Friday, October 13, 2006

Civility and the Rational Frog

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

Frank Pasquale at has a typically thoughtful and provocative counterview on "civility" requirements to be in force on the new Northwestern sponsored blog.  Frank asks whether ostensibly neutral civility norms can contain hidden bias against the weak or oppressed, suggesting that perhaps harshness is "a weapon of the weak, a quick register of outrage from those too busy or inarticulate to deconstruct a post’s errors with precision and patience? Might certain sentiments only be expressible via a particularly forceful turn of phrase?"

I'm not sure that "forceful turn of phrase" equals "harshness" equals "incivility."  I'm also leery of the "weapon of the weak" justification, having last heard it several weeks ago in connection with the justification why Hezbollah rockets aimed at Israel were more moral than Israeli bombs aimed at Lebanon.

Finally, does our tolerance of macro-incivility when contemplating the broad issues of deliberative democracy (the point, I think, of Frank's link over to the Gutmann-Thompson book) equate to a tolerance of micro-incivility as between real people?  It made me think of a phrase I've cited often:  Posner's statement that "the concept of rationality used by the economist is objective rather than subjective, so that it would not be a solecism to speak of a rational frog."  Perhaps that is a valid assumption in formulating broad social theories, like deliberative democracy or welfare maximization.  But I don't think that equates to a justification of micro-incivility any more than thinking like an economist means that we see individual people as rational frogs.

Note:  I have not accused Frank of being an "idiot," "utterly confused," "idiotically confused," or even "confused."  (See his post for this reference.)  Were I a utilitarian, this would be easy.  Frank is a lot bigger than I am, and I wouldn't think of getting him mad at me.  But we here at Legal Profession Blog (a division of the Caron Empire) would be appalled at an uncivil discussion of civility on a purely deontological basis.

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All these points are very well-taken. Perhaps the Colloquy's best defense of the policy is that it is a scholarly forum, and the tone should be scholarly.

On the other hand, one of my mentors used to always say that he felt that AMericans needed a "thicker skin." I was trying to get at that idea in the post, but as you well note, I may have been doing so via some slippery equivalences of the harsh, the ad hominem, and the forceful.

My last line of defense: I think NW is setting itself some tough problems by promising to police this issue. If you just have an "anything goes" policy, then people can say to themselves (if they get a mean comment): well, there are mean people out there, so be it. But with NW's policy, if there is a "somewhat mean" comment, one that's on the borderline, and the journal chooses not to delete it, then the commented on person has to think: "not only have I been insulted, but the moderators of the forum have deemed the insult as having some scholarly merit!" I've gotten into this paradox of defamation law elsewhere--the basic idea is that, if there is no defamation law, someone can just say "that defamer's crazy," but if there is a defamation law, someone may feel obliged to sue the defamer lest the public think "well, if isn't true, why didn't he sue?"

Posted by: Frank | Oct 13, 2006 9:06:36 AM

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