Civility: Necessary or stifling?


President Trump mocking asylum seekers / Paul Sancya/AP/REX/Shutterstock

NPR has been broadcasting recently a series on civility, mostly centered on the increasing lack of civility evident in public/political life in the US. While there have been many calls for toning down belligerent and ultra-partisan speech, there are also concerns explored in the series that the advocacy of civility may be in essence an attempt to stifle minority voices.

The opening broadcast defines civility as the “baseline of respect” that we need to show one another, a kind of social contract not to step over certain lines in the ways we address others, particularly those with whom we disagree. Those lines of behavior represent unwritten, but presumably widely shared (within a culture) social norms. Many blame President Trump for breaking those norms and being largely responsible for the nastiness in the public debate in the US, with his wide use of disparaging names and nicknames for opponents. The name calling tends to create bitterness, hardening positions on each side and making it more difficult to reach consensus. Social media spreads vitriol quickly, and services like Twitter make it easy to make and spread inflammatory comments.

On the other hand, calls for civility can be seen as attempts to limit the public discourse on important issues, as a way to silence particular groups. Historically in the US incivility has been a charge leveled against those flighting inequality or injustice, as in the women’s suffrage movement of the early 20th-century or the civil rights protests of the 1960’s. The story cites Lynn Itagaki from the University of Missouri: “Civility has been about making sure that the status quo, the hierarchy of the status quo at the moment, which means racial inequality, gender inequality, class inequality, stays permanent.” To bring about social change, groups have found that it is necessary to demonstrate and disrupt, to be uncivil, in order to garner the public’s attention so as to have their arguments for change be listened to and acted on. The series gives as examples the ACT UP AIDS activists of the 1980’s or Colin Kaepernick inspired kneeling during the playing of the national anthem (to protest police violence against Blacks).

An interesting case study in the debate on civility is the Charlottesville City Council, just down the road from me here in Virginia. That’s the city in which the violent “Unite The Right Rally” was held in 2017. The local authorities were blamed for not doing enough to prevent the bloodshed. As a result, the meetings of the city council became free-for-all shouting matches. The mayor at the time tried to set ground rules for how long people could speak along with prohibitions on heckling, harassment or foul language. However, this was seen by some, especially African-Americans, as a means to exclude voices. Jalane Schmidt, a Charlottesville organizer for Black Lives Matter comments:  “Civility is actually used to shut down discussion. It is often a way to ‘tone police’ the folks that don’t have power and that don’t speak in four-syllable words.” The current major, a Black woman (Nikuyah Walker) has not enforced those rules of civility, allowing citizens to speak freely and at length. This has resulted in very long council meetings. According to Council member Wes Bellamy, there is now in the Council meetings a more inclusive view of civil discourse:

I could have a conversation with you and because my vernacular is not the same, and because a topic makes me more emotional and I’m more passionate about it, it doesn’t mean that I’m not being quote-unquote civil. It could just mean that when I was talking to you in a way that you may deem civil, you refused to listen to me.

The Charlottesville City Council may be an example of how messy and inefficient it may be to allow for a wide-ranging exchange of views. Democracy is often untidy and aggravating, but in the end it should still allow all voices to be heard. By the same token, I would argue that it is the responsibility of those in power to provide an example to others of helpful ways to define ones views and address disagreement. That means not belittling others and certainly not stooping so low as to mock those fleeing violence and injustice in their home countries, as unfortunately President Trump has done recently.

2 thoughts on “Civility: Necessary or stifling?

  1. A well-written insightful blogpost! Interesting how a different application of civility guidelines can promote a more inclusive view of civil discourse within the Council.

    Greetings from the Netherlands.

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