THE TYRANNY of CIVILITY – Part One in a Four-Part Series

Civility JPEG

Image courtesy of Wikicommons


NOTE: This series of essays are focused primarily on the use of “civility” as a social/cultural norm in the context of nonviolent revolutionary struggles in the U.S. I’m not interested in discussing the “merits” of revolutionary nonviolence vs. other forms of struggle for liberation and survival that might not easily wear that label in this series, but specifically in how “civility” is used by those with more social power to characterize some forms of nonviolent struggle and resistance to oppression by folks with less social power in U.S. society as “divisive,” “counterproductive,” and even most ironically, “racist.” Such characterizations, I’ll argue, serve to only further silence and marginalize oppressed folks in radical communities and maintain systems of privilege and power, while claiming to create a more “neutral” and equal space for all.



You hear it, over and over again, every time there are large protests or disruptive acts of civil disobedience by movements pushing for revolutionary change in the US: the claim that there is a proper way to express anger about injustice and fight for a better world, one which isn’t “divisive” or “confrontational.” One that avoids upsetting other folks not currently engaged with an issue (so we can, of course, win them over to our side), one that doesn’t do anything that could “hurt the message.” This claim can come from those in power (who might even the focus of such actions), their supporters, the supposedly objective media, or even other activists participating in the same actions and struggle. But the formula is frequently the same, with minimal deviation: Sure, it’s okay to be upset about black death, or economic inequality, or rape culture, or the murders of trans women of color, they say, but can’t you be a little more calm about it, more reasonable? Can’t you be more civil?

This call to civility is usually meant to impose a particular framework and set of scripts/practices as the acceptable norms around dissent and social change; these can include prioritizing coalitions and alliances over autonomy and diversity, focusing on media and moral suasion, an unwavering commitment to tactics defined as nonviolent (and careful policing of that definition), and the notion that there are “proper” times and places for certain injustices to be addressed, among others. After all, if you upset others in your community or come off “badly” in the media, you lose, right? The intention is to pressure those not conforming to those norms — for whatever reason — into to doing so. Anyone who does not is labeled as “unreasonable,” “disruptive,” or even worse, as “hurting the cause,” with their transgressions of these norms seen as grounds for marginalizing them in social movement communities (if not pushing them out entirely).

This phenomenon most frequently gets discussed through the term “respectability politics” or sometimes “tone policing” (though this second term latter tends to be more focused on interpersonal, rather than larger social interactions). But for some time now, I’ve used another term that I think is far more useful — “the tyranny of civility.”

This term riffs on a controversial 1971 essay entitled “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” by Jo Freeman; in this piece, Freeman critiqued power dynamics and non-hierarchical organizing practices in some feminist organizing groups she participated in during the late 1960s.1 In particular, Freeman examined how a rejection of formally defined hierarchy and structure by these groups did not result in a lack of either, but instead simply allowed new, informal forms of both to emerge, without any democratic mechanisms to address them. These new power relations — which frequently played out along dimensions such as class, race, seniority and others, which non-hierarchy was meant to help these groups transcend — were then sustained by a collective denial of their existence. Freeman’s proposed solution — still contentious in certain segments of the left, particularly some anarchist circles — was to formalize the existing structures and hierarchies in these groups, while also creating some processes and structures to ensure democratic control over them. Otherwise, she asserted, the structurelessness would simply enable these unacknowledged power dynamics to coalesce into a new “tyranny,” one based in an illusion of “structurelessness.”

Freeman’s analysis generated lots of discussion about how collectives and communities can best share power among members, and continues to do so. But what I find most instructive is her recognition that to truly disrupt existing power relations in a community or society, it’s not enough to simply set a community norm that appears to equalize power or create an apparent objective standard for all to maintain (such as “structurelessness”). Another essential piece (perhaps even more essential) is an ongoing collective commitment to practices that actively and intentionally support, respect and include a diversity of perspectives, experiences and voices in struggles for social change, including those critical of the priorities and actions of others engaged in the same struggles. All who wish to challenge oppressive hierarchies, but particular folks with more social power (along dimensions of race, class, gender and others) should embrace living out this commitment, to ensure folks with less social power can actually identify and disrupt oppressive power dynamics wherever they exist — even if within movements to end them — without being shut down by others with more social power and privilege.

I believe that the norm of “civility” as it’s commonly invoked in discussions of social movements works against this commitment. On its face, civility seems to support a culture based on mutual respect and serve as a positive shared value that can cultivate communities with greater social equality. But similar to “structurelessness,” civility as a social norm can result in negative and potentially oppressive effects once it’s taken from theory (as a principle in organizing collective action and engaging in community) to practice. Without any critical focus on whose interests are served by imposing specific ways of being and living on all members of a community (even seemingly positive ones), power dynamics between folks with less social power (black folks and other folks of color, women, queers, disabled folks) and those with more social power (white folks, men, hetero-identified folks, able-bodied folks) can become obscured. When this happens, what seems like a beneficial cultural or community norm becomes just another form of social control, usually supportive of existing hierarchies, even in communities engaged in radical struggle against such hierarchies.

