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.