Amy Olberding on Politeness and (Individual and Social) Anger

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Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 16/01/2020 - 7:19am in

Not letting fly with an uncivil rebuke also means I cannot as readily from such encounters---to stay civil is, more often to stay engaged. By trying to be well-disposed toward others, I try to preserve social connection, even when doing so is displeasing, alienating, and terrible. The defiant optimism underwriting this resolve would have me hold out hope that we will all be better for making such efforts, that we can find some fellow feeling, some scrap of shared humanity that will enable better (or at least not worse) forms of shared life. Amy Olberding (2019) The Wrong of Rudeness: LEarning Modern Civility from Ancient Chinese Philosophy, p. 152 (emphasis in original).

While I very much like Amy Olderding's internet persona, I was a bit apprehensive about reading her book. I had been convinced by Johnson and Kaziarian (remember NewAPPS?) that civility policing was a means for the powerful to police the vulnerable while they (the powerful) could simultaneously ignoring the real harms emanating from micro-aggressions (see here Bejan on Hobbes) and other forms of incitement by way of (to quote Mill, recall here and here) vituperative speech.

I was, thus, worried that Olberding's book would celebrate the virtues of decorum and thereby lecture others on how to play nice. Even so, I was also predisposed to like the book because I am committed to the idea that if there is any idea worth preserving from the nexus of practices and ideological concepts connected to the word 'civilization' that we, qua public facing philosophers, should keep the conversation, including silences and long-stutters, going.

From the start, Olberding disarms the reader by presenting herself as prone to rudeness, even enjoying it. And she also explicitly recognizes that in particular personal and political circumstances, "sometimes incivility will be the best course" even if, in a humane agent, "it will be tinged with regret and distress." (151) Sometimes incivility or righteous anger is the only response that accords with our own dignity and sense of injustice, even if we know that "abandoning good manners, of failing to try to be police, will magnify many social ills and inequalities." (46) There are plenty of tragic circumstances, where all options are subpar. So, I did not find much to disagree in the book, and much astuteness. In what follows, I reflect on a minor thread that runs through her argument.

One way Olberding understands anger is as a species of truth-telling. And so hiding anger is a means of disguising from others what we really feel. We become inauthentic. In addition, such self-policing can have two costly effects. First, it can take real self-undermining effort at psychological self-management in internalizing anger.  By contrast, as Olberding notes "deliberate rudeness provides the chance to set down the taxing burden of hiding what I really think or feel." (2) I return to this in the next paragraph. Second, by not making (to use language from Hume and Adam Smith) one's resentment felt at some social harm one can have a non-trivial negative impact on regulating norms of justice. Since justice is one of the few social institutions devoted to truth disguising or hiding it can can undermine its functioning. This is why I largely agree with Srinivasan's defense of righteous anger.

Now, Olberding notes that "to be polite...entails getting good at managing an internal economy of attention." (32) This is hard work and requires imitation and practice such that it becomes habitual. That is to say, in addition for there to be a social pay-off (in keeping conversation going, and creating possibility of fellow feeling), politeness has a personal pay-off: one becomes, as it were, better at concentrating, especially concentrating on  what really matters to oneself. (This can be articulated in terms of efficiency; but despite the use of 'economy' and Olberding's decision to treat "attention as a kind of currency," (32) I don't think that fits Olberding's confucian framework.) The key point is that attention is a scarce good, and that to maintain and focus it requires considerable skill.

There is something very important lurking here. But to unearth it means we need to challenge the idea that anger is fundamentally a form of truth-telling (although it can be that). A psychoanalytic commonplace is that anger or frustration is a way to disguise from oneself other uncomfortable feelings or an instance of what the freudians call displacement. I find this thought a useful starting point whenever I need to calm down or have managed to calm down from my anger or frustration! One does not have to buy into much of psychoanalysis to see that this can be a plausible mechanism in many circumstances, personal and political.So, anger then is not itself a form of truth-telling although it can be a significant clue for the existence of other problems (this idea can be found in Machiavelli, too). 

As the nod to Machiavelli implies this is not just an individual issue. The whole business model of contemporary social media and news organizations is to habitually induce anger in order to capture your eye balls. The economy of attention is guided by the skillful manipulation of our reactive attitudes without providing opportunity to (learn to) manage their proportionality with regard to their causes and the possible effects. The cumulative effect is a debilitating and infantile public culture.  

When anger is a (voluntary or involuntary) mechanism to disguise from oneself what one feels, it also prevents intimacy or connectedness with others. So, it can be a form of self-undermining at the individual or personal level. Insert your favorite saying of Yoda here. Of course, lecturing somebody who is angry that by being angry they are self-undermining socially or politically can be infuriating, especially when the causes of such anger are conveniently ignored!

The previous paragraphs are not really a criticism of Olberding. Because what she points to is that the practice of individual and social politeness is, in addition to some other benefits, a means to making space for allowing the sources of one's anger and frustration to become transparent to one's personal and social self/selves. So, politeness can be a means to facilitate norms and practices that are truth conductive. It is also, thus, a means of reorienting our attention to more skillful and wiser agency.