Civility is not passivity

In reply to my previous post, Lauren asks

“civility is … nice but what about ‘virtues’ like sarcasm, parody, anger, grief or silence.  Do these characteristics also have a space in discourse and debate?”

This is a really good question and, indeed, the potential problem with an emphasis on the virtue of civility is that it comes to serve the status quo, that it forgets that sometimes a harsh response is necessary. In my recent trip to Voices for Justice, one of the participants in my session noted that Jesus was not always civil, e.g. Turning over the tables of the money changers at the temple.

In response to both these observations, a few things are worth noting:

  1. Virtue ethics should not be applied in any absolutist sense. Morality always requires the wisdom to know how to deal with conflicting norms – potentially even conflicting virtues. The virtue ethics tradition argues that wisdom/prudence is needed to determine in any particular instance which virtues to exercise and how to exercise them. So, for example, Augustine and Aquinas include “justice” as one of the Cardinal virtues (of more significance than civility). The just person is the one who gives each person they’re due; and in the social setting, distributive justice insists upon fair distribution of resources and just treatment of minorities etc. In the face of distributive evil, the civil person will not be precluded from anger; which leads to my second point
  2. Civility is not passivity. On the contrary, the person exercising the virtue of civility may well be best equipped to carry forward an agenda in the social realm. As recent riots by (a minority of) Muslims in the Sydney CBD have shown us, uncontrolled anger is self destructive and self-defeating. Civility is the social expression of self-control and when embodied by the wise person, parody can be used to potent effect; and, finally a little bit of nitpicking.
  3. A virtue is a habit of character, a pattern of attitudes and dispositions to act. Sarcasm and parody are modes of communication. Anger and grief are emotions that might be expressed by silence or sarcasm (or by rioting or in any number of ways). So I can envisage many a time where the just and self-controlled (civil) person may need to turn over tables, to stand in front of tanks, to refuse to speak, to give a speech.

At this point I realise I am sounding like a teacher (or a pompous git). Perhaps I should simply have said, “yes, Lauren, sometimes we need to get mad!”


PS I am not really sure about sarcasm. I wonder whether it is ever a useful device. By its very nature it tends to belittle opponents and entrench division. Having said that, intelligent sarcasm is capable of getting to the heart of an issue.

PSS of course in reality virtue often falls over into vice. If virtue is the midpoint between two vices (per Aristotle) then the border between the vice of passivity on the one hand and rudeness on the other is not easily achieved. The sad truth is that I tend to the latter.

About Author

Shane is an ethicist and theologian, Honorary Associate for the Centre of Disability Research and Policy, the University of Sydney, and Assistant Director, Policy, at the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation against People with Disability. Shane is proudly disabled, and an occasional blogger on


  • Craig Benno
    September 20, 2012 at 6:40 pm

    While recently listening to Dave Parkers lectures on Corinthians, it appears that Paul does use sarcasm as a rhetorical device. I also think that the reverse of self control can happen in the name of civility, where the real issues are never addressed, because of fear, not love.

  • Lauren
    September 21, 2012 at 12:29 pm

    A few years ago in Brisbane, I listened to you and another bloke casually debate whether women belong in ministry. You affirmed the idea as he dismissed it and so it went back and forth, like verbal tennis. At the time, I was hurt and angry and walked away. What for you and him was a ‘civil’ debate meant so much more to me – it was my life you were deciding! I guess what I am trying to say is that the personal is political. And by taking a stand on personal issues, it’s inevitable that deep passions and vulnerabilities will emerge.

    And so the words of Mary Daly are fitting. She says it is our ‘creative rage that will bring us to a space of new knowledge.’ I know I am moving away from Aristotelian virtue ethics here but I do love the idea of ‘incivility’ drawing us towards a radical edge. I wonder – is this what it will take to keep challenging systemic injustice in our time?

    “Don’t try and make me speak straightforwardly, logically, geometrically, in strict conformity. Because I croon, I howl, I gasp and babble, I shout and sigh and cry. When I am silent, even that silence can be heard.”

    But you are right, self control is a great virtue, and much passion can arise from that standpoint as well. Martin Luther King’s non-violent, but oh so passionate, protests come to mind. Nothing civil about that for white folks though.

    Thanks for answering those questions Shane, I should probably get off your blog … and start my own. 😉 And Craig … I like your thinking!

    • lifeandothermisadventures
      October 21, 2012 at 8:01 am

      Your comment is quite thought provoking. I write about relationships on my blog but in life I am a political activist. First of all, I hope you do write a blog – and make a stand for the rights of women in whatever way you believe to be authentic for you. If I know one thing, it’s that no one else will advance women’s rights for us – we must do it ourselves.

      There is a time and a place for the kind of activism which is angry and disruptive – but I agree with Shane that there’s also an important role for civility. When people are angrily confronted with information that challenges their convictions, their beliefs actually get stronger because they feel defensive (for an example, read;jsessionid=5EA42D626934B8CDB8C53F4D0090A01C.d03t04). So, I believe that we are most powerful when, like Martin Luther King, we have an unassailable moral character, we are kind and civil when speaking to people we know, and take bold actions only when we must. From a place of authenticity, we can speak our truth and be heard, without allowing people to dismiss us based on a stereotype.

      And make no mistake, civility can be powerful. When someone views you (someone who has a different belief) first as a human being who they respect, they are more likely to listen and re-evaluate their beliefs. For example, my organization was holding a public meeting. Outside, protesters gathered. A handful of women from my organization went out and politely asked some people in the crowd why they were protesting. One of the women we encountered, who was standing there with her small children, shouted, “I don’t care what you’re about! I’m against it!” (This goes to show how badly received our message is in this particular city.)

      My co-worker responded in a calm voice, inviting the woman inside. She said, “if you promise to listen to the other presenters, then you can have your turn addressing everyone and we will listen to you.”

      When it came time for her to speak, this woman stood and said, “My husband works for [a company whose policies we oppose] so I’ll never agree with you. But I had an experience [that was similar to what we talked about] so I understand where you’re coming from.”

      To me, this was a powerful outcome. She came away from the meeting at least seeing us as fellow human beings instead of angry, easy-to-dismiss enemies. Instead of being able to remain angry, she learned something new.

      I also know someone who deliberately broke a civil law in protest of a government action and was sentenced to 10 years in prison – later changed to a year plus probation. He even spent time in solitary confinement. While I absolutely respect what he did, and know that he believed in what he was doing, my organization was working at the same time through the legal system to get a judge to rule the government’s action to be illegal – and we were successful. He had felt that he had no choice. In the wake of what happened, he told the press that he had to act because we had done nothing. Some of our legal staff, who had worked for little or no pay around the clock for months, wept in their offices.

      Ultimately, his actions were very powerful and they may have helped us with the court case – but they also created a backlash which undermined some of our work.

      Most of us who worked on the issue have come to respect him. And he came to value the work that we did and continue to do. Today when he speaks about this issue, he’s a bit more civil – but just as strong. And yes, people listen to him because of the huge public sacrifice that he made.

      So, in my mind I see a place for both kinds of activism.

      In the end each of us must decide for ourselves how we want to live our lives and what methods we are willing to use to bring about change. And the answer is undoubtedly different for each one of us.


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