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  • Risks and Temptations:On the Appeal of (In)Civility
  • Alice MacLachlan (bio)

I am often rude. I often want to be rude. I often enjoy being rude. I even frequently enjoy witnessing the rudeness of others. Indeed, I could write a book devoted entirely to rudeness I have relished.

Amy Olberding1

This is, perhaps, the most charming opening to a philosophical study of civility that has been, and maybe ever will be, penned. The rest of us working on the topic should probably abandon our aspirations now. And these lines are not only charming; they are illuminating, revealing something of both the style and substance of The Wrongs of Rudeness. Stylistically, we learn that the work that follows will be both personal and personable, its author a warm and witty companion. Substantively, we learn that this exhortation to politeness has been penned by someone who takes seriously the appeal of its opposite, and who gets why it might be a hard sell. Amy Olberding seeks to lead the reader from the above-mentioned pleasures of rudeness to the "hopeful optimism" of a life attuned to our deep sociality and fundamental dependence on others, shaped by dispositions to attend to others' dignity and emotions. And, crucially, she seeks to convince the reader that this life and these dispositions are manifested by attending to what might easily be dismissed as the little stuff, namely the careful and habitual practice of good manners over time.

Following the Confucian tradition she draws upon, Olberding understands "good manners" to mean both everyday interpersonal politeness and political civility in the public sphere. Olberding defines these as "behaviors that symbolically demonstrate prosocial values," expressed or communicated according to the rules and codes that constitute local etiquette.2 In order to best understand the prosocial values in question, Olberding turns away from contemporary accounts that frame manners in terms of respect and toleration—"a tax we pay in order to coexist"—to a deeply relational understanding of life with others, one that emphasizes our social nature and our dependency.3 We need good manners not to reinforce and assert our separateness as distinct individuals but rather to acknowledge that we are profoundly and unavoidably connected. Furthermore, we are connected because we have to be: we each need the others around us. That might still seem like a somewhat reluctant endorsement, but Olberding and her Confucian sources assure us that if we must cooperate in order to survive, doing so with the symbolic and expressive power of manners "transform[s] [End Page 1109] cooperation into something both more substantive and more meaningful than transactional need fulfillment."4

I should probably state, at this point, that I find myself situated fairly close to Olberding in philosophical discussions about the nature and value of manners. I also place myself somewhere in the admittedly unfashionable "pro" civility and politeness camp. Moreover, I think she is right to insist that they are not two distinct phenomena, but identifiable instances of a mode of being with others that can regulate our reactions and self-presentation at home, in our daily lives, and in the wider political community. And third, I agree that the value of civility is best articulated in a virtue-ethical framework. Such an approach allows us to connect externally enforced codes of etiquette ("just following the rules") to what Olberding beautifully describes as a project of self-cultivation: practices and habits of prosocial self-regulation over time. Virtue frameworks highlight how being trained to respond and restrain ourselves in certain ways—even cultivating bodily gestures and "managing the face"—isn't just surface work, but helps to inculcate and develop habits of thinking, feeling, and reacting, dispositions that in turn shape our perception and judgments. While any one polite gesture may be nothing but a deceptive façade, it is very hard to consistently maintain multiple habitual expressions of respect and consideration over time without, perhaps inadvertently, starting to adopt the corresponding attitudes and judgments.

Of course, unlike Olberding, I have thus far been limited to the Aristotelian virtue-ethical tradition. One of the very real gifts of this book, for me, was learning more about li in Confucianism, which...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1898
Print ISSN
0031-8221
Pages
pp. 1109-1120
Launched on MUSE
2020-10-28
Open Access
No
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