The Importance of Being Uncivil

Some years ago when the top administrator at my university passed me in a hallway and, smiling, said hello, I replied, “Don’t expect civility from me.”

My breach of academic decorum was as startling to me in that moment as it was to the colleagues who witnessed it. But even more startling was that I was expected to bid this administrator — whose financial scandals and excesses were paid for with staff layoffs and the cancellation of retiree health care — a good morning.

It’s no surprise, then, that I cheered the staff of the Red Hen restaurant in Virginia for refusing White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders a place at their tables. I likewise applauded the protesters whose chants of “If kids don’t eat in peace, you don’t eat in peace” drove Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen from a high-end Mexican restaurant.

Amid the horrors of a president and his very own Aunt Lydias caging children and jailing their parents, I also find hope in resistance-defending op-eds like Sarah Leonard’s “Against Civility: You Can’t Fight Injustice with Decorum” and Gary Younge’s “Donald Trump’s Enforcers Have Lost the Right to Civil Courtesy” that crack open the threat to democracy posed by the elevation of manners over justice.

It’s high time we took W.H. Auden’s upside-down adage “If you would civil your land, first civil your speech,” and put it back on its feet: No civility in our speech so long as the incivilities of internment camps, travel bans, police murder and more rule our land.

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Here, though, I also want to probe just why it is that wherever there is resistance to social injustice, civility enforcement clicks into top gear — and does so not only to prescribe politeness and restraint, but to change the subject altogether.

Consider: When the U.S. Congress passed its 1836 gag rule, banning any debate of slavery and abolition on the House and Senate floors, its proponents attempted to redefine the fundamental…

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