Against Civility

Donald Trump and his global populist counterparts, such as Farage in England, Orbán in Hungary, or Duterte in the Philippines, gain popularity through rhetoric ...

Donald Trump and his global populist counterparts, such as Farage in England, Orbán in Hungary, or Duterte in the Philippines, gain popularity through rhetoric that is divisive, potentially violent, and definitely prejudiced. In a word: uncivil. But can oppositional calls for civility give substance to political resistance? Can civility do more than offer a pallid endorsement of the status quo? Progressives certainly need anger. But should they also demand civility?

In the wake of the populist successes of the last year, we are often told—by both the right and left—that we need to show each other more respect and put our differences aside. Even Trump has joined the call. When the actors in the musical Hamilton stood onstage and called on Mike Pence to “uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us,” Trump famously tweeted: “The Theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man. Apologize!” The irony of Trump of all people—in response to such a dignified speech—calling for more decorum in public life was hard to miss. However, following an election season marked by talk of “nasty women,” “bad hombres,” and “deplorables,” laments for the “lost virtue of civility in politics” have been increasingly common across the political spectrum.1

In truth, there has probably never been a time when the decline of civility was not being bemoaned. In the face of division, civility appears to offer the nostalgic promise that we can all get along. For its proponents, therefore, civility offers much more than simple politeness. It does not simply smooth over the rough edges of everyday encounters; if public life is to be built on mutual respect, civility also contains the very condition of a democratic politics. A little civility, it would seem, can go a long way.

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.

Civility is never neutral, but can instead be central to violent and entrenched forms of domination.

Keith Bybee and Étienne Balibar, in two very different books, try to reclaim civility’s radical potential. Bybee’s How Civility Works is a short and elegant call for good manners in public conduct. Bybee is acutely aware of all the ambiguities and paradoxes associated with civility. As he puts it, civility is at once the foundation of public debate and a form of censorship, a way of reproducing hierarchy and a form of mutual respect, shot through with hypocrisy and yet part of a sincere commitment to live better lives. But for Bybee it is these tensions that make civility so important. Its very paradoxes explain civility’s appeal.

Bybee offers a minimalist definition of civility as a code of public conduct, a baseline of good manners that allows us to live together. In doing so, he makes two particularly important points. First, he rejects the argument that hypocrisy and inauthenticity are problems. In Bybee’s book, civility is a matter of individuals trying to get along for the sake of getting along, and communicating respect when doing so. Bybee recognizes that respect can be easily faked, but, as he has it: so what? If sometimes you have to bite your tongue, so be it. If occasionally we have to pretend to be slightly better people than we really are, that can only be a good thing. Fetishizing purity of intention ignores the ways in which we are often not sure ourselves why we do things, and can regret the things we say in the heat of the moment. If civility is another form of organized hypocrisy, there are worse charges against it.

Bybee’s second key point is that we should understand civility in its many different guises. Often the problem is not that we have too little civility. Instead, it’s that we have too many competing claims for civility and cannot agree on what counts as appropriate civil behavior to one another. Consensus on what counts as a common courtesy does not seem very common. Bybee argues, for example, that Black Lives Matter should be seen as an attempt to forge new, more radical forms of civility that reject the concerns with “respectability” marking an earlier generation of civil rights activists. Bybee’s point is not a relativist claim that one person’s civility is another person’s incivility. In a world of multiple civilities, he is deeply committed to what he sees as an egalitarian form of civility, which communicates mutual respect and equal consideration. In fact, the contest to define this form of civility is what produces its dynamism.

Bybee’s attractive arguments still leave many questions unanswered, or even unasked, as is inevitable in such a short book. His predominant concerns lie with norms of behavior and speech, and you might expect as much from a lawyer. For instance, his commitment to egalitarianism takes center stage, but the political and economic relationships that make egalitarianism possible receive little consideration. What forms of civility are possible, we might ask, in a US where 500,000 people sleep rough on any given night, where 21 percent of all children live in poverty, where the wealth of white households is 13 times the median wealth of black households, and where governments threaten millions with deportation?2

Civil Rights protesters at Woolworth’s Sit-In, Durham, NC, February 10, 1960. Photograph courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh, NC / Wikimedia Commons

There are few people who would not, other things being equal, prefer a life marked by mutual respect and restraint over one of discord, open hostility, and even violence. But the key question is: equal to what? Étienne Balibar’s Violence and Civility attempts to examine the politics that civility might itself bring to life. If Bybee’s civility is all about respect, Balibar’s vision hinges on struggle and dissent, implicitly recalling a longer tradition of the “civil” in “civil disobedience.” Indeed, Balibar goes so far as to argue that emancipation is only possible through his own radical forms of civility. Without such civility, political struggles will merely end up reproducing the oppression and cruelty to which they are opposed. As he writes, “unless a politics of civility is introduced into the heart of the politics of transformation, indications are that the latter will not by itself create the conditions for emancipation (but only those of another form of servitude).”

