We don’t need experts to teach us how to be civil

A new report calls on officialdom to ‘nudge’ the masses towards civilised behaviour. It isn’t only a patronising idea, but a dangerous one.

It appears that some sections of the British establishment are suffering from selective amnesia in relation to the riots in England in August. The rioting is now treated like an embarrassing episode that one should not discuss in good company.

In such circumstances, anything that reminds us of the truth that these riots were not an aberrant moment in an otherwise civic society, but rather spoke to some profound underlying social problems, is welcome. A new report published by the Young Foundation, titled Charm Offensive: Cultivating Civility in 21st Century Britain, grapples with the question of how to tackle the feeble levels of civility in English communities today.

The report successfully establishes one crucial point that is often overlooked in debates about community life and anti-social behaviour: it notes that civility should not be confused with other forms of behaviour related to public activities and formal institutions. Rather, civility is a taken-for-granted form of behaviour, through which people express their own and recognise other people’s humanity. As the report notes, civility ‘can, as an unspoken language for interaction, provide the basis for achieving a “good society”, through an emphasis on qualities such as respect, empathy and compassion’.

So civility is very much a pre-political accomplishment; it flourishes in the pre-political areas of people’s lives – in their everyday conversations and interactions. Today, as in the past, civility becomes tangible through social engagement, through taken-for-granted behaviours and the rituals of everyday life.

How civility works, and how it mediates human interaction, is influenced by both social factors and cultural ones. Unfortunately, however, contemporary political thought and policymaking has lost confidence in its ability to engage with social and cultural issues. Instead, it prefers to focus policy on the alleged moral deficits of the individual, and it is more interested in discovering new techniques to manage behaviour than it is in addressing social problems. The clearest expression of this trend is policymakers’ promiscuous use and abuse of brain research, where people’s alleged mental failings become the all-purpose explanation for every social ill, from poor educational attainment to a disposition towards criminal behaviour.

Sadly, Charm Offensive also falls under the spell of this brain-obsessed outlook. It informs us that civil behaviour makes people happy. How do we know this? Apparently, MRI scans have shown that civil actions stimulate the same areas of the brain that are stimulated by experiences such as falling in love or holding a baby. So what we need in order to sort out today’s crisis of civility is a bit of ‘neurological reflexivity’.

The relentless politicisation of neuroscience reveals how influential technocratic and therapeutic policymaking has become. In the outlook of the brain obsessives, social and cultural analysis serves a perfunctory role only, providing a pretext for intervention into the pre-political or informal areas of community life. Having correctly identified civility as something that exists in a pre-political zone, Charm Offensive goes on to call for technocratic intervention into this domain of social experience. By presenting incivility as an individual problem, and by hiding behind advocacy science, the report proposes the politicisation of pre-political areas of life.

The report suggests changing individual behaviour through pedagogic and expert interventions. So, having identified lack of empathy for others as a key marker for incivility, the report’s authors suggest we should teach people how to be empathetic. They call for ‘empathy training’ in schools and in other institutions. In short, the report disassociates personal qualities and forms of behaviour from any wider moral and social context and instead treats them as technical skills that can be taught by trainers. It also reduces the virtue of reciprocity and reciprocal behaviour to a ‘skill’, which can be cultivated by external experts.

It is not surprising that when being civil is looked upon as little more than a skill one can acquire through training, the cultivation of civility comes to be seen as an act of self-interested manipulation. ‘Civility seems to thrive better when it is embedded from the outset as an integral and explicit element of any strategy or new venture’, says Charm Offensive.

The strategic planning and manipulation of behaviour promoted by Charm Offensive are very similar to the Lib-Con government’s policy of nudging. The doctrine of nudge is devoted to remoulding the way people think and act through behaviour modification. Nudging is presented as a benevolent attempt to help people realise what is in their best interests. So Charm Offensive also advocates what the nudge lobby calls ‘choice architecture’, which ‘may help us to make better choices and behave more consistently with our beliefs and aspirations’. In relation to the problem of incivility, the report proposes the adoption of the kind of techniques usually associated with the promotion of government-sanctioned healthy lifestyles. It states: ‘[the] behavioural-change approaches currently being applied to reduce obesity or increase recycling could be applied far more systematically in the promotion of civility.’

As is the case with all forms of paternalistic intervention into our lives, the solution is to ‘send in the experts’. Apparently it is the experts who know how to nudge people to do what is in their best interests. It is experts who can apparently teach otherwise morally illiterate people about the value of empathising with others. And it is experts – with the help of behavioural economics, neuroscience and evolutionary psychology – who can become the architects of civility. This is why the authors of Charm Offensive complain that ‘very little investment’ in expertise has gone into the field of tackling incivility.

The casual manner in which behaviour-management is put forward as the solution to problems in community life reveals a serious loss of focus in modern policymaking. To make matters worse, the advocates of nudging delude themselves into thinking that what they offer is a benevolent alternative to old, more intrusive forms of state intervention. The authors of Charm Offensive contrast their ‘softer, bottom-up interventions’ with old-style ‘punitive top-down policies’. But what is ‘bottom-up’ about campaigns that are drawn up and initiated by experts who work at think tanks and research institutions? What is bottom-up about advocating training programmes in ‘effective empathy’?

It could be argued that one reason English communities have problems of incivility is because so much of their informal life has come under the scrutiny of official and semi-official institutions. If civility is indeed an accomplishment of pre-political interaction, then all this intervention into everyday relations and interactions can only disrupt the process through which people work out what forms of behaviour are appropriate to their circumstances. The attempt to regulate the informal sphere has a very destructive impact, as strikingly exposed by the confusions that surround intergenerational relations. One of the principal legacies of policies designed to protect children from their parents and other adults has been the erosion of adult solidarity. Many modern forms of incivility are the direct outcome of the reluctance of adults to contain the behaviour of children – and more nudge-like intervention into community life can only make this bad situation even worse.

Whatever the problems confronting communities today, the answers will not be found through displacing political deliberation with technocratic policymaking. The very fact that, just a few months after the riots, there is an absence of serious debate on the fundamental questions raised by this violent event should be the very first issue to be confronted and interrogated. Avoiding the big questions by treating incivility as a problem that could be put right through training individuals in neurological reflexivity represents a naive belief in the power of the expert to fix communities. Surely decades of failed community programmes indicate that a hands-off approach would be far better and is long overdue.

Frank Furedi’s latest book On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) He will be speaking in the debate Has tolerance gone too far? at the Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 30 October.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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