The Wrong of Rudeness: Learning Modern Civility from Ancient Chinese Philosophy, by Amy Olberding (Oxford University Press), £19.99/$29.95
Rudeness seems to be a fact of life. Whether as witnesses, receivers, or sources of rudeness, many of us encounter it on a regular basis. Despite its prevalence, people are generally predisposed to dislike rudeness in others, and parents and teachers encourage children to be polite and respectful, beginning at an early age. Yet Amy Olberding opens The Wrong of Rudeness with a confession. “I am often rude. I often want to be rude. I often enjoy being rude. I even frequently enjoy witnessing the rudeness of others”. These admissions open space for a careful exploration of rudeness in Olberding’s slim and engaging book. By describing her own temptations to rudeness, Olberding taps into emotions many of us have experienced, and this helps motivate the thoughtful discussions of impoliteness, incivility, and general rudeness that follow. In explaining why rudeness is wrong, Olberding draws on insights from early Confucian philosophy, which has quite a bit to say about civility, propriety, and their role in human relations. Scholars of Confucian thought will find the lessons familiar, but Olberding’s book clearly and thoughtfully links these ideas to contemporary concerns, and it offers a welcome provocation to engage more deeply with the philosophies of Confucius and Xunzi.
After introducing the book in chapter 1, Olberding spends a full chapter on “temptations to incivility”. Most readers will recogniise these temptations. They include the desire to “tell it like it is”, make fun of others, or win a debate by denigrating one’s opponent. But Olberding suggests that the strongest temptation to incivility may rest on a moral appeal: Don’t some people – bad people – deserve disrespect? And don’t some appeals to civility amount to disingenuous “tone policing”, by insisting that those who are oppressed express their concerns through the proper channels and in the proper manner (thus defusing those concerns)? Isn’t righteous incivility at least sometimes justified? Although Olberding cautiously affirms these intuitions, she hesitates to endorse righteous indignation and associated incivilities as a matter of course. The trouble is this: distinguishing justified from unjustified incivility is rarely easy, and incivility is often driven by habitual patterns of thought and action rather than careful deliberation. What’s more, by separating us from those with whom we disagree, righteous incivility may impede the very engagement that is needed to provoke reflective deliberation about our own righteousness. As Olberding puts it, “incivility may feed confidence by starving wisdom”.
The third chapter parallels the second, but here Olberding focuses on the “temptations to bad manners”. Good manners take effort – are they worth it? Aren’t manners mere trivialities, and isn’t acting politely a form of fakery or inauthenticity? Olberding feels the pull of these temptations to impropriety, but she notes ruefully: “While there can be principled reasons for skepticism about the worth of good manners, my doubts tend not to have the consistency principle would demand…I most often doubt the worth of manners when I wish to be rude or to excuse myself for having been rude. I rarely suffer such doubts when another has been rude to me”.
Perhaps cynicism about the value of manners is merely a way of giving oneself license to ignore them. This seems problematic – but what is worse, according to Olberding, is that ignoring manners and indulging in rudeness is not an equal opportunity enterprise: not only do those in positions of power have more leeway to be rude; those with limited power are more likely to be on the receiving end of rudeness. People tend to calibrate their rudeness in relation to power, and to filter tendencies toward rudeness through biases, conscious or not. A person might be more likely to be rude to a store clerk than to their boss, and implicit and explicit biases with respect to race, ethnicity, gender, class, or sexual orientation surely influence who experiences the brunt of everyday rudeness. Thus, Olberding concludes that despite her temptations to rudeness and incivility, there are dangers inherent in both. The goods of civility and politeness – which she goes on to treat together – deserve exploration, and Confucian philosophy is a good place to start.
Olberding sets up her discussion of “the wrong of rudeness” through contemporary and personal examples but turns to two ancient Chinese philosophers – Confucius (or Kongzi) and Xunzi – to support her case. In their ideas, Olberding finds rationales for manners and civility that remain compelling today, once brought into focus. Both thinkers saw human beings as fundamentally social creatures, for whom life gains meaning and significance through relations with others. Manners and civility have a critical role to play in enabling positive relations, and thus in enabling us “to fulfil a fundamental aspect of ourselves: our need and desire for other people”. At a basic level, manners help to sustain social cooperation, but as Kongzi and Xunzi emphasise, thoughtful and mannerly engagement with others does more: it enables persons to develop fully their own humanity. What’s more, manners and civility can help regulate behaviour in relation to those toward whom we are not already well disposed, providing a “one-size-fits-all code of conduct” that can mitigate against bias and stereotyping. Civility can also open channels of communication, rather than closing them down. Olberding cites the case of comedian Sarah Silverman, who responds to a sexist slur directed at her on Twitter with empathy for her denigrator. That act of generosity, explains Olberding, changed the entire tenor of subsequent interactions, eliciting an apology and resulting in a constructive, compassionate exchange. Although Olberding acknowledges that not all extensions of civility produce such salutary results, manners and civility can be contagious, building trust and goodwill.
But what about etiquette? If what’s really important is getting along, being good people, supporting one another, and living well together, can’t we just be nice to one another without all the trivialities of etiquette rules? Does putting one’s napkin in one’s lap or chewing with one’s mouth closed really make the world a better place? Again, Olberding is sympathetic to these doubts, but ultimately comes down with the Confucians: “The Big Stuff [values people care about]”, she writes, “is won through the little stuff [the rules of etiquette]”. Etiquette serves as a “behavioural grammar”, a way of communicating certain attitudes, such as respect. Just as words express meaning, so does etiquette. In addition, etiquette not only provides modes of expressing certain attitudes; it can help produce, engrain, and sustain those attitudes. In thanking others, one expresses but often also feels gratitude, and by regularly thanking others, one can cultivate a more grateful sensibility. Of course, etiquette may sometimes devolve to merely going through the motions but going through the motions may be better than no etiquette at all, says Olberding. Early Confucians encouraged engaging in etiquette and social rituals wholeheartedly, but they recognised the challenge.
In the end, Olberding returns to the difficult questions about whether and when righteous civility is justified, and she offers no easy answers. Here again, a Confucian sensibility infuses her advice, as she urges the importance of humility, persistence, and efforts to sustain good relationships with others through the vicissitudes of life. Throughout the book, Olberding frequently cites her own temptations to rudeness, but at times, I wondered whether her own descriptions were a bit overblown. Would she really let a door slam in someone else’s face and feel disinclined to apologiise, or impatiently roll her eyes as an elderly person in front of her in line writes a check to pay for their coffee? In the end, it probably doesn’t matter. Surely at some point we’ve all shown impatience or rudely cut someone off, and surely some of us have consoled ourselves by thinking these small insults don’t matter. Olberding offers reasons to think otherwise, and she offers important insights about how we can make ourselves, and the world, just a little bit better through the regular interactions that shape our days and lives.