A Civil Silence

“Civility” ought to be a dirty word.

There’s a lot to be said in its favor.  An overwhelming majority of human interactions are easier, safer, and/or more effective when both parties, explicitly or through social convention, agree to be civil.  This commitment is why not every instance of people bumping into each other on trains ends in a fistfight, and it’s the baseline that undergirds conversations between unfamiliar people in any space.

Some interactions need to end in fistfights.

It’s a sublimely trivial task to be perfectly “civil” while disgorging a rich tapestry of bile, saying and doing things that are deeply insulting, othering, and dehumanizing.  One does not have to result to insults, name-calling, or even emotionally charged language at all to declare that women are innately irrational creatures or that gay people are a threat to the “integrity of the family.”  Verbosity is often a friend to the bigot here, enabling them to hide their hate in between a lot of exceptionally polite caveats such as “In my opinion,” “it could be argued,” and, most heinously, “I’m just asking questions.”  Or one could argue in bad faith, backtracking to “devil’s advocate” posturing when one is challenged.  Standard calls for civility do not, all by themselves, preclude these disingenuous twists, expressions of rankest bigotry, or even direct threats, as long as they are delivered politely.  They do, however, often preclude calling out such language for what it is and responding to it effectively.  The contortions of language required to be both forceful and artificially genteel are not always available for every speaker and topic.

The allure of “civility” is even more insidious than that, though.  The demand for an even keel at all times places an enormous amount of privilege on those for whom the topic at hand has little to no emotional resonance.  It is these people—often cisgender heterosexual able-bodied white men of economic means—who are most psychologically equipped to treat any potentially sensitive topic as a purely abstract, theoretical, puzzle-solving endeavor, staying unemotional because the topic means nothing else to them.  Those of us who deal with racism, sexism, and ableism firsthand arrive at these discussions from a place of pre-existing hurt, what the civility fetishists might call “bias” or “hysterics.”  Discussing whether maybe apartheid wasn’t such a bad idea for South Africa or whether women maybe ought to avoid dark alleys and walking home alone to avoid courting misfortune is, first and foremost, an evocation of all of the times those very same ideas served to marginalize and harm us.  To see them dealt with under a pretense of “even-handedness” as if they had any merit is, firmly and without remorse, a reminder that too many people view these questions are mere brain flexions.  And those of us whose our fundamental humanity will not be reduced to bits of theory unfolded, refolded, and batted around to stave off boredom or satisfy a puzzle-solving impetus have no form of discourse that can satisfy our shivering hurt, our quivering rage, and the insistence on keeping things “civil.”

This is a model that declares the voices of those actually affected by the topic at hand to be too, literally, “affected” to be worth having around.  And the civility fetishists cost themselves innumerable valuable, firsthand experiences and understandings that way, by demanding that those for whom their conversations are not merely abstract act as if they were or face conversational oblivion.  Insultingly, this often grows into those same distant, observing chatters claiming expertise in the matter that those firsthand knowers could cut out from under them in a moment if the space would include them.  And in so doing, the call for “civility” robs activist movements of the very passion and verve they require to effect real change.  It is no different than the demands that strident campaigners for civil rights like the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to lay down their calls to action and assume a conciliatory, pleading posture, and the civility fetishists know it.

It is not a coincidence that spaces that prize civility over genuine inclusion become havens for polite bastards, much like this famous essay’s comment thread.

And it’s not only marginalized people who benefit when this wrongheaded call for “civility” is set aside.  Cranks of all stripes rely on people’s often-explicit need to deal civilly with newcomers to present absurd cases and get them treated as if they were serious.  Creationists in particular are famous for this tactic, challenging well-regarded scientists to debates in highly biased spaces.  They do not do this because they think they stand a snowball’s chance of winning a genuinely fair battle of ideas.  They issue these challenges because being taken seriously makes them look like people who ought to be taken seriously, and lets them crow about their nonsense being discussed in universities as an alternative to the actual science.

Often, the only reasonable response to a ridiculous situation like that is the decidedly uncivil action of ridiculing it.

Satire and comedy are powerful forces that the civility fetishists would leave only to their enemies.  But in reasonable hands, there’s no better way to reveal the absurdity of a situation than deliberate absurdism, and no better way to demonstrate that an idea is beneath contempt than to refuse to engage with it seriously.  When an idea is as boneheaded as creationism, global warming denialism, or the average MRA talking point, there is often no better means of dealing with it than laying bare its unrelenting silliness so that no onlooker can escape thinking it is anything but a farce.  And it’s those onlookers who make this approach work.  Once one is dealing with a total crank, it’s not one’s conversation partner that one is trying to convince any more—it’s the onlookers.  It’s the people who hear about “the controversy” about this or that and think that the word “controversy” implies that both sides are equally well-supported.  It’s people who don’t know much about the topic, or don’t have a side yet, who will lean toward one or the other based on who comes out looking better.  And they won’t go with the side that got torn to shreds to the point that they look like a gibbering self-parody that stopped being funny about 10 iterations ago.  This is a tool that is far too useful for me to abandon it at the behest of people who would exclude me from their spaces for responding emotionally to things that affect people who matter to me.

To say nothing of how viscerally satisfying it is to blow off steam by tearing into someone too dense to realize they’d already lost the game three or four hours earlier.

So here’s my pledge.

·         I pledge not to fetishize civility over justice.
·         I pledge to remember that civility and compassion are not the same thing.
·         I pledge to remember that a fetishized civility is a field mark of insulation from suffering.
·         I pledge to keep a sense of perspective.
·         Rather than worry overmuch about civility, I pledge to be as kind as possible.

I pledge to keep my snark to manageable levels when any of the following conditions are met:
·         At the beginning of my dealings with someone, when I don’t know much about them.
·         When I honestly think they might be convinced by more sober discourse than I’d otherwise be inclined to grant them.
·         When the topic at hand is, in my view, complicated or erudite enough that someone could be both wrong about it and generally reasonable.
·         When I think I or my audience might benefit from a fuller exploration of the topic at hand.

And I pledge to keep them around long enough to bat around like a cat toy for a spell before invoking El martillo de la prohibición.
Anything less would be uncivil.