1 Sep 2008
Why Civility Matters in the Transition
A Review (of sorts) of ‘Talk to the Hand: the utterly bloody rudeness of everyday life (or six good reasons to stay home and bolt the door)’. Lynne Truss. Profile Books 2005.
It seems to me that the world is growing steadily ruder. As we grow more and more stressed and less connected to those around us, we increasingly, it seems, have less time for civility. A leaked government document reported today suggests that our current lurch into recession will generate crime, disorder and a plumetting of civility on an unprecedented scale. What I want to do here is to put in a word in defense of civility, and why I feel it is so important that we hold onto it in increasingly uncertain times.
What triggered my writing this piece was the ongoing debate, or spat, between my friend Graham Strouts of Zone5.org, and Alanna Moore, geomancer and dowser. The debate itself has been fascinating, raising important questions about science, pseudoscience, permaculture and the existence or otherwise of ten foot high trolls. It is a debate that has rolled along for months now in various threads, but the point at which I felt compelled to contribute was when Graham wrote the following, which followed Alanna saying that she was “too busy to be engaged in any argument on the subject, I have books to write and films to make, all of which aim to make people more sensitive to and caring for their environment”. Graham retorted;
Books to write and films to make! My goodness, aren’t you the busy bee? And all those conferences as well. Alanna, you must be such and important person! What a privilege to have such an auspicious person comment on my blog!! Maybe you’ll be in line for a Nobel prize sometime, do invite me to the ceremony.
In his ‘Short History of Rudeness’, Mark Caldwell wrote “manners are what is left when serious issues of human relations are removed from consideration, yet without manners, serious human relations are impossible”. Although this debate was passionate, heated and far-reaching, it felt to me at that stage that a line was crossed, and crossed unneccesarily. Civility broke down, respectfulness was abandoned.
While on holiday, I had some time to reacquaint myself with the world of television, something I usually steer well clear of. So much of it, in the vast morass of ‘reality TV’, is about engineering situations where people will be rude to each other. As Truss writes;
“Have you ever noticed how many role models there are in popular culture for rudeness, crassness, laddishness and nastiness? “Oh, Anne Robinson! She’s so rude!” “Oh, Jonathan Ross! He’s so rude!” “Oh, Graham Norton! He’s so rude! Count the roles models for respectfulness, on the other hand, and after a couple of hours you will have to admit there is only one: Babe. That’s it. Just one small sturdy imaginary sheep-pig stands between us and total moral decay”.
Seems to me like we live in a daily world where rudeness, to varying degrees, has become so commonplace that it no longer seems unusual. The need for communicating with politeness has never been greater. The core of ‘Talk to the Hand’ is Truss’s “Six Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door”. The first is “Was That so Hard to Say?” This explores how people have become less and less able to speak civilly to each other, to say simple things like please and thank you. It also refers to the apologies we enounter that really don’t actually mean it, like the “we’re sorry you are having to wait” messages in phone queuing, or the computerised “I am very sorry for the delay to this train” message I hear so often on stations. How can someone who doesn’t actually exist apologise to me in the first person, I am left wondering.
“Why am I doing this?” reflects the amount of times that ineptitude is put back to us as being our fault, we wait for 5 minutes in a queue on the phone, only to then be played a message asking “have you ever considered doing your banking online?” “Well, if you actually picked up the bloody phone I wouldn’t have to…”. The third is “My Bubble, My Rules”, which is about ‘personal space’, and the ease with which people violate it. Truss’s main gripe is mobile phones in public spaces, cold callers and email spam also feel her wrath. The thing I detest most is people playing music on their mobile phones on the train… haven’t they heard of headphones? (sorry, that’s my pet gripe out of the way now…).
Her fourth is “the Universal Eff-Off Reflex”, the increasing tendency when someone is pulled up aout something to give them a mouthful of abuse, or worse, such as the dreadful case of the woman in Sussex who was pushed onto the trainline the other week by two young lads when she reminded them that smoking on train stations is no longer allowed. Truss writes “point out bad manners to anyone younger than 35, and you will risk a lash-backreflex response of shocking disproportion. “Excuse me, I think your child dropped this sweet wrapper”. “Why don’t you Eff Off you fat cow”. All to often, she writes, criticism is treated, and reacted to, as simple aggression.
Her fifth one is “Booing the Judge”, which is about the loss of deference and the loss of respect for figures of authority. Although here she veers somewhat into ‘Grumpy Old Men’ territory, she is right to highlight the spread of a general sense of disrespect, that anyone in a position of responsibility needs bringing down a peg or two. She gives the examples of judges on TV shows such as ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ who are booed and abused by the audience for stating the blindingly obvious… saying “look, I’m sorry, he can’t dance!”
