I’ve seen it in environmentalist spaces, I see it every day on social media, I hear about it in the news as genteel talking heads croon with calm authority; we mourn the loss of civility in Western civility. However, now that it’s so often a topic of public consternation, I encourage a critical discussion about the idea. What is civility and who or what does it serve? Civility is rooted in the notion of civilization and civilized culture, both historically used to uphold Western colonialism. Civilized culture is coded to mean white, wealthy, and elite, even today.
Civility is undeniably useful in some regards. We talk in turn, avoid rude comments, and speak in an even tone. However, these are mostly descriptions of the tone of discourse, not content. White slave owners of the American south were families “of breeding” who spoke with the civil eloquence of their age despite committing one of the worst human atrocities in history. Transphobes can speak calmly and logically about how they believe there are only two genders. The utility of civility comes into question when one can actively advocate for the harm of others in the context of civilized society. One’s values show the makeup of one’s character much more clearly than how they are expressed.
Furthermore, critiquing the way something is spoken is a useful way to avoid discussing the content of their point. Those who can “play the part” of civility, educated, white, and wealthy patricians, are taken more seriously and therefore be heard more clearly, drowning out the cries of the disadvantaged. It is one of the many cultural phenomena that reinforce the hegemony of white supremacy through culture, resisting the truth that language is fluid, and insisting that the “Queen’s English,” or how wealthy white people speak, is the best and in fact the proper way to conduct discourse. Furthermore, those who are oppressed must necessarily resort to civil disobedience and other forms of general incivility to make an impact. If you’re stuck in a trap, you’ll cry and grunt struggling to break free. Pearl clutching about civility and tone-policing are tools of the privileged because one should not and cannot be civil when confronting those who willingly harm disadvantaged groups or the planet.
There is a difference between being civil and caring about the wellbeing of others. Many rightwing thinkers civilly misgender trans people while speaking in a civil way. They can calmly correct those upset by the treatment of children and infants seeking asylum in the US that while they are kept in camps, “concentration” camps is rhetorically unfit. One can be dismissive of suffering with the panache of a victorian gentleman. Rather than be civil, we must demand, sometimes crudely and loudly, that the rights of femmes, BIPOC, immigrants, workers, and trans people be acknowledged. Name calling and complicitness in systematic oppression are completely different magnitudes on the moral depravity scale. One cannot police emotional outbursts as the same as ideological preference towards destruction and suffering like climate denialism or anti-immigrant sentiment.
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Civility isn’t the answer to the woes of identitarian politics and the rise of global fascism. Civility won’t stop them, and yearning for civility is a misdirection from the problem.
Recently, Joe Biden, former Vice President and 2020 presidential candidate, bemoaned the lack of civility in modern politics while reminiscing fondly about working with known white supremacitst and segrationalists James Eastland and Herman Talmadge in congress. He, like many older American politicians, points to Trump and Trumpism for a lack of civility. They believe that it is this in civil rhetoric, not dangerous ethno-nationalist reactive populist ideology, that set American politics awry. While Trump is the epitome of incivility, calling his administration “rude” or “incivil” would be like calling climate change a mild inconvenience. It’s the policies and ideology they represent that is most dangerous, and that’s been around for a long time. Biden would know, he happily worked some of the architects of today’s white identity politics.
Civility sidesteps confrontations of dangerous ideologies and conflict in general. That’s why the concept at its core represents the status quo and of centrism. But empathy, that’s a more revolutionary concept. Empathy is among the first steps of learning to care about the suffering of others. If you can step outside yourself to imagine the lives of the disadvantaged, you can consider the way the world works, who wins, who loses, and who benefits. You might even be outraged that migrant children are being murdered by the U.S. government or that around the world, governments are rolling back environmental protections when they should be doing the opposite. I also have to acknowledge my own privilege as a white cis woman writing this, as black femmes are often culturally coded as angry or aggressive and are dismissed much more quickly because of it. Their existence is perceived as incivil. So, fuck civility. Fuck white supremacists, fuck politicians who would speak well of them, and fuck anyone who would rather talk about f-bombs than drones, rising voices than rising temperatures.
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