Civility: A Powerful Weapon

G. Stolyarov II
Issue CXLIV - February 13, 2008
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Advocates of political freedom and strong ethical standards have a powerful weapon on their side – if they choose to use it. In an age where too many people are ready to hurl insults at one another at the onset of any discussion or debate, civility sets one apart from the crowd and gives one a chance to actually persuade people of the soundness of one’s views.

            Civility from an advocate of objective ethical standards enables him to display a refreshing consistency. Anybody who claims to be concerned with virtue should be expected to display this virtue in his everyday conduct. This encompasses his behavior as a presenter of ideas. A civil person, contrary to popular stereotypes, is not a pushover – nor is he willing to accept any ideas, no matter how incorrect or dangerous. Rather, a civil person can be firm without being aggressive and he can be critical without being insulting. When he opposes a particular message, he does so with conviction and with sound argumentation. He does not, however, try to deprecate the messenger. The messenger, after all, is a human being—capable of error but also capable of recognizing his mistakes and changing his views. The purpose of debate is to convince people to adopt views that they did not hold previously. This cannot be accomplished by insulting or belittling them.

            Even if one’s opponent is seriously wrong, he has serious reasons for believing what he does. If both sides lapse into ad hominem attacks at the discussion’s onset, neither side will be able to critically examine the other’s basic reasoning. No one will leave the discussion thinking anything different from that which he thought at the onset. Rather, all sides will be embittered and tempted to lash out at their opponents in destructive ways. It is not possible to effectively combat that which one does not understand – but it is possible for violent tempers to undermine people’s lives in a much wider context than that of any given debate.

            Furthermore, one’s incivility gives one’s opponents the opportunity to make a powerful case against one’s ideas. They can, in effect, claim, “Look at his deplorable conduct! Can you really take him seriously?” They might succeed at portraying one as dense, intolerant, immature, and even ridiculous – even if one’s ideas are sound. On the other hand, a person who maintains an impeccable civility seems superior in the face of lesser opponents. If the opponents continue to hurl insults at him, but he simply continues to argue rationally, eloquently, and penetratingly, virtually all outside observers will acknowledge the moral superiority of the civil argumentator and will thus be more likely to entertain his ideas. Even if they ultimately disagree with him, they will give him enough credit to invite him for further discussions and consider his viewpoint in the future. The uncivil argumentator, on the other hand, alienates himself from all decent company.

            Advocating political and economic freedom is not necessarily popular in most circles today. But if one advocates these ideas uncivilly, one is likely to be cast out of the discussion without further consideration. However, if one maintains a consistent dignity and respect for one’s opponents, the latter will recognize that their viewpoints are not the only ones possible. Members of today’s left-liberal elite have often been insulated from any views substantially different from their own. Either they have simply not encountered these views among their circles, or they have seen them advocated by individuals whose conduct was less than admirable. Many of these left-liberals have thus formed unjustified stereotypes of conservatives and libertarians as provincial, uneducated, ill-mannered, and even hateful. It is time for advocates of freedom to prove them wrong. Then, ideas of liberty might someday be entertained on equal terms with statist ideas – and many formerly immovable left-liberals might actually begin to see the merit of constraining government power and acknowledging some objective moral standards. 

            What if the other side is already engaging in plentiful smears, insults, and slander? Should the civil person simply stand by and let this happen? Not quite. Refraining from engaging in insults oneself is actually the surest way to get the insults to stop. Even the most vulgar four-letter words are simply sound vibrations in air unless interpreted by their targets to be something more. The best way to succeed in a debate against an uncivil opponent is to simply aim at addressing the substance of the opponent’s words. If he says nothing but insults and ad hominem attacks, the civil argumentator can simply inquire as to whether the opponent had meant to say anything substantive at all. If the opponent presents no actual arguments, then the civil discourser wins by default – in the minds of any reasonable observers.

            Imagine what it would look like to a third-party observer if only left-liberals ever insulted their opponents, while conservatives and libertarians simply addressed any arguments that came their way and made their case using logic and evidence. Would any thinking person support the left-liberals in that case? Would the left-liberals recognize the inferiority of uncivil discourse and shift their approach? If they shifted their approach, would they become more receptive to arguments from conservatives and libertarians? Would they need to actually justify their policy suggestions instead of smearing their opponents?

            Civility is a powerful weapon for anybody who chooses to use it. It is an especially important addition to the arsenal of individuals seeking to promote liberty and morality.

G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to Enter Stage Right, Le Quebecois Libre,  Rebirth of Reason, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Senior Writer for The Liberal Institute, weekly columnist for, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. Mr. Stolyarov also publishes his articles on and Associated Content to assist the spread of rational ideas. His newest science fiction novel is Eden against the Colossus. His latest non-fiction treatise is A Rational Cosmology. His most recent play is Implied Consent. You can also view his YouTube Videos. Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at

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This TRA feature has been edited in accordance with TRA’s Statement of Policy.

Click here to return to TRA's Issue CXLIV Index.

Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's new comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's new four-act play, Implied Consent, a futuristic intellectual drama on the sanctity of human life, here.

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