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Civility in simple terms is acting or speaking politely to others. Civility encompasses other related ideas (tolerance, assuming good faith, the Golden Rule, and the social contract), and different people and institutions have given detailed explanations with some variations.

A 2019 poll by the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service at Georgetown University found that 87% of American voters thought that "compromise and common ground should be the goal for political leaders" and that 88% were concerned about "uncivil and rude behavior of many politicians".[1][2]


The Institute for Civility in Government has defined the term as:[3]

Civility is about more than just politeness, although politeness is a necessary first step. It is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one's preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same. Civility is the hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements. It is political in the sense that it is a necessary prerequisite for civic action. But it is political, too, in the sense that it is about negotiating interpersonal power such that everyone's voice is heard, and nobody's is ignored.

Civil Politics has defined the term as:[4]

Civility as we pursue it is the ability to disagree productively with others, respecting their sincerity and decency. By civility we do NOT mean agreement. We think citizens are well served when political parties represent different viewpoints and then compete vigorously to recruit voters to their side.

Civility, then, can be viewed as one means for a group of people with different viewpoints to work towards a common goal.

In politics[edit]

The political philosopher John RawlsWikipedia (1921–2002) wrote extensively on the theory of justice as fairness.[5] He described the concept of the "duty of civility" as referring "to the set of moral requirements that are associated with [the] idea of public reason and its corresponding view of liberal-democratic political legitimacy."[6] The concept of "public reason", in turn, is "the shared form of reasoning that the citizens of a pluralist democratic society should use when deciding constitutional essentials and questions of basic justice."[7] Or, somewhat less obtusely:[5]

Citizens engaged in certain political activities have a duty of civility to be able to justify their decisions on fundamental political issues by reference only to public values and public standards.

In other words, citizens — as well as government officials, for they are also citizens — should not make core public decisions unless they are justified by broadly held values. To do otherwise reduces the legitimacy of the democracy. For example, in a democracy where there is no state religion, government officials should not make decisions that are based upon their own personal religion.

In discourse[edit]

Ad hominem[edit]

Ad hominem arguments are types of informal logical fallacies in which the opponent is attacked rather than the opponent's argument. Ad hominem arguments are often hurtful, or at least intended to be hurtful. Because these arguments do not address the opponent's argument, they are never intended to advance discussion.

Ad hominem arguments are generally considered to include name calling or slurs (abusive ad hominem),[8] appeal to motive (circumstantial ad hominem),[9] the association fallacy (guilt by association ad hominem),[10] tu quoque (personal inconsistency or perceived hypocrisy),[11] and poisoning the well (smear tactics).[12]

Two types of abusive ad hominem apply specifically to transgender people: misgendering and deadnaming. Misgendering is intentionally referring to someone by a pronoun or gendered given name that is not their choice. Deadnaming is referring to someone by their pre-transition name, when they have not explicitly given permission to do so.

Tone arguments are another type of ad hominem, relying on style over substance. Tone arguments can have an implicit personal attack within them, for example if they refer to 'hysteria' or 'shrillness'. Tone arguments include subtypes appeal to MLK and Kafkatrapping.

Related types of arguments include ad iram (appeal to anger), appeal to hate, and inflammatory language (which can be illegal if it can be proven that it incited a crime).


Insincerity is uncivil because it is intentionally lying about or hiding one's true motives. Insincere tactics can span several levels of argumentation, including non-fallacious arguments.

Intellectual honesty vs. intellectual dishonesty does not fall neatly in the hierarchy of disagreement's divisions. Intellectual honesty in and of itself is civil, while intellectual dishonesty is uncivil because it is insincere. One may be wrong while maintaining intellectual honesty, but intellectual honesty requires that one accepts when one is demonstrably wrong, that one does not intentionally make misrepresentations, and that one does not intentionally use logical fallacies.

Specific types of insincere behavior include the following:

  • Denialism, which involves refusal to accept historic or scientific evidence. When financial gain is involved, it can involve coverups of the fact that the denialist party actually knew of the evidence from the beginning (e.g., tobacco smoking and global warming).
  • Just asking questions — making wild accusation in the form of questions, sometimes loaded questions, while attempting to shift the burden of proof to the other party and calling to question the responses received from the questions.
    • Sealioning — asking endless polite questions (again, often loaded questions) in attempt to stifle discussion especially when questions are responded with hostility.
  • Gish Gallop — making a flood of weak of fallacious debating arguments in an attempt to make it impossible for the opponent to answer them all within the allotted time
  • Trolling — disruptive behavior that includes combinations of deliberately angering people, trying to lure people into saying things that might appear stupid, name calling, pretending to be ignorant, claiming to have won debates despite poor performance, and attention grabbing
  • Strawman — misrepresenting arguments that tests patience for people, making them repeatedly reiterate their points.

These actions can overlap. Sealioning and just asking questions do overlap with general concern trolling, as those two tactics usually involve the troll disguising bad faith questions and arguments under the pretense of civility and then try to derail the discussion into accusations of being uncivil.

One should not feel obliged to engage with people who are acting in a demonstrably insincere manner beyond the point of pointing out their insincerity. This is because people who are insincere will be oblivious to counter-argument and are likely to dismiss out of hand any evidence or logical arguments put before them. One must be careful about accusing those who disagree as being intellectually honest, however, as it can unnecessarily obfuscate points being made while also clouding one's judgement when they start assuming all points are invalid. Clear communication, observation including knowing prior behavior, and patience is still key to determining if the disagreeing party is making an argument in good faith or not. For instance, a Trump supporter asking what Trump has done wrong may come off as dishonest "just asking questions" due to the apparently inexplicable display of obtuseness but one must consider that some people are genuinely thoroughly mislead by certain media and do not follow political affairs.

