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Against civility


At Public Books, Tobias Kelly and Sharika Thiranagama review two books that try to outline a radical form of civility: How Civility Works by Keith J. Bybee and Violence and Civility: On the Limits of Political Philosophy by Étienne Balibar. Pointing out that calls for “civility,” which we hear almost daily in our present moment of political acrimony, are often intended to merely uphold the status quo, Kelly and Thiranagama find in these books a kind of civility that can serve opposition politics. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

Yet at this of all times, asking for civility seems to miss the point. Calls for civility can be staid and conservative, perhaps even reactionary and acquiescent. What the supporters of right-wing populists deserve is not respect, but confrontation. Being civil when facing gross injustice appears simply hypocritical and inauthentic. Advocating civility can place etiquette and manners above equality and justice, and the call for us all to “get along” risks glossing over serious and important political divisions. In a world of civility, we must wear a mask, hiding our anger from view. Given Trump’s victory, and the xenophobia unleashed by Brexit, for example, we should not be restrained at bigotry and prejudice, but openly and defiantly outraged.

Civility can be deeply enmeshed in forms of exclusion. What counts as civil behavior has historically favored white, bourgeois, male, and heterosexual ways of being in the world. This is not something we need more of right now. Civility is never neutral, but can instead be central to violent and entrenched forms of domination. What can appear as an equable form of respect to some can be threatening to others. When a police officer, for example, stops a car and calls the driver “Sir,” that most polite form of address can either signal a mutual intimacy, or a semi-ironic gesture toward the potential of violence. Long histories of class- and race-based inequality determine the resonance of even seemingly civil utterances.

Still, we should not reject civility entirely. It important to remember the ways in which incivility matters too. People like Trump are not afraid of hurting others’ feelings—and have no hesitation in calling immigrants criminals, Muslims violent, and women ugly. Indeed, that is a large part of their attraction to many supporters. But for those subjected to such disrespect, civility can have its virtues. Outside of the most belligerent forms of populist politics, inequality is experienced and perpetuated by microaggressions: casual denigrations, verbal insults, subtle snubs, and insensitivity. Such incivilities can also serve as the background to more violent acts. Shootings by police officers, for example, do not take place in a vacuum, but are often prefigured by harassment and disrespect. Before we jettison civility entirely, it is important to remember that the burdens of incivility are unequally distributed.

Image: Civil Rights protesters at Woolworth’s Sit-In, Durham, NC, February 10, 1960. Via Public Books.


“What the supporters of right-wing populists deserve is not respect, but confrontation.”

— On the surface of it, this understands neither respect nor confrontation. Everyone deserves respect. That’s a moral principle. And confrontation demands respect to be actual confrontation – facing-with. If we face someone without respect, we are not actually facing them.


I don’t get the point of what your saying. Maybe you should have quoted the first, not the third sentence of this excerpt.


Hi Mladen,

I mean that the article quoted doesn’t appear to have a moral concept of respect or confrontation and is – on that ground – unconvincing to me. Everyone deserves respect, whatever their politics. This is because respect is to the person not the position. To confront someone who has a hateful position thus involves respecting them always. The question, then, is how to confront in a way that shows respect for persons.


I haven’t had time to read the full article, yet. But its premise is that holding on to respect in the context of opposing oppressive, violent threats is misguided, isn’t it? So it’s only logical if it doesn’t develop a concept of respect, when it sets out to object it (at least hypocritical forms of it). Not granting someone respect does not mean to lower yourself to inhumanity. Confrontation does not mean violence or a lack of adequacy of means. On the other hand the text shows that its not outright against civilty, from my point of view (see 3rd paragraph in this excerpt).

Maybe confrontation starts as confronting yourself, reminding yourself to not dodge pressure, to not say sorry too often and to not be nice to people who (clearly) don’t care about returning the favor, and also to try to speak out in public to repel people who otherwise stir public perception into an abyss.


Hi Mladen,

In my judgment, the article uses sloppy concepts. I’m trained as a moral philosopher, so I pay attention to concepts a lot. On a most charitable reading, the article could be using the concept of respect to mean what Stephen Darwall suggested is esteem or admiration respect. This is the kind of respect we show when we think that someone’s position or deeds are awesome. But it is contrasted with moral respect, which is the kind of respect we must show everyone simply because they are human. Richard Sennett, long before Darwall, suggested a third kind of respect – close to the esteem based one, because it is contingent: this is respect we show someone as deference to their authority. Here, the person’s deeds or beliefs aren’t awesome, the person’s role is authoritative. But this respect is not moral respect.

In the context of democratic politics, arguing about civility, neither respect as esteem nor respect as deference to authority make any sense. They are selective, contingent forms of respect that could never function as a setting for public reason and respect between equals. Only moral respect can do that.

But the article eschews a moral concept of respect by making respect contingent on a position and severing its connection to persons. Hence my criticism. The article is confused about respect and is for that reason not at all convincing.

Right now, people are outraged and really scared. I am outraged too. So people cast about trying to find ways to rationalize reactive attitudes and behavior. This is wrong. My outrage and fear do not justify my being reactive to the point of withholding basic moral respect for another human being. My job is to be decent and to stay critical precisely by not losing sight of what ought to be. My job is to respect the person as I confront their position. That is civility.

What you say about self-confrontation seems right to me – as a comment about form. The least we owe others and ourselves is to be accountable to ourselves before we become reactive with others. But I disagree with the denigration of kindness. It’s very popular these days for people to say that being polite, kind, or nice is either stupid or even immoral. When these comments are made, I think that they do not use genuine concepts of politeness, kindness, or niceness. I turn to writers and artists to see what these really look like.

Politeness implies remembering that we are all sharing the city – the polis- together. That’s all. But that’s a lot. I means acting in a way that shares the city. This seems right to me. For one, it provides a principled form of confrontation: if someone I meet is acting in a way that does not share the city, out of politeness, I should confront them with their lack of equity. So it would be truly polite of me to talk to a snob or a racist and to tell them that their views have no place in a democracy.

Kindness implies remembering that we are all vulnerably human. That’s a lot. The logical extension of kindness is conscience of human rights or of human capabilities. It also implies a relational ethics of compassion. Is compassion avoidance or in some way objectionable? Absolutely not. It’s a condition of sharing the world with others. Without compassion, we can’t put ourselves in another’s place and care about the life they have to live from their standpoint. And if we can’t do that, we can’t share the world equally. Once again, kindness seems a requisite of being democratic.

Lastly, niceness. If any concept seems out of place in the context of White Supremacy, it is niceness. I’m quite sympathetic to what you say. But I don’t want to give the Man ownership of a word that I identify with people I love and some of the best interactions among people, including children and the elderly. The word “nice” can mean pleasant or agreeable, but it can also mean fine and subtle. It derives from the Latin and connotes a form of unknowing. I take this to be significant. Truly nice people display a particularly moral form of ignorance. They ignore all the reasons we might have in life to kick back against the world and each other. Rather, they choose to ignore these and to be social.

But when I think of it like that, niceness seems pretty important now. We should be remembering how to be social.

And let’s use a little psychology. People who are fueled by reactive and inegalitarian thinking are frequently dealing – poorly – with real insecurity as a person. Actually, it is niceness that they need, even if they don’t want it. They need their brains to be shifted down a state and to see that the world isn’t an insecure war of forces. Once again, niceness seems not only nice but crucial.

Thank you very much for challenging me to state these things.



Thanks for your reply. It’s something I have to take time and think about!