Her final grumble is “Someone Else Will Clean It Up”. This is the loss of the sense that we have a relationship with a wider community than just ourselves and our friends. Why shouldn’t you just chuck rubbish out of the window of the car? Indeed, why shouldn’t you belch CO2 out in unhealthy amounts? Not my problem. Someone will, after all, clean it up. A walk around most city centres early on a Sunday morning highlights this… Like many things, I blame, as a child of the 80s, Thatcher, and her ‘there is no such thing as society’ statement, which turned out to be a prediction rather than a statement. Increasingly we are losing a sense that our actions, be it excessive noise, aggressive behaviour, creation of mess, or carbon emissions, impact on the environment we all have to inhabit.
I rarely engage with online chat forums (or fora, sorry… Truss’s previous book was ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ which extolled the virtues of grammar, she would recoil at my use of the word ‘forums’). As a medium, they are designed to maximise rudeness. If you wanted to debate an issue , you wouldn’t enter a darkened room to engage in thoughtful conversation with an unknown number of people with masks on. In the same way, being hidden behind ridiculous names like hotdog18 and vortexman seems to give people permission to be unspeakably rude to each other. Similarly, where I take exception with Graham’s treatment of Moore is that it is unneccesary. It adds nothing to the debate and discussion, but it leaves the quality of the debate greatly reduced.
So where do we go from here? Truss’s only attempt at a solution comes at the end of the book when she describes what she calls ‘a tiny flame of hope’. “Let’s try pretending to be polite, and see what happens”. The recent debate about the role coal may or may not play in our future, between Arthur Scargill and George Monbiot, was enlightening, passionate, informative and pulled no punches, but it actually never resorted to belittling, derision or name calling. I try (and probably fail), in my work spreading the Transition idea, to embody Truss’s principle of being polite where possible, and when not, at least pretending to be polite. Although she may hold some odd views, Moore is to be commended for remaining engaged with the debate. I enjoy debate and discussion, but once the abuse starts flying, really, I’ve got better things to be doing with my time.
In David Fleming’s seminal but as yet unpublished book ‘Lean Logic’, he sets out to define what he means by courtesy, something which he values highly and which he sums up as “the art of listening and reflection”, and his definition of which offers a useful checklist to keep in the back of the mind…. He states that courtesy requires;
…presence, listening, and particular courtesies such as not interrupting, not finishing the other person’s sentences, not quickly losing concentration while the other person is speaking, not hurrying the other person along with impatient listening-noises (“yes…yes…yes”), not abruptly changing the subject, not flatly and thoughtlessly contradicting, misconstruing or disagreeing as a matter or routine, not assuming the other person to be an idiot unless you have considered the evidence, not catching the other person out by taking issue with the loose expression that happens in everyday speech, not taking the other person’s observations as personal criticism, and not interpreting the other person in a different ‘colour’ from that which was intended – i.e. being able to recognise a joke as a joke, and urgency as demanding attention.
In our work spreading the Transition idea, working with local authorities, businesses and so on, maintaining civility and utilising David’s suggestions are key. In the fascinating ongoing Transition forum discussion about the Transition Network strategy document Nick Wilding recently wrote;
…my sense is that transition will continue to accelerate into mainstream consciousness and that the pace of uptake will be a key evolutionary stress on emerging structures. So it seems to me that beyond the structures, the key to the integrity of the process will remain held by the key advocates/emerging leadership (whether we like the word or no) of the movement and their capacity to embody, shaman-like, the core purpose and principles as this evolutionary ‘groove’ is laid down. The culture of these systems is to my mind as critical as the systems themselves…
I couldn’t put it any better. I tend to go with Henry James on this one. “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind, and the third is to be kind”. While creative discussion and debate of ideas is clearly crucial to intellectual rigour and understanding, name-calling and personal attacks have no place. It is the way in which we communicate ideas and engage in debate that speak as much about us as the ideas themselves.
I’ll close with a short passage from Thich Nhat Hanh’s book ‘Being Peace’. He uses the example of Vietnamese boat people leaving Vietnam in small boats and often caught in dreadful storms in which people panicking can lead to the boats sinking. “But”, he writes, “if even one person aboard can remain calm, lucid, knowing what to do and what not to do, he or she can help the boat survive. His or her expression – face, voice – communicates clarity and calmness, and people have trust in that person. They will listen to what he or she says. One such person can save the lives of many”. In these unsettled times, I would argue that we need a great deal more such people in order to best serve a population stuck dazzled by the headlights of a Transition it barely understands.
