Civility, its merits and its limits

Former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, who oversaw the toxic-water nightmare of Flint and appointed the officials responsible now has a gig at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Why pick him? “‘Governor Snyder brings his significant expertise in management, public policy, and promoting civility to Harvard Kennedy School,’ Liebman said in a statement. ‘We are excited that he will be joining the Taubman Center and confident that he will bring tremendous value to us and our students.'” Snyder believes a “lack of civility” is the greatest threat to our country. Worse, obviously, than being a neglectful hack who put an entire town at risk for lead poisoning.

Meanwhile, over in Congress, Rep. Dan Crenshaw has implied Muslim Rep. Ihlan Omar is sympathetic to the 9/11 attackers. When he got blowback, his Congressional allies claimed Crenshaw was the one treated uncivilly.

All of which reminds me of the outrage the right still feels about Brett Kavanaugh: how dare women confront this respectable man and say he doesn’t deserve his seat. It also reminds me of several other examples of women being told to “be nice,” like Michigan Rep. Lisa Brown who was told it was uncivil to say the word vagina in a discussion of abortion.

All of which shows why civility is a double-edged sword.

I do believe civility, in general, is important. Being able to say “Hello, how are you?” and smile at people we don’t like — or at least try to ignore them — is part of what keeps society functional. If we openly said what was on our mind every time someone annoyed us, I think we’d be back in the days of blood feuds and duels fairly quickly (contrary to Robert Heinlein I do not think a willingness to shoot people who annoy us will lead us anywhere good). And a lot of people do wish our government were more civil; Joe Biden’s nostalgic memories of working with segregationist bigots were an attempt to express that (though a very, very badly phrased one).

But the other edge of the sword is when civility becomes an excuse for shutting people up. Or insisting they not judge you or avoid your company, even if you do support Trump’s white male supremacist regime (or you know, allow massive quantities of lead in people’s drinking water). Or that you’re entitled to insult and belittle people without any blow-back or criticism. In a lot of cases I don’t think it’s a calculated tactic, it’s just people assuming that of course what they said was reasonable — obviously it’s the people who said it was racist or homophobic who were uncivil!

In the case of people like Snyder (I’m sure the Kennedy School would find it horribly uncivil if they got flak over this) or Kavanaugh, I think it’s partly the arrogance of aristocrats: America’s lousy at holding people of power and wealth to account. No surprise if doing so feels like the height of incivility. So does any suggestion the system in which they’re so comfortably ensconced needs to change. To paraphrase MLK, everything was very civil in Egypt as long as the Israelites were content to bake their bricks. As soon as Moses demanded freedom — well, from the Egyptian point of view, that was way more uncivil than keeping them as slaves (just as for some people George Washington owning slaves wasn’t as bad as him violating the sabbath).

But as Frederick Douglass said, “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation…want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters…. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” And power never thinks demands are civil.

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Filed under Politics, Undead sexist cliches

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