Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, October 08, 2002


Many people seem to think of harsh name calling as a kind of paradigmatic "uncivil" activity.

Is using the names of people one does not care for to create highly unflattering words or to describe highly unflattering concepts, and urging others to do the same, "civil" - in any arena or at any age?

On the playground? In school? In the office? In politics?

Is making up unflattering nicknames for people one does not care for, and urging others to do the same, "civil"?

I, personally, think that in most cases these are uncivil actions - at least where the names or words are strong. Calling someone a "varmint" is not, in my book, uncivil. And, obviously, playing with someone's name in fun or affection, or even to tweak someone's vanity, can be highly civil.

Does it matter? Or does it just go to show that the calls for "civility" one hears from time to time are often wrongheaded or even made in bad faith? Are the benefits of civility oversold?

Why does it seem, at least anecdotally to the Man Without Qualities, that people who seem highly uncivil are at least as likely to call publicly for "civility" as those who are civil?

Is it that my experience has just produced an unrepresentative sample ? Is it that most people want others to treat them with civility - but uncivil words and actions prompt others to respond in an uncivil way? Is this perhaps why so many uncivil people seem to demand civility? Or do they? And it also seems to me that many - perhaps most - calls for "civility" savor uncomfortably of effort to blunt legitimate criticism (in the way a noise control ordinance might be invoked to force a protestor to turn down the megaphone in the park) or, worse, to legitimize ad hominen attacks on the supposedly "uncivil" actor.

How many readers have ever been tempted to demand that someone else stop shouting and be civil, only to realize how absurd that would be since the other person is speaking by telephone from a thousand miles away? I have.

Consider the concept of irresponsible challenging of a sitting President's handling of foreign affairs in an attempt to focus voters on an exaggerated, gloomy version of domestic affairs. That's a pretty nasty concept. But would it be "uncivil" to concoct a word intended to describe this concept out of, say, Senator Daschle's name? Would that kind of thing advance the debate or our understanding? Does any of that matter is determining whether the act is "uncivil"?

It certainly is civil to say that one thinks Senator Daschle is (or was) doing this, and to express the opinion that the Senator should therefore not be returned to his office at the next election.

But does it follow that mangling his name to identify him with this concept is "civil"? This kind of thing has been done to Quisling's name - which is often not even capitalized now. But Senator Dashcle is no quisling, and his activities do not even come close to the destructive and unpatriotic nature of Quisling's. Does it matter in determining whether this kind of name appropriation is "civil" if the name is associated with a particularly bad activity? That is, does civility require that only people who do really bad things may "lose" their names to the general language?

Perhaps a little like a trademark owner losing exclusionary rights to the mark?

But then what about Florence Nightingale? Einstein? Their names are often used to express unflattering thoughts about people other than Florence Nightingale and Albert Einstein, so that's a distinction. (He's no Einstein! or Hey, Einstein!) Is it one that should make a difference?

I'm not sure that "civility" is concept - or a vocabulary word - about which there is as much agreement as first appears to be the case.

For example, I'm fairly sure of this: Among the most vicious forms of incivility is simple failure to acknowledge people who deserve to be acknowledged. This shows up dramatically where people interact physically (at parties or town hall meetings, for example). But it is also true more generally.

As Oscar Wilde put it: "The only thing worse than being talked about is NOT being talked about."

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