1 Sep 1:54pm
What Thatcher really said was:
“I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.”
I doubt she’d consider anyone has an entitlement to throw litter from their car but the overriding maxim of the ’80s was, as Gordon Gekko didn’t say, “Greed is Good”. It’s not obvious that the very successful people we look up to got where they are today by looking after their neighbour. The story is that if we neglect everyone else we will do better for ourselves.
1 Sep 3:25pm
“Her final grumble is “Someone Else Will Clean It Up”. This is the loss of the sense that we have a relationship with a wider community than just ourselves and our friends.”
I would argue that this attitude runs even more deeply, to the very core of modern Western thought.
Existentialism announced that ‘existence precedes essence’ – that we simply exist, and that any meaning we might then attribute to this ‘blank slate’ existence is solely created by ourselves and our own choices – and we assumed that the ‘we’ in question must be our individual selves.
This leads to the pervasive notion that while some individuals might find their meaning and fulfilment in trying to assure the future of endangered species, or civilisation, or even life itself, others find theirs in greed, gluttony and destructiveness. For the true believer there is no contradiction here because there is no underlying meaning to seek – only individual choices.
I discussed this in the context of climate change on my blog recently: http://tinyurl.com/5tqd63
I believe that addressing these deeply-rooted cultural stories is a key aspect of Transition.
“A lie may take care of the present, but it has no future”
2 Sep 3:31am
Right on Rob…
I’ve posted 2-3 pieces on my blog on civility over the past year. I recognized that it will play a central role in making things work more smoothly in difficult times. Additionally, those who are rude today will be remembered as such. It may not be a good survival trait. Finally, have you seen P.M. Forni’s book entitled “Choosing Civility” ? Quite good.
2 Sep 9:27am
Well I guess I (wearily) will have to defend myself.
You are extraordinarily partisan Rob- hiding behind a screen of impartiality.
It is amazing that you choose my sarcasm here as an example of “crossing a line” that you link to
“our current lurch into recession [that ]will generate crime, disorder and a plumetting of civility on an unprecedented scale.”
Surely the rising influence of pseudoscience and its toleration by influential people like yourself; the constant attempt in society to curtail serious debate by hiding behind a screen of the demand to “respect other beliefs”; and the general sinking into an age of ignorance and endarkenment, superstition and credulity, is a much bigger issue.
You neglect to mention that the context was that I was being threatened with legal action- not exactly a polite thing to do considering my extensive efforts to be civil, to stick to the facts, to avoid ad hominem comments, to be “respectful” throughout the debate hitherto.
Also in Moore’s comments are the rather disrespectful comments that everyone who challenges her beliefs are “ignorant” and “know little of what they are talking about”. Her whole post is extraordinarily pompous and basically is saying:
“I am a very important person! I write books and make films!! Therefore you cannot touch me!! I must, by the sheer force of my fame and celebratory status be right!”
It is the hubris of this position that is the problem Rob, not my sarcasm, which was very mild.
There are many who think I am far too respectful of these beliefs.
The response by Moore to my evidence-based challenges of seeking legal action is an example of another serious problem in society- why have you not picked up on that and commented on it?
The subsequent comments by Moore represent a degeneration of civility and common decency an order of magnitude beyond anything I have said- while at the same time vindicating my position( her beliefs are religious; there is no science behind them).
Why have you not commented on this? You seem to actually be defending here histrionic response- poor little Ms. Moore, the innocent victim of Mr. Sprouts’ horrible and vicious attacks!
The idea that insisting constantly on mutual respect for different beliefs should always take precedence over the actual beliefs themselves is just another insidious way of suppressing honest debate- another example of post-modern madness, itself a far, far bigger threat to civility than a little bit of sarcasm in a debate about trolls and fairies.
2 Sep 9:35pm
Rob, you are amongst the nicest and politest people I have ever met. Your positivity and friendliness are a mirror for the good vibes and motivations of the Transition movement.
However, I’d like to leap to the defence of Graham who I believe is striking out into difficult water to ensure that the important work that needs to be done towards sustainability is based on evidence and not led astray by pseudo-science.
You say of his sarcastic comment: “It adds nothing to the debate and discussion, but it leaves the quality of the debate greatly reduced.” I disagree, Graham’s response expressed to me his exasperation with trying to engage in a debate with someone utterly unprepared to answer his questions. In essence there was no debate to degrade. Alanna had also threatened him with legal action without any warning or personal communication. It is important to remember that Alanna put herself in the public domain by publishing an article in Permaculture Magazine and also having a public website. Graham’s comments were in no way threatening and were obviously in jest.
