The Role of Manners in a Divided Society

I've been a contributing editor on eBay Radio for about a year now, checking in once a month to take calls and talk about resolving disputes on eBay. I've tried to lay out what online dispute resolution is, and my background as a professional mediation, but all of that has been summarized by Uncle Griff as "Colin Rule, eBay's Mr. Manners."

I've remarked several times on the air about how I think that's not really what I'm about -- it makes me think of the correct order to use forks at a fancy meal, or the acceptable amount of time before sending a thank you note -- but it is interesting to see how non-dispute resolution people see dispute resolution. I don't think the "Mr. Manners" moniker is intended as a slight to me in any way... in fact, my repeated presence on the radio is an acknowledgement that manners are important on eBay. And maybe "manners" are important to resolving disputes. I think Judith Martin would definitely agree that one of the reasons why we have manners is to minimize social conflict. So perhaps I should chill out and not chafe so much under that title.

I was thinking about all of that as I was reading a blog post from Arthur Silber yesterday. He was taken to task for some "harsh language" he used to denounce Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard. In his post defending his use of the language he used, in part:

"To say that I am "sick" of this charade of "civility" and "politeness" does not begin to capture the intensity of my feeling about this matter. I can only shake my head in wonder and amazement when certain people insist that we remain "polite" when, after presenting the relevant evidence, we accurately assess those who advocated, implemented and still defend an unnecessary invasion and occupation, a policy that continues to destabilize the broader Middle East, and a policy that may still lead to truly ca! taclysmic consequences...

When people get exercised about a few harsh words, or even many harsh words, as they contemplate the grisly spectacle of completely unnecessary death and injury that will tragically continue for several more years at a minimum, I would say that, like the times, their priorities are dangerously out of joint...

Occasionally, the depth of my feelings about these matters overwhelms the requirements of "civility." I expect it will again in the future. So be it. Especially in these times, harsh and ugly language must sometimes be used to describe harsh and ugly truths."

(This is a particularly interesting, imho, because the title of the blog is "the power of narrative")

So is it true that civility and politeness should go out the window when confronted with deep and intense feelings? Well, not to sound too much like "Mr. Manners," but I think it's at that point that civility and politeness come to matter more. When emotions get the better of someone, and that person uses language intended to incite and shock rather than reason, it creates an easy target for the other side; the most likely response becomes a similar provocative statement, and then the exchange becomes focused on the excesses of each statement rather than the issues at hand.

Most of the exchanges between politicos these days seem to focus on the various outrages perpetrated by one side or the other, whether it's Ken Mehlman asking for an apology from Howard Dean regarding racially insensitive comments in Maryland or Harry Reid demanding an apology from Bill Bennett regarding his comments speculating on the abortion of African-American babies.

This dialogue gets us nowhere. It makes it easy to dismiss the other side as foolish, nonsensical, and incapable of rational dialogue. This, in turn, worsens the disagreement and encourages further extremism. The only way out of this situation is for reasoned individuals to say enough is enough, and to rebuild a moderate majority who insist upon civil, polite dialogue.

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