a different experience. Unfortunately, lengthy codes of conduct don’t necessarily make things clearer and more precise. Sometimes they can do the exact opposite.

Admittedly, if I pledged simply that I will “act reasonably and with appropriate civility” this would be very open textured indeed. There could be also sorts of debates about where we draw the line as to what is “reasonable” and what is “appropriate civility”. You might think it better, therefore, to spell out what these mean in the context of online discussion so that there is less room for disagreement in any particular case. Unfortunately, however, writing a much longer code of conduct can simply lead to numerous other words being contestable. E.g. what counts as “bullying”, what counts as “funny and perceptive satire” (not some other kind), and so on?

I actually think that Dan has done quite a good job with this. E.g. in some instances he has given specific examples of common behaviours that should not be used, such as calling someone an “asshole”. Generally I agree with these examples. Some are quite important, such as not going into a designated “safe space” where it is a groundrule that certain alleged truths are not to be disputed… for the purpose of disputing those alleged truths. While I’m not a fan of safe spaces in that sense, they probably have their uses, and if a particular forum is designated in that way I don’t know why I’d want to go there to dispute its ground rules. Even if a place is not designated as a safe space, I am likely to respect its groundrules – for example I would normally see no point in going to a creationist forum to advocate for biological evolution. Again, I make it a practice never to post on Christian blogs. If I want to criticise Christianity, I’ll probably do so here or in another of my own forums.

So there’s a degree of useful specificity, but this won’t render the code as a whole impervious to all language bargaining/word lawyering. E.g. what I regard as bullying might not be so regarded by others – and if Dan tried to settle this in the code itself I think he’d find that what he has written is suddenly more controversial.

Often, in fact, the law requires that we do very vague things such as acting “reasonably”. This approach is actually defensible. What the law does in these cases is not to set out new and specific behavioural requirements. Rather, it attaches consequences to acting in ways that fairly clearly go beyond ordinary social standards of “reasonableness” (and it provides procedures whereby such actions can be litigated by people who are harmed by them). Those standards may be given some specificity, as in the famous calculus of negligence (i.e., when you decide whether someone has acted “reasonably” you are expected to take into account such things as the damage that could foreseeably be caused by their behaviour, the anterior probability of that damage eventuating, the social utility of what they were doing, and the cost to them of modifying their behaviour to various degrees or in various ways), but even this may leave various terms that are open-ended.

Many modern statutes leave it to the courts to make decisions based on a list of statutory indicia – factors they are supposed to take into account – but leave it to them how much weight to place on various indicia in a particular case. For example, there are several indicia that apply in trying to work out whether someone is an employee or an independent contractor, though in a particular case one might be clear-cut and determinative.

In many cases, e.g. in negligence law, the law is not mainly there to tell you things that you don’t already know (people are assumed to have a fair idea of what is, for example, taking “reasonable care” or keeping “a careful lookout” when driving a motor vehicle), but rather it puts pressure on you to act in accordance with the knowledge that you’re presumed to have of ordinary social standards – and it gives redress to people who might have been harmed by your failure to follow those standards.

I suppose this may seem unsatisfactory to individuals with backgrounds in, say, science or engineering, but the law is riddled with this sort of thing and it’s more or less inevitable. Even a detailed code, such as the traffic regulations or a set of occupational health and safety regulations, will contain a mix of specific requirements (use this kind of fencing for this kind of machine) and more fuzzy requirements that lean on a background of tacit social standards (provide a “safe system of work”). Sometimes drafters of provisions go wrong when they write something that they think is specific and narrow but that is actually quite broad when you read it literally – which will then mean that the provision is “read down” (given some narrower meaning than the literal words) or ignored, or else applied in a literal manner to inappropriate cases.

So, in the end, my own pledge is not to follow the code of civil discourse that Dan has offered us. It is merely to be as civil, reasonable (i.e. able to compromise, see someone else’s viewpoint, and so on), and charitable (trying to look at what someone else has said in a good light if there is room for ambiguity) as I feel I can in any particular situation. Even if we all just kept that in mind, it would raise the standard of discourse enormously. If we did that much, we could at least avoid defaming, vilifying, trashing, and mocking, and often hurting and intimidating good people. We might also be able to avoid some of the more ridiculous (yes, another open-textured word!) levels of language policing, and so on. We could all relax a bit more about what we say, knowing that we are unlikely to be unfairly trashed for it, while acting on our own best impulses by treating others kindly.

That’s enough for me. Of course there’s then a question of whether we must be civil, reasonable, and charitable to the recalcitrantly uncivil, unreasonable, and uncharitable. In any event, if you feel that you can sign on to the entire pledge that Dan Fincke has written then by all means do so. If more people did, and meant it, I’m sure it would be beneficial. At the very least, a document like this can help you think about your own standards of discourse.