The philosopher André Comte-Sponville, once said: “It is better to be too honest to be polite than to be too polite to be honest.”
Although I agree with Comte-Sponville, I think that disagreements can be managed with kindness. For example, one should never be too polite to confront people who are discriminating, manipulating, lying or harming other people, but always try to do so in the friendliest manner.
One way of meeting the world with kindness could be by following the Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss (who was inspired by Spinoza and Gandhi and made an important contribution to ecological thinking). In his book, “Communication and Argument,” he suggests the following recommendations for objective public debate:
1. Avoid tendentious irrelevance, e.g. personal attacks or claims about opponents’ motivations.
2. Avoid tendentious quoting, e.g. quotes shouldn’t be edited to fit the argument.
3. Avoid tendentious ambiguity, e.g. ambiguity can be exploited to support criticism.
4. Avoid tendentious use of straw men, e.g. views shouldn’t be assigned to the opponent that he or she doesn’t hold
5. Avoid tendentious statements of fact, e.g. information put forward should never be untrue or incomplete, and relevant information should not be withheld.
6. Avoid tendentious tone, e.g. irony, sarcasm, pejoratives, exaggeration, subtle (or open) threats
These suggestions, today, are rarely seen. Due to social media (specifically, its rapidness and the need to be present or visible constantly), we see a growing “cowboy mentality,” where people shoot first without thinking. Online shaming is an example of this “bandwagon mentality,” where the herd uncritically follows what appears or sounds to be right or good.
A recent example of this “bandwagon mentality” is the Junot Diaz case. When the Dominican-American writer was accused five or six months ago of sexual misbehavior (i.e., forcible kissing and yelling), few questioned the credibility and gravity of the claims, whereas many uncritically jumped on the bandwagon and even upgraded the accusations to label Diaz a sexual predator. Now, after the Boston Review, M.I.T., and the Pulitzer Prize Board have conducted thorough investigations, Diaz is welcomed back. The accusations against him weren’t credible.
Facts, as the French philosopher Bruno Latour once said, are a product of a trustworthy inquiry. Thus, some facts are stronger than others. The reliability of facts depends on the strength and practice of the institution or network that produced these facts. In other words, facts and moral values hang together. It is morally wrong to claim something without evidence or to claim the opposite of what the evidence shows. Unfortunately, the moral debate surrounding false accusing is rare, almost as if accusations are accepted because of powerful men having silenced women for so many years. Yet, morality is not a contest to get even; it is a long, persistent practice of acting responsibly, demonstrating care and respect, and showing trust and equality in all situations. This is the only way to overcome oppression, whether related to gender, race, religion, or sexual preferences.
The “bandwagon mentality” emphasizes that public philosophy is needed. One of the challenges of contemporary philosophers is to do work that inspires people to philosophize.
A simple way of addressing the “bandwagon mentality” is through imagination. Actually, being kind, polite, and civil requires imagination, such as imagining that we might be wrong or what we are being told might be wrong. In short, being humbler. For example, we could question what we take for granted, question why we take certain things for granted, question what kind of values our lives produce, question the identity that some people cling to, etc. (see e.g. All women are not angels)
For instance, we may ask why some people deliberately lied or exaggerated about Junot Diaz being a sexual predator and misogynist when he wasn’t. Is the problem epistemological, as when some people don’t know what they say when using certain concepts? Is it a semantic problem, as when some people misunderstand certain utterances, even utterances that most other people find meaningful? Is it a moral problem, as when some people claim and postulate what they can’t prove? Is it a mental problem, as when some people see and hear things that other people can’t?
Then again, it might just be an example of admiration turning into envy, frustration, and hate. After all, artists are known for self-pity and narcissism.
So, what to do? Civility, kindness, and politeness are never acts of blindness; rather, they are acts of compassion, in the sense that none of us can live without others. The others help us stay alert.
Simple advice: Before communicating, debating, or politicizing with others (especially if we accuse them of bad things), we need time to reflect, analyze, and think. We are thereby able to find solutions to those problems that few people dare consider today because, unfortunately, it is easier or more convenient to just follow the herd.