On RationalWiki[edit]

This section is intended to be descriptive, not prescriptive.

Although RationalWiki has at times seemed uncivil, there are long-standing aspects of civility within RationalWiki:

  • Democratic election of moderators, who are tasked with, among other things, trying to keep discourse civil
  • The description of what constitutes editing etiquette in the help section
  • Some of the reasons for blocking people that are used to control uncivil behavior:
    • Short term ("mindless generic vandalism", "blanking page content", "edit warring")
    • Medium term ("excessively offensive comments", "excessively trolling talk pages")
    • Long term ("unacceptable username", "serious harassment", "doxxing")
  • Community Standards

On Wikipedia[edit]

Wikipedia civility barnstar

Wikipedia has a detailed code of behavior on civility,[13] and well as one on harassment.[14] Some of the key points in the Wikipedia code of civility are outlined:[13]

  • Expectation of cooperation
  • Explain edits that might be perceived as uncivil
  • Avoid name calling
  • Avoid condescension
  • Use neutral language and avoid snide remarks (Snark)
  • No personal attacks or harassment
  • Lying is uncivil behavior
  • Quote mining other editors is uncivil behavior
  • Assume good faith (Hanlon's razor)
  • Threats of violence, suicide threats, legal threats, and hate speech should immediately be reported to administrators

Against civility[edit]

Some groups of people or organizations, by their repeated tactics such as trolling, are inherently opposed to civility (e.g., 4chan, 8chan, The Daily Stormer, Encyclopædia Dramatica, Kiwi Farms).

It is unusual for an organization to actually explicitly oppose civility, but Chapo Trap HouseWikipedia (CTH), a popular political podcast representative of the dirtbag left,Wikipedia is one such organization.[15] CTH co-host Amber A'Lee Frost (who coined the term "dirtbag left" in 2016) wrote:[16]

Vulgarity is the rejection of the norms of civilized discourse; to be vulgar is to flout the set of implicit conventions that create our social decorum. The vulgar person uses swears and shouts where reasoned discourse is called for.


Civility is destructive because it perpetuates falsehoods, while vulgarity can keep us honest.

There seems to be however a misunderstanding about vulgarity among CTH, as it is not inherently uncivil. Directing vulgarity at one's compatriot or the person with whom one is debating in good faith could be uncivil, but directing vulgarity against a mutual enemy is not uncivil. For example, pseudoscience is contrary to RationalWiki's mission, so calling someone who is clearly a pseudoscientist a 'dangerous dunderhead' is not uncivil within the context of the wiki.


Here are some examples that will hopefully elucidate the differences between ad hominem attacks, vulgarity, civility, and when a statement might further discussion.

Statement Ad hominem? Vulgar? Civil? Conducive to discussion?
"You're a fuckhead." Yes: name-calling Yes: swear word No No
"You're a fuckhead because you've repeatedly used fallacious arguments despite being called out on it." Yes, in part Yes: swear word No, but one is not required to be civil to the intellectually dishonest. Yes: it attempts to close the argument by pointing out willful ignorance by the opponent.
"You're a dimwit." Yes: name-calling No No No
"Your idea is shitty." No Yes No, but in RationalWiki, it is usually civil No: there's no explanation
"Your idea is shitty because…" No Yes No Yes, if the explanation is valid or plausible
"Your idea is terrible." No No Yes No: there's no explanation
"Your idea is terrible because…" No No Yes Yes, if the explanation is valid or plausible
"Mike Adams is a dangerous, greedy scumbucket because he profits from promoting pseudoscience." Yes, in part ('scumbucket') Yes: 'scumbucket' Yes, within RationalWiki Yes


As the various examples above illustrate, civility is not an absolute. In particular, it is relative to the domain in which one resides or in which one is having discourse.

That being said, there is at times a place for incivility in the form of non-violent civil disobedience, which can be a useful strategy for fighting governmental injustice that is nonetheless legal.

See also[edit]


  1. New Poll: Voters Find Political Divisions So Bad, Believe U.S. Is Two-Thirds Of The Way To "Edge Of A Civil War" (October 23, 2019) Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service.
  2. October 2019 Civility Poll: A national poll of registered voters gauging opinion on the state of civility in our national political conversation. Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service.
  3. What is Civility? The Institute for Civility in Government.
  4. What is Civility? Civil Politics.
  5. 5.0 5.1 John Rawls by Leif Wenar (First published Tue Mar 25, 2008; substantive revision Mon Jan 9, 2017) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  6. 63 — Duty of civility by James Boettcher (2014) In The Cambridge Rawls Lexicon, edited by Jon Mandle & David A. Reidy. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521192943. pp. 229-233.
  7. 172 — Public reason by Blain Neufeld (2014) In The Cambridge Rawls Lexicon, edited by Jon Mandle & David A. Reidy. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521192943. pp. 666-672.
  8. Ad Hominem (Abusive) Logically Fallacious.
  9. Ad Hominem (Circumstantial) Logically Fallacious.
  10. Ad Hominem (Guilt by Association) Logically Fallacious.
  11. Ad Hominem (Tu quoque) Logically Fallacious.
  12. Poisoning the Well Logically Fallacious.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Civility Wikipedia.
  14. Harassment Wikipedia.
  15. What Will Become of the Dirtbag Left? The gleeful vulgarians of "Chapo Trap House" fight for irony in the age of Trump. by Jia Tolentino (November 18, 2016) The New Yorker.
  16. 16.0 16.1 The Necessity of Political Vulgarity: To deny the importance of vulgarity is to reject the revolutionary tradition… by Amber A'Lee Frost (August 25, 2016) Current Affairs.