Featured Philosop-her: Alice MacLachlan


Alice MacLachlan is Associate Professor of Philosophy at York University, where she teaches and writes about issues in moral, political and feminist philosophy, focusing primarily on agency in the aftermath of conflict. She is co-editor of Justice, Responsibility and Reconciliation in the Wake of Conflict (Springer 2013) and her other recent publications include “Trust Me, I’m Sorry: The Paradox of Public Apologies” (forthcoming, The Monist), “Gender and the Public Apology” (Transitional Justice Review 2013) and “Closet Doors and Stage Lights: On the Goods of Out” (Social Theory and Practice 2012). She is also co-editor of a new, open-access, peer-reviewed journal, Feminist Philosophy Quarterly, along with Samantha Brennan, Carla Fehr, and Kathryn Norlock. More information can be found at www.alicemaclachlan.com.

Reparative Civility?

Alice MacLachlan

Much of my philosophical writing and research concentrates on moral and political agency in the aftermath of conflict and wrongdoing. For the most part, I’ve focused on moral practices of apology and forgiveness. I’ve also written about the moral and political role for emotions like anger and resentment, and I’ve examined a few of the (many!) philosophical questions that surround concepts of reconciliation.

Lately, though, I’ve shifted focus. Apologies, forgiveness, reconciliation: these tend to represent big ‘moments’ in an ongoing project of post-conflict repair and, often, they are distant fantasies. Inspired by some conversations with repair practitioners (mediators, facilitators, peace-activists and those working in conflict resolution), I’ve come to recognize that substantive repair to moral relationships happens before and in between such milestones, in the gestures, responses, and imperceptible gestalt shifts that ultimately make meaningful apologies and forgiveness possible. Sometimes these gestures are nothing more than small, polite, courtesies: a willingness to make eye contact or to listen to an adversary’s story without interruption, the use of appropriate honorifics, or some other ceremonial acknowledgement. And so, I’ve started to wonder what place an ethics of civility holds in the project of moral repair.

It might seem obvious that civility and courtesy (indeed, and plain and simple good manners) are valuable tools for conflict resolution. Rudeness – the absence of civility – expresses and cultivates disrespect for others and can add insult to injury; it shuts down dialogue, alienates participants, and exacerbates feelings of defensive anger, contempt, and hatred. Whether eventual apologies or expressions of forgiveness gain traction and eventual uptake will depend, at least partly, on interpretive openness and the possibility of charitable interpretation by their recipients: I need to believe you are capable of sincere remorse before I can hear your words as an apology, and not as an excuse. If I consistently treat you as deserving my disrespect, I am likely to continue believing this is what you deserve. Moreover, as Amy Olberding has convincingly argued, the harms of rudeness are often distributed along the fault lines of social power, reinforcing the political importance of mannered constraint.

At the same time, practices of civility, i.e., manners or etiquette, are social conventions; they do not reflect a critical moral-political viewpoint. The very need for repair may give us reason to be suspicious of any blanket demand for civility, especially when such calls are most often made by and benefit those with disproportionate power and privilege. Demands that interlocutors “adjust their tone” or “be reasonable” often mask ongoing forms of domination, and calls for civility are increasingly associated with an institutional politics of silencing and censorship. If we take seriously the importance of truth telling in the aftermath of conflict, and if we recognize the need to include formerly excluded and alienated voices in any project of post-conflict repair, then the moral risk of enforcing codes or practices of civility intensifies. Violence, exploitation, injustice, betrayal – the causes of disrepair leave us with moral obligations to bear witness (especially for those who can no longer speak), to articulate and understand significant pain, and to tell painful stories. Such obligations cannot always be discharged while remaining polite, and politeness may become an effective way of blocking them.

So, you might say this new direction in my research has awoken an old, familiar, problem for my psyche. At its simplest, it is this: I believe, as much as I believe anything, that there are things in this world – and in this society – that need to be yelled about, and yelled very loudly. And I believe, almost as fervently, that things generally go better when people do not yell. I am struck equally by the need for an ethics of civility and the moral dangers of adopting one. Articulating this tension (and, I hope, developing a framework for navigating it) requires careful attention to each of the moral risks of civility: I call these Bad Manners, Disproportionate Burdens, and Civil Gatekeepers.

The first risk, Bad Manners, emerges because civility expresses social and not purely moral conventions. Codes of civility reflect prevailing social attitudes, and thus prevailing forms of inequality, injustice, and oppression. In politically imperfect societies, some people incur more respect than others for non-deserved reasons (i.e. along axes of age, race, class, ability, gender identity, religion and so on) and so habits of manners will conform to imperfect habits of respect. When conventional expressions of respect and consideration do not match the respect and consideration that is actually due persons, they express disrespect and a refusal to consider others appropriately.

The second risk, Disproportionate Burdens, is related to the first. Practices of manners developed under asymmetrical and unjust power relationships will most likely come to resemble the habits and practices that are most familiar and comfortable to those with power (i.e. how to behave like ‘one of us’). This places a disproportionate burden on outsiders and subordinate persons to learn and assume alien – and sometimes hostile – modes of interacting, reinforcing the extent to which interactions become effortful and arduous.

The problem of Civil Gatekeepers arises because even norms of civility that are supposed to express equal respect and concern for persons, (e.g. that the rules of polite debate exclude shouting or ad hominem attacks) can still be wielded by those with privilege and power to assert control over the situation, silencing or excluding outsiders. Voices and messages that question or reject the normative status quo are most likely to seem rude, as Audre Lorde reminds us. Subordinate persons are more likely to hold and express reactive attitudes that cannot be wholly articulated while meeting standards of politeness. Moreover, those most likely to wield power in articulating and enforcing norms of civility (Gatekeepers) are also those whose interests are heavily invested in the existing order. Gatekeepers can even use concerns over civility to limit conversation to only and exactly those topics that can be discussed politely. I believe this risk is the most serious, since it applies to morally adequate as well as to morally problematic norms of civility.

So, what’s an advocate of civility to do? Previous work on the topic has tended to treat this as a matter of determining where the limits of civility are: the point at which the gloves come off, and the insults let fly. Some see this question as a variation of the familiar liberal refrain: the extent to which we must tolerate the intolerable, and whether the limit is determined by social consensus or the moral reprehensibility of the view in question. I find this unsatisfying, as the moral risks of civility range beyond the question of which views are ‘outside’ the boundaries of polite discourse. After all, conflict and harm arises between people with relatively similar views. Moreover, the need for civility may depend on contextual features (where the conflict takes place, and the relationships and power dynamics among those involved) as much as it does the content of the dispute.

Alternatively, there has been recent support for an approach (crudely) known as “Punch Up, Kiss Down.” This somewhat blunt model concludes that the civility someone is owed (when speaking or behaving in a way that others find objectionable) is inversely proportionate to that person’s relative power in the scenario. The more powerful must remain polite, and the less powerful need not, in voicing their opposition. It is intended to counteract the tendency of civility to reward those with power. Yet I worry that “Punch Up, Kiss Down” ignores the complexity of social location and moral agency, undermines solidarity, and ultimately fails to express respect for persons. It seems particularly unsuited for contexts of repair.

Thus, I am left looking for some kind of middle ground – that is, a moderately contextual approach to the ethics of civility that emerges from careful attention to the particular risks involved. When I find it, I will be sure to let you know (politely, of course).

My thanks to Meena giving me the space to describe this new project.

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