Civility: A Distance That Brings Us Together

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


December 20, 2013

Civility: A Distance That Brings Us Together

Just in time for the holidays, Apple’s marketing department released Misunderstood, an ad about a surly teenager absorbed in his iPhone in the midst of scenes of his family’s idyllic Christmas togetherness. But he surprises everyone when he reveals that the whole time he was making a touching video for everyone to document their familial bliss, moving them to tears.

A few days earlier I saw a comic on Tumblr making a similar pseudo-point. It shows several people on public transit staring idly at their devices, and then shifts to their point of view to show that in fact, they’re making deep and meaningful human connections with friends. The artist adds the following commentary:

I know it’s trendy to fight the system and cry that we are all becoming slaves of technology, but this attitude overlooks that computers and phones are tools for communicating. When someone thinks I’m an idiot smiling at a machine, I’m actually smiling at my girlfriend who is 10000 miles away and whom I would have never met if not for these newfangled electronics.

These are intended as responses to critics who say that our devices are distracting and disconnecting us. They aren’t very good responses because all they show is that it is possible for the devices to be used in ways that enhance meaningful interpersonal connection. But the critics charge that most often, they’re used in frivolous ways—and they are right. In a realistic scenario, the surly teenager is playing Farmville and ignoring his family, and the bus riders are reloading Reddit and tweeting about their breakfast. That’s what people do.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that everyone on the bus staring at a device is sharing the depths of their soul with someone on the other end. Even if that were true, it doesn’t answer what I think is the strongest criticism of the impact of these technologies, which is that they tempt us with too much control over our interactions with others, heightening our feeling of being intruded on by the presence of others. They allow us to create a kind of interpersonal filter bubble that lets us customize our interactions with others so that they meet our precise specifications.

In my reading of Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, I’ve argued that she critiques digital technologies on the grounds that they allow us to domesticate the Other, or “decaffeinate” them. Just as decaf coffee is coffee without the harmful caffeine, the Other mediated through digital technologies can be deprived of its disturbing, traumatic Otherness that constitutes a Real encounter with the Other. Žižek describes it thusly:

when do I actually encounter the Other ‘beyond the wall of language,’ in the real of his or her being? Not when I am able to describe her, not even when I learn her values, dreams, and so on, but only when I encounter the Other in her moment of jouissance: when I discern in her a tiny detail (a compulsive gesture, an excessive facial expression, a tic) which signals the intensity of the real of jouissance. There is always something minimally obscene about it…

A compulsive gesture is strange to us because it registers for us the impenetrability of the Other’s desire: what do they want? what is their desire?

In our close relationships, the Other’s jouissance is mostly covered over with imaginary identification—we understand their dreams and values and personality—and only appears in brief, uncanny momemts when they suddenly appear strange to us. But the Real Other (also known as the Neighbor) is most frequently encountered in the guise of a stranger, often someone with whom we share public space.

So even if we’re all forming deeper connections with lovers, friends and family (who have probably been carefully screened) through our devices, we’re still using them to disconnect from the Real Other.

When researchers study the impact of technology on interpersonal interactions, they typically focus on our close relationships, reflecting a society that places a high value on social interactions that evoke strong emotions and strong memories, often treating that modality as the cardinal form of human relationships. It’s why Apple can address criticism of mobile devices by hitting us right in the feels with an ad that shows a family moved to tears by a movie created on an iPhone.

But I’d argue that we should be more concerned about interactions with strangers, and that we should value civility over intimacy. Naturally, I think that philosophy professor Evan Selinger is on the right track in his Digital Age Etiquette TEDx talk and an article in The Atlantic How Not to Be a Jerk With Your Stupid Smartphone: Updating etiquette and ethics for a digital age.

Civility has fallen out of fashion because it is viewed as inauthentic. What could be more important that doing and saying exactly as we feel inside? The value of intimacy is tied to its authenticity, where the physicality of strong feelings are believed to attest to their truthfulness.

Civility is seen as problematic because it is insincere, so the few proponents of civility who exist today often deny that it is insincere and try to reframe it to fit into our contemporary demand for authenticity. But they shouldn’t make this concession. It is precisely the insincerity of civility that should be defended—not, however, in the traditional sense of a superficial niceness masking an inner hostility. Instead, the true value of civility is when insincerity is itself the mask.

When I act with civility towards someone, it is not that I am going through the motions even though my heart is not in it. My heart really is in it, but I pretend that I am only going through the motions. This is true civility. The obvious problem: it sounds like nonsense. If you really feel it, why do you have to pretend?

The answer is that this is the only way that we can express care and compassion towards a stranger without totally traumatizing them. Normally we think of civility as civilizing, restraining our harmful negative impulses towards one other. But imagine if a stranger approached you and announced that they were deeply in love with you. Everyone wants to feel loved, so this should be a positive thing, but there are very few people who would not feel disturbed by such a declaration and wonder if the stranger was crazy or even dangerous.

This indicates that the presence of the Other can feel intrusive, oppressive, suffocating and traumatic, especially when we encounter the enigma of their desire. And herein lies the difficulty of expressing care towards a stranger. It comes across creepy and weird no matter how sincerely you mean it. In fact, the more sincere you are, the creepier it is, because it confronts the receipient too directly with your desire.

The solution is to pretend that you don’t mean it, that it’s a meaningless ritual in which you have no particular investment. This structure of civility is evident in the most common of interaction rituals, the question “How are you?” It is originally a query about someone’s health, but almost everyone has noticed that our replies are equally meaningless. We always say “Fine” regardless of how we really feel—it’s an empty ritual.

For the advocates of intimacy, these ritual forms of politeness indicate a woeful inability for people to genuinely connect. Wouldn’t it be better to really able to open up and share the most intimate details of our lives with one other? When intimacy is idealized, politeness is viewed as a barrier to care—it is cold, distant, formal, false and bureaucratic. There’s a certain truth to this. Politeness does establish a distance between people. The paradox is that without politeness, the distance is even greater.

The opponents of politeness have won. Today, their view dominates. But what social environment do we now live in? It is not the promised one where we make connections with everyone around us. Instead, we studiously ignore one other in elevators and grocery store aisles, even more effectively with the aid of our mobile devices. Overproximity to the Other confronts us on every street corner and is managed by avoiding eye contact and escaping into a fully administered online social world disclosed through our glowing rectangles.

What we need to bridge this vast gulf is not the closeness of really getting to know one other, but empty rituals of politeness—a distance that brings us together. These rituals—because of their meaninglessness, not in spite of it—enable us acknowledge one another, to give and receive respect and care safe in the knowledge that there’s a limit to how close we can get. They appear as obstacles that thwart our ability to satisfy our desire for genuine connection with people, but we only approach this limit because the obstacle is there.