Not a very effective way of making a point.

Don't Be Rude, You Loser

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.
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Blogger Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig recently wrote a long and thoughtful piece criticizing the notion that online discussions should be civil. She then wrote a long and thoughtful follow-up. This isn't the first salvo in the war over civility in debates, but it is probably the most cogent and insightful.

Still, I disagree with Bruenig. I think civility is important, and we don't have enough of it in our public discussions.

Bruenig's main point is that civility creates false equivalence between viewpoints. She writes:

When people call for civility, what they mean is that you should take whatever it is that's being said, and rephrase it and reorient yourself until it comes off as similar in style to a kind of salon-esque neutral debate between equal arguers...[C]ivility forces you to adopt the framework it is premised upon — the one which preferences no values, which automatically considers all arguments potentially equal in merit...[T]here simply isn't always common ground, and to be artificially placed on common ground is necessarily to lose some of the ground you were holding.

In other words, civility gives an unfair advantage to bad arguments. Suppose someone is claiming that all red-haired people ought to be rounded up and put in camps. Even dignifying that viewpoint with a civil response does a disservice to anyone who happens to be watching. Being polite to someone can easily be mistaken for taking their idea seriously -- and many ideas simply don't deserve to be taken seriously.

That's well and good. But there's an important question that I think Bruenig fails to consider: What if your own viewpoint is wrong?

Sometimes, one of the parties in a debate is simply dishonest and unethical, and doesn't really care if he or she is right or wrong. But more often, both sides deeply believe in the positions they take. The person in the wrong might be your opponent -- or it might be you. Or, more realistically, it might be both. Putting red-haired people in concentration camps is obviously horrible, but most of our arguments are over things like Obamacare, or antipoverty programs, or financial regulation-- issues on which reasonable people can and do disagree.

If you're uncivil in this sort of situation -- if you call your opponent an idiot, or a liar, or a nastier name simply because you think his or her argument is bad -- you're basically being overconfident. You're assuming that there's essentially no chance that you're in the wrong, so it's in the public interest for you to rail against your opponent and score points with the crowd. If you do this, there's no chance that you yourself will learn anything from the encounter. People usually argue to win, but many times it's possible to argue to learn.

But even if you're arguing to win, incivility might backfire. People are naturally defensive, and they take things personally, so if you're uncivil, they will usually (though not always) harden their position. If you want to convince the world of the merit of your ideas, then one outcome to avoid is for your opponent to leave the discussion ready to promote a bad idea even more virulently.

A third danger of incivility is that you might give your "team" a bad name. If you're pro-Obamacare, and you fling imprecations at anyone who criticizes it, then you might contribute to the stereotype that pro-Obamacare people are vile and offensive, thus ultimately hurting the cause of Obamacare. A good example of this is the "men's rights" movement, which sometimes makes good points, but which is known for being so abusive and aggressive that most people ignore it.

I'm not arguing that civility should be universal, or that we should dismiss uncivil arguments on the grounds of style alone. But civility has definite advantages, and these advantages are magnified when the number of civil people grows. Many arguments are a bit like the Prisoner's Dilemma -- if both people explain their positions and examine others' positions honestly and forthrightly, in a friendly and charitable manner, then everyone benefits. The discussion contributes to the world's overall level of understanding, and to your own. But if one person chooses to be dishonest and use the tools of rhetoric in an attempt to score points in front of an audience, then the other person has no choice but to respond either in kind, or with incivility...and the whole thing becomes a big exasperating waste of time.

So although incivility is an important tool to keep in our toolboxes, we should be very cautious about pulling it out. It's a tough call to decide whether an idea is so awful that the only proper response is to denounce it (and its proponents) with full vitriol. In general, these cases are a lot rarer than we think. People rarely lie, and all but the worst arguments contain some grain of valuable truth. If you can't understand how your opponent could possibly believe what they believe, odds are that you could benefit from trying harder to understand. Not always, but usually.

In other words, civility isn't a substitute for good arguments. But it's usually a complement.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Smith at nsmith150@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net