Discussion: The Necessity of Politeness

social gears
social gears

I know I quote Heinlein way too much, but:

Moving parts in rubbing contact require lubrication to avoid excessive wear. Honorifics and formal politeness provide lubrication where people rub together. Often the very young, the untravelled, the naive, the unsophisticated deplore these formalities as “empty,” “meaningless,” or “dishonest,” and scorn to use them. No matter how “pure” their motives, they thereby throw sand into machinery that does not work too well at best.

In a discussion thread on one of the forums I follow, someone asked the following question:

Why is being tactful considered a good thing? Or perhaps more specifically, why is being rude considered a bad thing?

I can easily recall several conversations, arguments, and debates I’ve had that entailed everyone involved being rude to each other, insulting their logic and thought processes, mocking any flaws in their arguments, and just generally not being tactful at all. These are the arguments that have changed mine, and others, minds, not limp-wristed overly agreeable bullshit.

There is no polite way to tell someone that their beliefs are formed by ignorance and that they are illogical. There is no honest way to debate someone who that is true of without bringing it up, and those people are the ones (I, at least) argue against most often.

How many people’s political opinions are informed by or shaped by South Park or the Daily Show? Those are about as far from tactful as possible, so there really isn’t an argument I can see that being rude makes your argument less effective.

I responded with a paraphrase of the above quote, that “Politeness and tact are social lubricants; it’s usually more efficient in the long run to make use of them”.

In the interests of full disclosure I felt that I needed to expand on that a bit, given the pointed nature of a lot of my written content on Bullshido. So I went back later in the discussion and posted this as well:

I currently make a living, more or less, being a complete dick to people who believe stupid things. But that’s not because it’s more effective at convincing people to change their minds about something, it’s because I am preaching to the choir and by doing so, providing entertainment to that choir.

Guys like Penn and Teller, or even Dawkins to some extent, care about their message, but they’re also focused on entertaining people at the expense of those they disagree with. If they happen to bring some more into the fold by happenstance, even better.

When I actually want to engage someone in a conversation geared towards helping them realize the errors in their thought processes, I do so in a reasonable tone and with calm, rational arguments.

Now when it becomes apparent that said individual is willfully ignorant, too far gone to acknowledge facts, or just isn’t worth the time it would take to do so, then yeah, at that point I think it’s ok to be a dick to them and then move on. This is for two reasons: 1.) if polite logic and reason fail to work, shame might do the job, and 2.) you can prevent having wasted your time completely by squeezing some entertainment value out of it.

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