Shayne Wissler
Imagine a world where we figured out the right direction to push, and then we pushed in that right direction…

Wissler’s Civility Rules

November 12 2021

Warning: These rules are applicable only in the context of rational discourse, i.e. among parties who have all committed to the ideal of rational engagement. Ideally we should like all of society to trend toward rationality, so a judicious application of these to society in general can make sense, but prudence must also weigh in.[1]

  1. Rationality. Either commit to the ideal of being strictly rational, or leave. Meaningful rational discourse depends on parties who will, at least in principle, commit to the standards of ruthless logic and the burden of submitting evidence for one’s claims. (Don’t confuse this with being petty and nit-picky.)

    Avoid arguing with someone who isn’t explicitly committed to rationality; time is better spent finding people to argue with who are actually intending to be rational.

  2. Never initiate violence. Only words that credibly threaten you with imminent violence truly count as “fighting words” – words that would permit self defense against such threat. To throw a punch when merely insulted is the hallmark of a rank barbarian thug.
  3. Forgiveness. These rules aren’t meant to be punitive. If you break the rules, it’s OK, so long as you’re also willing to try to do better the next time, and so long as you don’t scold people for pointing out your rule-breaking behavior.

    In other words, these rules are not an expectation about what your character must be like now, but rather about what you intend for it to ultimately be like in the future.

  4. Never prioritize politeness over truth and clarity. The prisoner ethos of “How to Win Friends and Influence People” has no place in rational discourse[2].

    Gratuitous insults are out of place, but so too is the schoolmarm behavior of wagging your finger about every insult, whether gratuitous or sincerely intended as relevant. Nothing signals “unwashed masses” like getting bent about every insult, but if you do not intend to substantiate for your insults, then leave.

  5. Sincerity and Transparency. The rational discursive context demands the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Don’t play games with “devil’s advocate” and intentional vagueness unless it’s clear you’re doing so for some transparent rational purpose. If you feel you have to hide your true beliefs and do so, leave.
  6. Boldness. If you are sincere and rational, then prioritize boldness over humility, for at least if you state something false and clear, it has the highest chance of being noticed and corrected by other rational people.
  7. Humility. Humility is for those who keep making mistakes. If you keep tripping over your shoelaces, then your face will thank you for treading carefully. Likewise, learn some discursive humility if you constantly make bold claims that turn out to be false. It is a vice for a young person to waste the time of older and wiser people with incessant foolish and bold claims.
  8. Open-mindedness and the Principle of Charity. A rational mind is fundamentally and eternally open to new evidence, including the evidence that it was formerly very mistaken, therefore rational discourse is a mind-expanding activity, so be prepared to be shown to be very wrong about very important matters.

    If something said strikes you as very wrongheaded, the right response might be an instantaneous bold dismissal, but it also might be a very good time to shut up, pause, and reflect, or in other words, to approach the conversation with an attitude of open-minded curiosity.

    Wikipedia states “In philosophy and rhetoric, the principle of charity or charitable interpretation requires interpreting a speaker’s statements in the most rational way possible and, in the case of any argument, considering its best, strongest possible interpretation.”[3] If you are not good at doing this, then consider that the instantaneous bold dismissal is always the wrong one.

    In other words, try to avoid being the closed-minded fool Bertrand Russell referenced when he wrote: “A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.”

  9. Hypocrisy mongering. Observing (or believing that you’re observing) someone violating their own standards isn’t an argument against those standards.

    Some people, thinking they have observed someone violate their own principles, will shout with a joyful glee “Aha! You broke your own rules!”, as if the project of being mortal humans struggling to do the right thing was a football game or sitcom. But what is a hypocrite? Is it someone who broke their own rules? No, that’s called a “human being.” The hallmark of a hypocrite is someone who worships hypocrisy, as in the person who celebrates with glee when he sees it, as opposed to the more healthy response: lamenting a destructive state. A real hypocrite is one who breaks their own rules but doesn’t intend to rectify their behavior, to sincerely try to do better the next time.

  10. No witch-hunting. The purpose of these rules is to make an explicit compact between reasonable human beings regarding what we’re attempting to do, not to bash their teeth in if they made a small mistake and then burn them at the stake.
  11. Privacy. Ask for permission before sharing private correspondence with other parties or venues.
  1. Thanks to Isaiah Becker-Mayer for helpful creative feedback on this article.
  2. Yes, Dale Carnegie did base his “theories”, not on any real sense of right vs. wrong or truth vs. untruth, but rather on the ideal of how not to get yourself killed in prison.
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principle_of_charity.