This situation isn’t all that surprising, though; the unfortunate truth is, finding and permanently living a space totally “outside” of the reach of some type of hierarchical societal norm in the U.S. is generally an illusion. We’ve all been socialized to see all kinds of oppression and social violence as normal, and face constant pressure to live it out, with few models of how to break out of such social scripts. Radical/leftist/anti-authoritarian communities are as saturated with them as “mainstream” society, with their primary distinction being an explicit statement and commitment to opposition of some or all oppressive norms, and differing levels of success or failure in disrupting them in a sustained way.

I’m not saying there are no spaces and/or communities where folks are doing incredible anti-oppressive work and finding less oppressive ways to live in community with others. But far too many folks engage in a type of magical thinking where they come to believe that their subscribing to a particular political analysis and/or practice means they have transcended their complicity and participation in oppressive systems. This thinking tends to be especially dominant among those with more social power in struggles, as a way to avoid confronting how they themselves live out and impose oppression in spaces and communities they move through. Thus, oppressed folks find themselves struggling not just against “mainstream” structures and experiences of social violence, but also within the spaces and communities that are actually supposed to be working to disrupt and transform these social structures alongside many of these magical thinkers.

In this series, I’m interested in looking at how the norm of “civility” is being used in struggles for liberation and social change in the U.S. and how I believe its use in such struggles frequently damages the possibilities for challenging and dismantling supporting existing systems of power. (My specific focus is white supremacy, but I believe the issues I’ll discuss play out along other oppressions as well.) To draw out what I mean by this norm’s potential to create a new form of social control or “tyranny,” I’ll look first at a basic understanding and misunderstanding of the revolutionary nonviolence practice of Martin Luther King, Jr.; I’ll then look at “respectability politics,” “tone policing,” and the “politics of empathy,” examining their similarities and differences in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. Lastly, I’ll talk a bit about on how I came to see this norm as a problem for social change movements and communities through personal experiences.


It’s difficult to engage in discussions around what nonviolent struggle in the U.S. should look like with many lefties (particularly liberal white folks) without bumping up against quotes by or references to Martin Luther King, Jr. (though Mahatma Gandhi is also frequently in the mix, for a dose of noble-minded Orientalism)2. It’s great that this man of color is seen as so foundational to movements against racist and imperial domination. But the iconic status of MLK has been made possible partially through caricature and myth-making that frequently erases many elements of his critiques of whiteness and racial hierarchy.

As many have pointed out over the years, the MLK celebrated by many across the U.S. each year since 1983 (several states also celebrate it as a holiday joined with Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s birthday) is one that has been carefully mythologized.3 Not only does this mythical MLK not reflect the complexity of the man and his politics — which included radical antipoverty and anti-imperialist views (he was against the U.S. War on Vietnam, for instance) — but also works and worked in his time to make him into a less-threatening, more easily digestible icon for white consumption, the more reasonable alternative to Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and other black militant movements of the 1960s. This mythology has been created and nurtured as part of an ongoing political and cultural project among those on both the right and left, but to differing ends.

Many conservatives seek to co-opt and recast MLK’s ideas and social change work into a struggle for a color-blind, individualistic society, where folks would be judged not by the “color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” In this society, racism, sexism, all issues of social oppression are individualized eruptions of prejudice, with solutions to any issues of discrimination only being necessary at the individual level, never at a larger social, institutional level.

Whether it’s because they actually believe this is the answer to things like racism or sexism, or because they simply want to avoid addressing oppression (effectively the same thing), this thinking is essentially the same flawed illusion of equality that Jo Freeman talked about in “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” This is because as social power continues to operate, while being increasingly denied as real. We know this world; we essentially live in it now and see it whenever race is supposedly being “injected” or “brought into a situation”, the refusal to recognize that white supremacy is real and very much alive, which actually means that race is everywhere already. It’s clear how useful such a myth would be in maintaining power along dimensions of race, class, gender, disability, etc.

But folks on the left — including many black folks — have engaged in this myth-building around MLK as well, even if for different ends.4 This shows up in the form of folks elevating the commitment to nonviolent tactics over critical discussions of whether or not and how those tactics actually create any change, as well as through maintaining a narrow definition of what can be considered non-violence in the context of struggles for liberation. I believe both of these to be misreadings of King’s ideas, and that these misreadings — intentional or not — work against folks of color, and other oppressed folks engaging in such struggles.

