Is Incivility a Form of "Dark Creativity"?

Dark creativity shines through modern-day rhetoric.

Posted Jun 19, 2020

In addition to rapid technological advancements and globalization, one of the most striking features of 21st-century human society is its increasing divisiveness. Whether it is a discussion about Oxford commas or about gun ownership rights, there seems to many to be a significant increase in impolite, threatening language across the board. 

Spenser/Unsplash
Source: Spenser/Unsplash

Often understood as rudeness, incivility as a speech act is far more entrenched in our daily vocabulary than we know. In fact, research suggests that most uncivil speech acts are influenced by the contemporary political climate. 

How does one engage in incivility? Apart from general rudeness, research has proposed specific identifiers. These include speech acts strategically uttered with the intention of misleading others; threatening language, directly attacking the opposition’s well being; language maligning the opposition on the basis of their racial/religious/sexual categories, and painting them as immoral individuals; and specific markers in social media posts like excessive use of capitalization, with an intention of inciting public fear. Through these categorizations, there is an important linguistic determination of how incivility rhetoric is communicated—how they’re saying what they’re saying. 

A feature specific to dark creativity is the use of deception in incivility. In a highly simplistic explanation, the truth about a topic has a single version whereas falsehoods about the same can stretch the imagination. Uncivil speech can do just that—it may employ creative latitude to generate ambiguous and spurious content that can be twisted to meet the messenger’s goals.

Moreover, deception can be employed using commission (communicating a lie) and omission (withholding the truth). Consider the instance of a public leader who gives a hateful speech directed to a specific community and only hints at their supposed misdoings. The purposeful gaps in knowledge coupled with other uncivil strategies can lead to dire consequences. 

Patrizia08/Pixabay
Source: Patrizia08/Pixabay

Consider the U.S. Senate or the Indian Parliament. When asked to think of an incident in these institutions, you’re probably going to imagine rude interruptions from the opposition, targeted towards those stating their arguments on the floor. However, uncivil speech acts are slightly more intricate than these plainly observable, "unacceptable" behaviors. In fact, strategically produced speech acts containing personal attacks (accusations of spreading lies or of being an "extremist") leads to what researchers call, the creation of an “appetite” of incivility in the political domain. It's the legitimization of a universal understanding—politics is a dirty game.

Does this appetite for incivility exist only behind the Senate doors? Absolutely not. Recent evidence argues that uncivil speech acts have moved from these elite spaces, trickling down into the general public. Continuous exposure to political incivility has ballooned this appetite, resulting in the establishment of anti-deliberative attitudes.

In such cases, one approaches opposing arguments with anger, threatening confrontation, blaming and quarreling, and shattering avenues for open discussion. Intriguingly, despite the manifestations of incivility being of a close-minded nature, the ability of such individuals to generate unfounded reasoning for communicating discontent continue to be creative. This is paradoxical behavior, in that uncivil speech and speakers tend to operate within echo chambers, but are nonetheless able to generate discord in novel ways on new topics therein. 

Once amongst the larger public, one of the most essential spaces that incivility was bound to occupy was social media. The sense of security promised by being behind our screens ensured the continuation of anti-deliberative attitudes fueled by uncivil speech acts. Thus, in an individual versus individual scenario, the type of language used is stereotypically threatening to personal freedoms.

Due to this, incivility further broadens the continual us (in-group) versus them (out-group) divide in attitude and beliefs. So when a popular political figure slanders a group by calling them "thugs," the uncivil language widens the gap on the basis of the particular out-group. This in turn reaffirms myths based in a deeply divided society. Furthermore, exposure to uncivil discussions by media houses or on conversational platforms on the internet, have reinforced the rhetoric controlled by the top 1 percent. 

Kevin Schneider/Pixabay
Source: Kevin Schneider/Pixabay

From the perspective of dark creativity, the incivility rhetoric has become modern-day ammunition—deployed through new-age channels like social media. Its dissemination is instantaneous as are the reactions to it. Think about the last time when you came across an article or interview that got you riled up, especially because of what was being said. Think about the number of exclamation marks used (!) Weaponizing speech in this manner is nothing short of an ingenious way to grab attention through discourse that is meant to instigate and divide. In most cases, such incivility is used purposely to polarize opinions about the other group (whoever they may be). 

Although being rude is not novel, the ways and means in which we are communicating this rudeness are paradoxically original and repetitive at the same time. In times of incivility, we can only hope to realize that harm communicated by a mere tweet is harm nonetheless.

This post was written with Yarshna Sharma, a research assistant at the Department of Psychology, Monk Prayogshala. You can get in touch with her here