Civic Humility

As I’ve written before, I am generally annoyed by the concept of the so-called “confidence gap” – or perhaps just annoyed by the common prescription. If you’re not familiar with the term, the confidence gap refers to a gendered divide in individual confidence levels. Or more precisely, the idea that women are less confident than men.

Various studies reinforce the existence of this phenomenon, indicating that – while of course there is a great deal of individual variation – women are generally socialized to believe that their voices and perspectives don’t matter. In an interesting correlation, this is probably because, for many women, it is continuously made clear to them that their voices and perspectives don’t matter.


Numerous programs aimed at increasing the confidence of these wayward women seek to address this problem.

In my mind, I imagine the advertisement: you too, can be an arrogant blowhard.

These efforts are well intentioned, no doubt, but I always have to greet them with a sigh.

First, the existence or non-existence of an individual’s confidence is mostly likely a complex interplay of a number features, among which gender is one. To the extent that it is a gendered phenomenon, it is related not only to the socialization of women, but to the socialization of men.

Rather than asking “how can we increase women’s confidence?” I’m more interested in the deeper question, “how can we ensure [all people’s]┬ávoices are actually heard?”

But more fundamentally, the idea of confidence just annoys me. I don’t want to be confident in the way many confidence gap enthusiasts talk about confidence. Sometimes I wish the confident person who doesn’t know what they’re talking about would just shut their mouth. I want it to be okay to not know an answer.

More importantly, I want it to be okay for people to make space for each other’s ideas.

In many deliberative settings there’s a concept of “step up/step back.” This expression captures both what one might call confidences as well as what I can only call civic humility.

If you haven’t added your voice and perspective you have a duty to do so. I’ve you’d added a lot of your voice and perspective, you have a duty to create space for others.

Civic humility, though, is more than simply stepping back from dominating the verbal space. It is the active mentoring and nurturing of the voices of those around you – creating space for them and actively seeking and valuing their participation.

I call this humility civic, because I see it as an intrinsically associated phenomenon. In the Good Society, people don’t just try to yell their ideas loudest, constantly preening for attention; they work together, co-creating something better than they could have developed through a mere aggregation of opinions.

Civic humility, I would argue, is needed beyond the scope of any current systemic injustice. In a perfectly egalitarian world, there will still be people who are faster to speak while others take time to process. There will always be power imbalances – between people of different ages, or people of different technical expertise.

The art of associated living is not only one of speaking up and making your voice heard, but it is fundamentally one of making space for the contributions of those around you.


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