The bulk of this book started life as the 1996 Wellek Library Lectures at the University of California, Irvine, taking almost 20 years to appear in English. The book builds on ideas and problems that Balibar has long worked on, most notably in Politics and the Other Scene. In this particular iteration, Balibar starts with what he sees as the irreducible violence of modern life, and rejects the claim that violence can simply be eradicated. Violence is always with us. It is just a matter of looking in the right place. As Balibar has it, violence can be seen in episodes of bloodshed, but also in the gross inequalities of health and income with which we live every day. Crucially, for Balibar, the violence of xenophobic nationalism and global capitalism—or what he terms “cruelty”—is always in danger of closing down the possibility of genuine politics.

Balibar argues that civility—which he often refers to as “antiviolence”—has power to create a space where politics itself is possible. He contrasts his very particular reading of civility with what he calls nonviolence and counterviolence. Nonviolence denies violence; Balibar implies that pacifism, for example, naively ignores violence’s ubiquity. Counterviolence, on the other hand, is the attempt to oppose oppressive violence, most commonly seen in revolt and revolution. However, for Balibar violence cannot be converted to progressive ends; counterviolence therefore simply ends up reproducing the violence it seeks to overcome. Only in the antiviolence of civility can we discover the possibility for meaningful emancipation.

The “antiviolence” of civility carries its own dangers, though. The coalitions and identities upon which civility is built are fragile, at risk of fracturing or of turning into their own forms of exclusion. Importantly, for Balibar civility does not collapse difference into an asinine denial of the significance of identity politics. Instead, we are civil precisely because we are different, and a civil politics allows us to work toward common goals.

If occasionally we have to pretend to be slightly better people than we really are, that can only be a good thing. If civility is another form of organized hypocrisy, there are worse charges against it.

Balibar operates at the level of broad-brush analysis. Balibar’s account, like Bybee’s, leaves out the texture and content of emancipatory civility. He would say this is precisely the point. The subtitle of the book, after all, is On the Limits of Political Philosophy. Civility’s content, for Balibar, must emerge from particular contexts and circumstances. Emancipatory civility must constantly be reinvented.

We write this review from a postelection US and a post-Brexit United Kingdom. In both cases, electoral politics have amplified and legitimized public expressions of xenophobia and racism. It is tempting to feel that this might just be a blip, and that everything will “work itself out,” whatever that might mean. But a friend and colleague—who holds passports from the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia—says that they once thought the Balkans would pretty much hang together too. It is a sobering reminder, and one we need to do everything we can to prevent. Finding a space for the invention of new forms of civility seems essential.

For an earlier generation of civil rights and nonviolent activists, civility was itself a powerful weapon against discriminatory and authoritarian regimes. A line of thought running through the work of Richard Gregg and Martin Luther King Jr., among many others, implicitly argued that the moral power of restraint and dignified protest could bring about change. Many have since doubted the efficacy of such civil protests, particularly in the face of regimes that deny many of the central features of democratic life and promote values anathema to genuine mutual respect. If the power of civility derives, in part, on its ability to shame, then it would seem to have little purchase on those who seem unshamable.

However, it is important to distinguish between civility as a strategy aimed at authoritarian regimes, and civility as a strategy for building alliances of protest. As we begin to think through the implications of Brexit and the US elections, to channel our outrage in productive directions, people will need to start building new coalitions, and forging new solidarities in the face of potentially intense disagreements. A commitment to a creative, impassioned, and egalitarian civility will surely play an important part in this process. icon

  1. Michael Lander, “Michelle and George: The Embrace Seen Around the World,” New York Times, September 25, 2016.
  2.  Eric M. Johnson, “More than 500,000 Homeless in the United States: Report,” Reuters, November 19, 2015. “Child Poverty,” National Center for Children in Poverty, 2016. Rakesh Kochhar and Richard Fry, “Wealth Inequality Has Widened along Racial, Ethnic Lines since End of Great Depression,” Pew Research Center, December 12, 2014.
Featured image: MPs in the UK Youth Parliament debate in House of Commons Chamber, 2012. Photograph by Catherine Bebbington, parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament