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RIGHTEOUS INCIVILITY

PUBLIC DISCOURSE is in an accelerating downward spiral of coarse insult, free-flying contempt, and general meanness. We will surely soon reach bottom, an inevitably inarticulate resting place where we quit wasting words and just mutely flip each other off. Since bemoaning our uncivil culture is almost as prevalent as incivility itself, let me forgo any ritual hand-wringing. I register the culture here because it so influences me: as public discourse grows crueler, nastier, and more aggressive, my temptations to be uncivil increase apace, and I don’t like that.

My growing temptations to incivility are diverse and predictable. When one encounters disrespect, the desire to answer in kind is strong. Likewise, with so many pitched to provoke anger, one wants to give them just the outrage they invite. More basically, I find it ever harder to like people and so to act as if I like them—misanthropy does not seem so unreasonable as it once did. But incivility’s most powerful appeal is that it can seem downright righteous.

Olberding

The desire to be civil, in its cleanest and most robust form, is a desire to be moral, to treat others humanely, with respect, toleration, and consideration. But if one wants to be moral, one must also know that, in order to be good, sometimes one cannot be nice. The imperative to treat others civilly is never responsibly total because sometimes a moral good is won in rudeness. To display disrespect or enmity, to mock or shun, to insult or shame—these can be moral gestures. For even as we need to respect humanity, valuing human beings can sometimes require disrespecting some of them, precisely the ones who deny or damage our shared humanity. To show such people respect and consideration might let them have their way a bit, let them continue in their destructive ways.

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About Boston Review

Anger looms large in our public lives. Should it? Reflecting on two millennia of debates about the value of anger, Agnes Callard contends that efforts to distinguish righteous forms of anger from unjust vengeance, or appropriate responses to wrongdoing from inappropriate ones, are misguided. What if, she asks, anger is not a bug of human life, but a feature—an emotion that, for all its troubling qualities, is an essential part of being a moral agent in an imperfect world? And if anger is both troubling and essential, what then do we do with the implications: that angry victims of injustice are themselves morally compromised, and that it might not be possible to respond rightly to being treated wrongly? As Callard concludes, “We can’t be good in a bad world.” The contributions that follow explore anger in its many forms—public and private, personal and political—raising an issue that we must grapple with: Does the vast well of public anger compromise us all? FORUM Lead essay by Agnes Callard. Responses by Paul Bloom, Elizabeth Bruenig, Desmond Jagmohan, Daryl Cameron & Victoria Spring, Myisha Cherry, Jesse Prinz, Rachel Achs, Barbara Herman, Oded Na’aman. Final response by Agnes Callard. ESSAYS Judith Butler interviewed by Brandon M. Terry, David Konstan, Martha C. Nussbaum, Whitney Phillips, Amy Olberding.