What constitutes good and bad manners is not set in stone. Cultural norms are of course important, as are the circumstances. Within the ‘debate’ between Alanna and Graham, I feel that the sarcasm was justified.
We also don’t always follow exactly the codes we claim to ascribe to. You mention “the apologies we encounter that really don’t actually mean it”, but then go on to apologise twice for your comments about music from mobile phones on trains and for not using the word fora. Surely in the written word you could have simply deleted the offending phrases? Why be so rude and offend me with your pet hates and poor grammar? (I am of course trying to be funny – I hope noone finds this rude…)
You hold up George Monbiot as an example of politeness but he refers to people who took the 9/11 conspiracy movie ‘Loose Change’ seriously as ‘gibbering idiots’. (http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2007/02/12/short-changed/)
I’d also like to defend online forums (fuck the pedantic Latin)! They can be wonderfully civil and enlightening places. There are some outstanding gardening discussion groups where you will find polite people who go out of their way to answer your questions – invaluable resources for those seeking to grow more of their own food. There are some links to some that I find useful (and polite) on my blog. Good forums have good moderators who oversee discussions and work hard to keep things relevant and civil. They can be a valuable tool in the transition toolkit.
2 Sep 10:19pm
Transition is about communities working together while they can have a measure of contror over the way they live. Being proactive is much more acceptable and beneficial that having to react to crisis. We have to make people aware of the major issues of “Peak Energy” and “Climate Change”, but we also have to give them hope and encouragement to take small steps and lifestyle changes to give them some practical and tangible benefit. Don’t scare people into a corner, let them decide how best they can cope with the prevailing and anticipated changes. Some activists pronounce doom and gloom all the time – this switches off a vast majority of people, I would suggest. Give them a possible solution of even just something that they can do for themselves and see a tangible result and they may come on board.
A lot of activists are able to build their own lifeboats (install solar panels. bore holes, ground source heat pumps, wind tubines and have enough space to grow their own produce and rear poultry, pigs and cattle etc). Bully for them – the “I’m all right Jack mentality”. There are however a lot of people on very limited incomes, without enough land to grow their own produce, who will suffer far more from the increased costs of fossil fuels and inability to access centralised services for medical and other social necessities. Some activists are too negative!!!
3 Sep 6:47am
Graham… my apologies for designing the piece around your quote without mentioning it to you first… I did intend to. I think, however, in your response when you speak of “the rising influence of pseudoscience and its toleration by influential people like yourself” is something I’d like to address. Each of us in our work has things that are our passions and the things we principally focus on. Days are only 24 hours long and we only get 7 of them a week. You are doing fascinating work in (among other things) putting pseudoscience that you observe in permaculture and elsewhere to the test, a much needed service, although as you know, we don’t always agree on all of it…
My perspective is different though. My challenge is how do I get businesspeople, local councillors, new age folks, liberals, conservatives, scientists and pseudoscientists to work together to try and design a way through energy descent. I’m not going to say “until you relinquish this absurd belief in dowsing you can have no part in the designing of the future of Totnes….” It is a difficult path to tread and balance to achieve, and one way to certainly not go about it would be for me to launch into anyone whose belief systems I felt to be questionable in terms of science (and in Totnes we have a fair few!). If that is tolerance, then yes, I am more tolerant. That’s not the same as actively promoting these beliefs. I’m didn’t say that the whole debate was Moore getting a kicking from yourself…just it felt to me that that section I quoted went to far. That’s just my opinion.
Tom… I agree entirely about Monbiot, he can be pretty vitriolic and catty when he chooses to be ( I seem to remember him being scathing about John thingy, the US trade secretary guy with the obvious hairpiece), I was referring just to that exchange with Scargill. In terms of chat rooms, I guess I am speaking about certain ones where I have been asked to look at entirely uninformed people who know nothing about Transition speculate and put the boot in…. horrible places. As you say, they can be great, the Transition Network’s fora (!) work very well, and as you say, if well moderated they can be great. With regards to the debate with Alanna, like you I found it fascinating, and very important and useful, but as I said above, it did feel to me like that particular part was just unnecessary. A matter of opinion ultimately… Thanks guys….
3 Sep 7:04pm
Courtesy works best when one actually means it because a pained courtesy gives itself away every time. Its hard to fake it till you make it.
Real courtesy means getting your ego out of the way and simply listening to the conversation around you. Once you take the time to listen and also have some empathy (inner relating to) in your conversation partner you can begin to engage. Buddhists would call it part of loving-kindness, so would I.
