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Don’t mix up censorship with civility

A version of this essay was published as part of my twice-monthly newsletter several weeks ago. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Censorship is about content (you can’t say this or that). Civility is about tone (you can’t say this like that).

Attribution bias virtually guarantees that we are sure our tone is appropriate for all circumstances. If we use vulgar language or overly fatalistic language, it’s because we are on the right and just side of a cause. If someone with whom we disagree does this, they are proving just why they something short of civil.

There is a rough guiding principle for dealing with this, one that has been a major part of the American ideal from the beginning. And that is to be exceedingly limited with speech and far more controlled with tone. That is, say what you will but be careful about how you say it. Of course we know these norms are in an era of rapid change. The rhetoric is so hot (a generation of written digital and distant communication has brought us to boil with an opportunistic leader ready to use that to his advantage) that now just about all of us are doing it.

We’ll say just about anything and we’ll say it anyway we can.

So for the exact same reason that you and your middle school best friend got into some stupid spat over instant messenger (you thought she was being more passive aggressive than she actually was), we are furious at each other. With a mix of tone and out-of-control attribution bias (what a dear friend counters with ‘no the other side is not dumb), we’re getting into a dangerous situation.

We all need to do something about that. So let me focus your energies, if I might, on tone. Look to be more civil, especially in the face of uncivil acts. We must be the change we seek.

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