“Be nice to people, and they’ll be nice to you.” Only it doesn’t always work. Like any other platitude, there are exceptions. Way too many exceptions. So many exceptions that if you have any sense, you start to wonder if the exceptions are the rule and the rule is the exception. I wondered that, and started paying close attention. I also traveled a bit, to get a basis of comparison. Here’s what I discovered.
In every society, it’s the same at the core: civility is really all about power and hierarchy. Be nice to those with more power than you or they will punish you. But you can be nasty to those with less power, so long as they have no more powerful sympathizers to punish you on behalf of the powerless.
On the surface, however, this may not be evident. Some cultures value the semblance of mutual respect, where everyone tries to be nice to everyone else. That means no one ever tells nasty truths to anyone, at least not to his face. Instead, the nastiness takes the form of malicious gossip, that most passive-agressive form of attack. Hypocrisy thrives wherever human beings have ideals they cannot live up to, and mutual respect is one of those ideals.
But what of those sympathizers, who champion the dignity of the powerless? Don’t they prove it’s not all hypocrisy? First off, if the champions of the powerless are themselves powerless, then their complaints will have no effect at all. Secondly, these self-styled heroes of human dignity are all selective in which powerless ones they champion. They all have causes – specific, narrow causes. They say they are defending the helpless, but I have never seen anyone defend the weak – all the weak – on principle, consistently. They all turn out to have some particular personal reason for defending some particular disadvantaged group. Talk to them, and they will eventually divulge this. Compassion plays favorites.
Or, even worse, there are entire political parties that claim to be the champions of all the weak, but somehow never around to helping any of their portfolio of designated victim groups in any concrete way. One begins to suspect they don’t really mean it, but are only posturing to gain the votes of these various groups. The tell is the way they speak of those poor and oppressed who don’t happen to fit in any of their favored categories.
Besides, if you have powerful allies but are otherwise weak, isn’t that in itself a kind of power? This is the essence of political influence. Some beggars are more successful than others, because they learn to game the emotions of others and gain sympathy. Are these more needy than the others? Hardly. Often they’re out-and-out scammers. Life is not fair, and charity is not fair either.
It’s said of humor that there’s a rule: don’t punch down. But people punch down all the time. It’s far safer than punching up. When you see a television comic mocking those in power, that means the ones currently in power are perceived as vulnerable, or at least lax in dealing with dissidents. There is no public political humor in authoritarian societies, because they can’t get away with it. Only those seen as weak get openly insulted. Unpopular ideologies, unpopular religions, unpopular ethnicities, unpopular disabilities, celebrities in decline, reality show wannabes – these all get savaged. Whether they deserve it or not doesn’t enter into it. We mock in order to boost our own self esteem. (There are other reasons people mock, but this is the main one.)
This thing we call civility is overrated. People of different views shouting each other down on TV give the audience the courtesy of not pretending they don’t hate each other. If they acted otherwise, I would take it as an insult to my intelligence. I prefer a public shouting match to a sleazy whispering campaign. Better honest contempt than feigned regard.
But not everyone shares my preference, so we see people trying to be civil. They get along well enough when there’s nothing at stake, but even the uncivil can be smart enough not to pick a fight without a reason. The real tell is what happens when, in the name of civility, someone refuses to fight back against an abuser. What happens? The civil person gets walked over and treated with contempt. He doesn’t even get credit for being a good guy, because savvy people instinctively distrust the overly nice.
This kind of civility looks like weakness, and it looks like appeasement. Whatever they may say, no one sincerely respects this. No one. The obseqious and the grovelers are despised.
Respect is the tribute paid to the strong. The weak respect the strong, and the strong ignore the weak. What of mutual respect? Mutual respect is between equals, and only between equals and only betwen the strong. The strong recognize their peers. This is the only reciprocity. The weak also recognize their peers, and pay each other no respect at all.
You don’t get respect by giving respect. You get respect by earning respect. Anyone who says otherwise is telling fairy tales.
If you give respect, do it to gain peace. If someone gives you respect, reward him with peace. That is what respect is for.
A dose of plain sense: fight the fights that come your way, without looking to start fights you don’t need. Fight to win, and only to win. Never lose a fight by forfeit, and never lose a fight by picking one you can’t win. If you don’t fight when there’s a fight you need to win, not only do you lose whatever was at stake, but you look weak and lose respect. This does not lead to peace. Pacifism simply does not work. If you fight without need, over something that you can easily manage without, you become the enemy and others will combine their strength against you. Wanton aggression is self defeating.
Another dose of plain sense: real civility is between people who have nothing to fight over, and who aren’t so stupid as to fight when there’s nothing at stake. Civility is not a thing in its own right; it is merely the absence of active conflict. Anything else going by the name of civility is either fake, stupid or both.
What, if anything, do the strong owe the weak? Don’t be a sadist or a bully. If they give you no disrespect, leave them in peace. If they offer you something of concrete value, give them something concrete in return. This is fundamental human decency.
And if they look to you to solve their problems… but that’s a topic for another day.