It might be hard at first but it is definitely worth it. In some cases, people simply want and need to be HEARD, first and foremost.
I live in a different society (The USA) and the way we interact is likely different than you all in the UK. Its also different here depending on which state your in.
I have had profound experiences when I simply listen and present simple courtesy with people of VERY different worldviews.
Once when I was in college, I was part of a stand-out protest of sorts for Women’s Right to Choose (Our group was the Athens Rape Crisis Line – a group of trained rape crisis counselors). I had been assigned the role of watching for “problems” so I didn’t do any yelling or sign holding, I was part of the group but watchful.
After the event and many of the people had left, I was approached by a man who was clearly agitated and who was holding a bible. Some of the details are dim because this was back in the 80s but we started talking.
He was heated up but I was courteous and told him I wanted to listen. He relaxed, we looked into each other’s eyes and I listened as he presented his passionate case. He was upset that he could not reach us with his message (reaching us, it seems, must have also included convincing us – an ambitious goal for a southern Baptist fundamentalist and we liberal female college feminists).
I listened, I witnessed in their parlance. When he was done I told him I could see where he was coming from and I hoped that he might be able to see our perspective. I could see in his eyes that he was willing to but then disaster struck.
Two women from the protest, who I didn’t really know on a first name basis, walked up and yelled at this man, accusing him of being abusive towards me and to back off. Only after doing this did these women ask me if I needed any help. I felt betrayed.
The man, his eyes hardened, he got stiff, he got angry, he raised his bible, and started speaking in tongues and screaming something like “Get back, behind me oh devil”.
The moment was lost. This man, so terribly misguided, who was having a moment with an atheist feminist liberal minority woman like me, he was pushed away by a deeply rude approach.
I never underestimate the power of civility, honest rapport, compassion, empathy, and courtesy.
4 Sep 12:25pm
I have to back Graham up here and say that Rob is displaying double standards. Is it civil to respond to rational criticism with threats of legal action, as Alanna Moore did on Graham’s blog? Questions of tone and colour are one thing. Threats of legal action are another altogether.
Why criticise Graham and not mention what he was responding to?
5 Sep 2:39pm
While I agree with many of your points, I’m concerned you’re advocating a return to the days of stiff upper lips and constant self-censorship to avoid “making a scene”. Sometimes you need to speak your mind even if you end up offending someone.
Also although you are generally very polite, it seems you’re not immune to rudeness yourself. Surely the polite thing to do if one objects to a friend’s behaviour is to have a quiet word with him in private rather than criticise him in such a public way? Fortuneately Graham has not responded to your rudeness with further rudeness.
Anyway, aren’t we all straying off the topic of transition a little here? You and Graham may be enjoying this little repartee you’ve had going on for a while, and you deserve to enjoy yourselves because you both do lots of very good and important work, but I find it all a bit tiresome and distracting from the far more interesting issues discussed on this site.
5 Sep 9:02pm
This is an interesting and very important debate. And one very relevant to the Transition Movement. From the work we’ve been doing on energy descent over the past year or so it has been absolutely clear that getting people to work together is going to be our biggest obstacle.
I’m reminded of the quote from the Cuba DVD where a woman says something along the lines of; it doesn’t matter what technology we have, what resources we have – if we don’t work together it won’t happen.
We have a motto here on the Sunshine Coast – we are our resources.
We don’t have to be fence sitters or just accept others people views unquestioned. What we do need to do is find some type of common ground, some similarities so we can work together and most importantly keep moving forward. Or at least a way to tolerate being in the same room.
You don’t have to personally like someone, you don’t have to be their friend, but you do need to treat them with respect and find some way to work together.
It is becoming more and more evident to me that skills in group facilitation, conflict resolution, problem solving and creating cohesion and gluing processes are the most fundamental actions of the Transition Movement.
The heart and soul of the groups.
Boatpeople » An insult to our original boatpeople
27 Sep 4:15am
[…] Why Civility Matters in the TransitionHe uses the example of Vietnamese boat people leaving Vietnam in small boats and often caught in dreadful storms in which people panicking can lead to the boats sinking. “But”, he writes, “if even one person aboard can remain calm, … […]
17 Mar 11:10am
It seems to me that the general trend towards rudeness is yet another manifestation of the fossil fuel society. We have so many energy slaves at our disposal that we feel we don’t need each other. We live in the most intensely individualistic society the world can ever have seen. When we start to feel that our next meal is not a foregone conclusion I suspect that we’ll start approaching each other more politely.