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KU Voice: Facing incivility with courage

A KU philosophy professor on keeping a cool head amid incivility.

by Nancy Snow
Nancy Snow

Courage is often considered to be a virtue of warriors—we think of soldiers as being courageous in battle, or, alternatively, cowardly. Courage also is applicable to people in other contexts, for example, to those who face serious illness or other hardship with equanimity and grace. In the cases of war and illness, people face a threat—a danger to their lives, or to the lives of loved ones. In these circumstances, they fear for themselves or others. Courageous people overcome fear and act well, either by facing up to danger themselves or by providing support and solace to those who do.

We do not often connect courage with civility. I think we should. To be on the receiving end of incivility is often to be subjected to anger, insults, lies and offensive behavior. It is to be treated with disrespect. Frequently, incivility is a deliberate provocation. When it is, people who treat others uncivilly are spoiling for a fight—they want you to lose your head and fight back. Even when incivility isn’t deliberate provocation, one can surely become angry and lose one’s temper. Keeping a cool head requires self-control. To overcome fear in battle or the fear of illness requires self-control, too. One needs to get a grip on one’s fear.

In the case of incivility, one needs to control anger, and in some cases, fear, when uncivil people become threatening or scary. In all of these cases, emotions can get out of hand. Courage is the virtue that enables one to be self-controlled. It allows one to quiet fear, quell anger, and stand firmly against whatever threatens—be it war, illness or the nastiness of uncivil words and deeds. Getting a grip on emotions enables one to be calm and rational, and to take a different perspective on incivility.

Perhaps this battle is not worth fighting. Alternatively, maybe the uncivil person isn’t really a threat at all. Maybe their rudeness and insults stem from not knowing how to disagree in a constructive, respectful way. If so, perhaps this person can be helped.

At the very least, being courageous in the face of uncivil speech and actions can spare one from becoming upset. At best, perhaps, it can help one to understand and build bridges to the other person.

A further point is worth noting. Speaking the truth can require courage. One sometimes risks an uncivil response, or, during an uncivil encounter, risks antagonizing one’s interlocutor and being on the receiving end of an even nastier exchange. Courage enables one to face that risk and speak the truth despite incivility.

Incivility is disrespectful, unpleasant, intimidating and silencing. Courage makes it no less disrespectful, but can help one to shrug off the unpleasantness, not be intimidated and speak the truth in a calm and civil way. Courage sends the message that one will stand one’s ground, yet not be provoked into uncivil words or deeds.

Nancy Snow, who joined the faculty in August as a professor of philosophy, is former director of the Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing at the University of Oklahoma and a guest columnist for The Oklahoman, where this essay first appeared.

Photo courtesy of Nancy Snow
Issue 4, 2022


KU Voice, Philosophy
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