Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, September 12, 2014

a civil tongue

A sudden consensus seems to be emerging among a subset of current-event commentators: there are big problems with with term "civility." Here's the claim, summed up:


(NB: see important clarifications/corrections from Pat Blanchfield in the comments below.)

Likewise, Elizabeth Stoker Breunig writes of the “cult” of civility, of its “peculiar tyranny.” Freddie deBoer agrees, and goes a step further: “Civility is the discourse of power…. That’s what civility is, in real life: the powerful telling us that we must speak to them with deference and respect, while they are under no similar responsibility to us.”

I think these complaints are immensely counterproductive. Does the term “civility” get misused? Of course it does — just like every other term celebrating a virtue or an achievement. But it’s sloppy and thoughtless to allow criticism of a term’s abuse to slide into dismissal of the term itself. What words have been more abused than “justice” and “peace” and “charity”? Yet it would be madness to stop using those words because of the ways that bad people have sought to deploy them. They must be rescued and redeployed. The same is true, I think, of “civility”, of which, surely, there is not enough in this fetid swamp of abusive language everyone on social media at least dips a toe into every day.

So, to Freddie I would say that if the powerful demand a civility from the powerless that they are not willing to offer in turn — a claim that I agree with whole-heartedly — then the problem is not that the powerful invoke civility as a virtue but that they are rankly hypocritical, acting in a way totally at odds with their rhetoric. The critique should focus on that hypocrisy; such a critique is not aided by the abandonment of the ideal of civil discourse.

Making a rather different argument, Bruenig writes, “We should all want to be the kind of person who is charitable, merciful, quick to forgive and quick to ask forgiveness; these are all better virtues than ‘civility’ anyway, which is by its own admission little more than a veneer of these genuine virtues.” Well, sure! But the lesson Bruenig draws from this point is the opposite of the one that should be drawn. It is precisely because civility is a lesser virtue that we should be at pains to cultivate it. It is precisely because charity and mercy and forgiveness are so hard that we build a bridge to them by the lesser virtue of civility. I may not be able yet to love my enemies as I should, but if I can practice civility towards them that’s a step in the right direction. If that’s a “cult,” it’s one I want to belong to. A world in which the language we use towards others does not aspire to something nobler than we feel at the moment — well, again, that’s the world of most social media. And it’s not a healthy one.

Nor is civility of discourse incompatible with speaking truth to power. Indeed it may be necessary if one would speak that truth in a way that it can be heard. Consider, as a paradigmatic example of what I mean, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” It’s hard to imagine anything more civil. It’s also hard to imagine anything more devastating. King held himself to a strict standard of civility because setting that standard aside would have reduced the likelihood of his people entering their promised land.

It may well be true that some nasty and ill-intentioned people have tried to co-opt the language of civility. For heaven’s sake let’s not help them do so. Instead, let’s take it back.

9 comments:

  • I noticed your shout-out to me in your blog post (I'm Pat Blanchfield). For the record, I feel like some context might've been helpful. Specifically, the episode I was talking about was a meeting between a group of students, professors, and administrators that occurred in response to a series of program cuts at my university, Emory, and followed months of public protest, countless critical editorials, letter delivery delegations, faculty debates, and more. All of which fell on deaf ears. In fact, photos of student protestors were cropped by the administration such that the signage they were holding was removed, and those photos were then used in university PR materials as supposedly depicting a university-organized "open discussion." Anyway, after months of controversy, students and faculty allies ultimately occupied the President's office and, after several hours, extracted a promise for open, "civil" negotiations over the program cuts. The protestors then took a democratic vote and withdrew. The next week, a delegation of students and faculty arrived for the negotiation, only to find the campus in total lockdown and covered with armed guards, both in uniform and not. In fact, on the way to the conference room, I was startled by a man in plainclothes hiding in an alcove by the Dean's office with a pistol on his hip and a Secret-Service style radio in his ear. When we asked administrators why the guards were there, we were told it was not to intimidate us - of course not! - but because they wanted to make we didn't occupy the conference room again. In other words, to keep things "civil." Which is all to say: we showed up ready for civil dialogue, carrying clipboards and a list of questions, and were instead met by a bunch of guys carrying pistols in tactical gear. Again, by this point, we'd written dozens of editorials, press releases,given interviews, and more, criticizing the policies in dispute. We'd critiqued administration hypocrisy forwards, backwards, and upside-down, documenting everything, and with utmost politeness. I'm not sure, in fact, how we possibly could have been more civil. But instead of honest dialogue, we got ambushed by a squad of guys with Glocks, and a bunch of administrators telling us that our desire to publicly record our conversation and enter their space for dialogue was an act of intimidation - to them.

