- The Wrong of Rudeness: Learning Modern Civility from Ancient Chinese Philosophy by Amy Olberding
The Wrong of Rudeness: Learning Modern Civility from Ancient Chinese Philosophy by Amy Olberding provides a popular philosophical inquiry into the question why being rude is a fundamental motivation in our lives. Olberding uses ancient Confucian philosophy, in particular the works of Confucius and Xunzi, to challenge the morally loaded feeling that civility is a constraint and rudeness and incivility are potential expressions of sincerity, relieving us from the constraints of civility.
The book consists of eight chapters. Olberding first examines the ways in which in our present day we often feel about being rude; following this, the author gradually introduces the reader into the ways in which Chinese philosophers promoted the notion of civility, not so much as a constraint but rather as a form of behavior that can make people both happy and socially successful. The titles of the chapters are "Introduction," "Temptations to Incivility," "Temptations to Bad Manners," "The Big Values," "Living the Big Values," "Rules, Rules, Rules," "Managing the Face," "Righteous Incivility Revisited," and "Disappointments and Consolation."
It is difficult to assess this book in entirely positive or negative terms, or to resort to the conventional reviewer strategy of recommending the book and then making some critical remarks about it. This is because The Wrong of Rudeness has various fundamental academic shortcomings, and so it would be tempting to write a devastating review of it—although I believe harshly criticizing others to be a morally dubious academic practice. However, at the same time the book is an insightful and, even more importantly, most enjoyable read.
If one takes this book with no research background in Chinese etiquette and related areas, it is an excellent resource to understand why the Confucian philosophers attempted to promote the notion of li (ritual behavior). Instead of attempting to build up a strictly academic discussion generously peppered with meticulous references to the Chinese Classics, Olberding provides a highly personal and involving account of this notion from the point of view of our modern daily lives. At the same time, this personal account is based on the author's extensive knowledge of the Chinese Classics, and so it does not become an esoteric interpretation of the Confucians.
Olberding uses many examples drawn from daily life to illustrate why we are often tempted to "let off steam." As she argues,
At risk of confessing too much about my own temperament, I must admit that one strong appeal of bad manners is that being naughty is itself often attractive and deeply enjoyable. In addition to the enjoyment that relaxation, [End Page 153] spontaneity, and disinhibition bring in their own right, availing myself of these at the wrong moments is itself a kind of temptation.(p. 42)
The author points out that this feeling recurs in a bulk of Western philosophical work following the Enlightenment, such as that of Rousseau. It is thus logical that in Western philosophy etiquette, civility and other related phenomena have been treated as some form of constraint. Olberding argues that this is very different from early Confucian philosophy, in which "good manners and civil practices [are] understood as mechanisms for signaling sociality and dependency" (p. 53). The book points out that while ultimately sociality and dependency were only starting points for the passionate Confucian quest to make civility a pillar of their philosophy, they are fundamentally different from how Westerners conventionally feel about civility. For readers unfamiliar with Chinese philosophy, this is a hugely helpful approach because it provides a down-to-earth interpretation by a cultural outsider of what otherwise could become an exotic fetishization of li. Olberding provides various engaging example to illustrate how li could be interpreted and/or applied in our daily lives, such as the following:
In teaching Confucianism to undergraduates, I have sometimes given them an assignment they initially really dislike. I require them to be Confucians when they go home...