Civility is not the same as affect

Having a civil conversation is about mutual listening and mutual respect.

Sometimes that gets conflated with affect — people act like the defining feature of respectful conversation is things like the position of your body, the volume of your voice, and whether you’re using polite words.

Sometimes things like that can be involved in what makes a conversation respectful, but they don’t define it.

The rules of politeness allow people to be dismissive and cruel. Similarly, it is possible to have a mutually respectful conversation that violates the rules of politeness.

For instance, it is often possible to have a mutually respectful conversation with raised voices and cuss words. It is also often possible to use a lot of I-statements and gentle-sounding language to have a conversation that is fundamentally disrespectful and cruel.

Conflating affect with respect ends up drowning out a lot of voices, and privileging people who are good at manipulating the rules of politeness.

(Affect matters, and it’s ok if some kinds of affect are dealbreaking for you in terms of your ability to have conversations with someone. I’m not saying that everything should be acceptable to everyone. All I’m saying is that affecting politeness is not the same as treating someone respectfully.)

Short version: Body language, tone of voice, and affect can be part of what makes a conversation civil and mutually respectful, but they don’t define it.

When you have mixed feelings about an abusive relationship

Content warning: this post probably uses language that gets used against abuse victims. I’m trying to avoid that, but I don’t think I’ve entirely succeeded, and some of these words might be triggering. Proceed with caution.

So, here’s the thing.

People are complicated, and relationships are even more complicated. Abuse victims are often pressured to pretend that things are simple. They’re pressured to believe that if there was any positive aspect whatsoever to an abusive relationship, then it wasn’t really as abusive as they think it was.

But it doesn’t work that way. People aren’t averaged. People can do some really good things, and some abusive things. They don’t cancel each other out. They coexist. Whatever else happened, the abuse was real, and you’re right not to tolerate it.

Sometimes… sometimes your abuser is also the person who taught you your favorite recipe.

Or something fundamental about how you understand the world.

Or a major skill you now use professionally.

Or maybe they gave you a lot of valuable criticism that made your art better.

Or maybe they supported you materially when you were in real trouble.

Or any number of other things.


…none of that makes the abuse ok. None of that is mitigating in any way. It doesn’t cancel anything out. Sometimes people talk like the abusive interactions and the good ones get put in a blender or something, and like some sort of theoretical blended average is what really counts. That’s not how it works. It’s the actual interactions that count, not some theoretical average. The abuse is real, and significant, no matter what else happened.

It doesn’t have to be one or the other. If some things about an abusive relationship were positive, it’s ok to acknowledge and value them.

And you can still refuse to ever have anything to do with your abuser ever again. You can still be angry. You can still hate them. You can still decide never to forgive them. You can still warn people against them. None of these things are mutually exclusive.

And, most importantly, valuing some aspects of the relationship or having some positive memories does not in *any way* mean the abuse was your fault.