  • So the point is *not* that I was advocating the abandonment of civility, whatever that might mean. Nor still am I critiquing the abandonment of civility in the world of "social media." I'm talking about encounters between actual human beings in the real, physical world, where the folks most often asking for civility, at least in my experience, also have all the time in the world to play rope-a-dope, stonewall, cut off your mic, or casually threaten to fire you, and just in case also happen to have people with guns standing behind them to threaten you with arrest. Hence why I find your invocation of MLK so odd, especially since it's not, as you incorrectly write, entitled a "Letter TO the Birmingham Jail" -- it's a letter FROM it. Which, I think, as a parapraxis, speaks volumes. Because MLK's letter isn't a strongly written note he penned to an oppressive institution - it's a condemnation of injustice he wrote while actually being imprisoned for physically opposing one. In other words, for engaging in civil disobedience, where the emphasis is on the disobedience, and the "civil" modifying it doesn't mean "politely worded critique." Which is all to say: it's not the case that "some nasty and ill-intentioned people have tried to co-opt the language of civility" - it's to say that powerful people who already dominate the space of discourse systematically use every lever they can - from the actual police to bureaucratese policies that effectively police language to rig the game in their favor, intimidate opponents into silence, and get their way. Observing this isn't "helping them out" - just the opposite, it's simply being real.

  • Mr Blanchfield, My apologies for including your tweet in a group of responses it should be distinguished from. It came across my Twitter feed in quick succession with the blog posts I respond to, so I included it as part of this recent trend. This seems to have led you to think I was talking to or about you when I was actually responding (as I think a closer look at the text above will show) to deBoer and Bruenig. So while I think you’re misreading me, I made it easy for you to do so by carelessness. Again, my apologies.

    But as for my mistyping “to” for “from” — you really think that “speaks volumes”? (I corrected that, along with several other errors, just a few minutes after the post went up.) As Freud almost said, sometimes a typo is just a typo. And if you think I didn’t know the actual title of the “Letter,” let me Google that for you.

  • > I was actually responding (as I think a closer look at the text above will show) to deBoer and Bruenig

    I don’t know, Alan. The deBoer quote you responded to seems entirely in line with what Mr. Blanchfield has outlined in his comments here. In sum: powerful people/groups frequently frame demands for docility as pleas for civility.

    This isn’t mere hypocrisy. It’s a strategy that works to shift attention away from the issue at hand to the behavior of the complainants. The problem isn’t civility per se, it’s who gets to define the term. If defenders of an unjust/domineering status quo are doing the defining, it’s sometimes best to reject the term altogether, because you just can’t win: no matter how exemplary your behavior, so long as it expresses dissent it’ll be cast as “uncivil”. To reject civility defined in this way is to reject the tactics of euphemism and distraction, which isn’t the same thing as rejecting integrity, grace, courtesy, etc.

  • The deBoer quote you responded to seems entirely in line with what Mr. Blanchfield has outlined in his comments here.

    Agreed completely.

    In sum: powerful people/groups frequently frame demands for docility as pleas for civility.

    Agreed completely.

    This isn’t mere hypocrisy. It’s a strategy that works to shift attention away from the issue at hand to the behavior of the complainants.

    Yes, though that’s what hypocrisy is for in this case.

    The problem isn’t civility per se, it’s who gets to define the term.

    Agreed completely.

    If defenders of an unjust/domineering status quo are doing the defining, it’s sometimes best to reject the term altogether, because you just can’t win: no matter how exemplary your behavior, so long as it expresses dissent it’ll be cast as “uncivil”.

    Disagree completely and strenuously, precisely because you’re right on the other points. If the powerful want to deploy good and useful terms against the powerless, it’s absolute madness to say to them “Sure, go ahead.” Language is one of the few weapons the powerless have. To cede to manipulative people all the good words they want is suicidal. As I have already said, if you’re going to give them “civility,” on what grounds are you going to protest when they want, as they will, peace, justice, and charity? As Orwell taught us long ago, these abuses of language need to be contested at every point.

  • I hear what you’re saying. Maybe my objection is to having the conversation at all -- like if you were beating me with a stick, and the surrounding debate focused on whether or not I was absorbing the blows with sufficient dignity.

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  • mk, I think the problem with that formulation is that given human self-centeredness, everyone in one way or another, at one time or another, feels unfairly beaten. How can we be sure we've taken the logs out of our eyes to clearly judge whether or not we're being mistreated? In any case, two wrongs - even if the small wrong is in reaction to a big one - really don't make a right. But right reactions, as King and Gandhi knew, change hearts and change minds.

  • Ken, that’s true enough in certain respects, but in the context of the power dynamics we’ve been discussing, injustice is not mysterious, or conjured by psychology. It really is possible to understand who is wielding the stick, and who is taking the beating.

    This isn’t always so, I agree, at our jobs and in our marriages (etc.), and in those cases I am fully on board with civility. Anything that slows the drift away from humility and self-reflection is OK by me. But if we’re talking about abuse of power, discrimination, violence, and so on, I’m not interested in taking a sidebar to fret over the (quote unquote) incivility of the people at the suffering end of that equation.

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