In his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” addressed to eight white Alabama clergymen who issued a statement against King’s nonviolent direct action tactics during the 1963 Birmingham anti-segregation campaign, he speaks of his deep belief in the strategic use of disruption and the necessity of causing a state of crisis to create change. He also challenges the legitimacy and intentions of those not targeted by racial oppression — i.e. whites, including those claiming to be allies — to impose standards onto oppressed folks around how they should fight to end it. He directly identifies the interest served by such efforts to be not ending racism, but preserving white comfort. An often-cited example of this critique is below (emphasis added):

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.5

In this passage, King states that engaging in effective struggles for social change require an understanding of how definitions of “order” and other community norms codified in the form of “law” can either serve liberation (through ”establishing justice”) or oppression (as “dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress”). When they are serving the latter, those committed to ending oppression have a clear choice: of “a negative peace that is the absence of tension” that allows oppression to continue, or “a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” This positive peace, he suggests, is only possible through not avoiding the “tension” that challenging such norms requires, but actually making the tension present as part of the process towards making justice present.

King believed the means of transforming social reality should be nonviolent, but in “Letter…” and many of his other speeches and writings, he makes it clear that he also believes that ending racism as an end is of absolute urgency. His priority is freedom and an end to suffering for black people, not white comfort, which he sees as a “negative peace.” Thus, “constructive, nonviolent tension” and “crisis” which generate white discomfort are essential steps on the way to a “positive peace which is the presence of justice,” as racist practices and structures are confronted, disrupted and finally dismantled by people of color (and white allies willing to ride through their discomfort), resulting in the end of white-dominated racial hierarchy.

Whites who are unwilling to live through that essential discomfort, King states, help maintain racist oppression — even those claiming to support racial justice. He writes (again, emphasis added):

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.6

When folks with social power simply refuse to provide any reasonable alternative, disruptive direct action is the primary non-violent option left for oppressed folks seeking to end their oppression. The purpose again, is the creation of a constructive tension leading to transformation of social conditions. Back to King (emphasis added again):

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.7

In somewhat diplomatic, but also very clear language, King challenges those whites claiming to support the end of racial segregation and oppression but who are afraid of the “present tension” to examine what is more important to them: their comfort or equality.

He further lays out the basic truth that disturbing social reality for whites through disruptive actions — the creation of tension — is a crucial and nonviolent method through which black folks can assert their full humanity, on the way towards ending their oppression. This assertion of humanity feels threatening to whites, since white supremacy is built upon denying it to folks of color, and also because it means an end to the monopoly of white power in controlling social reality.

As the above makes clear, King does see the end of racial segregation as a negotiated process, but also states that black folks should not seek permission from whites to seek their full humanity, or accept whites’ timetable for their liberation.

The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue….

…Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.8

The point is clear: black freedom must take priority over white comfort.

These few glimpses at “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” create a more complex picture of MLK than the one usually trotted out every January. Here is a man who believed in disruption and the creation of crisis as essential strategies to ending racism and social injustice, and who identified two fundamental questions at the heart of the struggle against racial hierarchy — how community standards (whether in the form of social norms or laws) support justice and freedom or oppression, and whether one values white comfort over black freedom and humanity. These two questions help in making the potentially oppressive use of “civility” more apparent: when used as a community norm, “civility” usually becomes a way of preserving white comfort, and by extension, white social control (as white supremacy is tied to maintaining a system of privilege and power over folks of color).

In “Letter…,” MLK untangles revolutionary nonviolent struggle from civility, connecting this norm with an ongoing, oppressive “negative peace” supportive of white comfort, and identifying white discomfort as a fairly inevitable result of black folks challenging the social order. He argues that not only formal laws (such as those of the segregationist South), but social norms should be judged based on whether they support black humanity and autonomy and thus, enable black freedom, or whether they diminish black humanity and autonomy, and thus, perpetuate white supremacy. Civility frequently delineates those means of struggle that operate within the terrain set out by the system, and those which seek to expand if not re-draw the terrain, or break out of it, to whatever degree possible (and imaginable). The refusal by black folks to live and struggle solely within the bounds of what is deemed “civility” in the context of racist society is an essential piece of resisting white supremacy and working towards their liberation, as it is for other oppressed folks fighting against other oppressions.

These crucial elements of King’s anti-racist analysis have been obscured in most discussions of revolutionary nonviolence in the decades since his murder. Increasingly, the notion of civility has been used as a way for social movements to set bounds on what can be considered legitimate nonviolent struggle and to construct narratives that have contributed to the mythologizing of King, his principles, and his understanding of power and how to best disrupt it. I’ll look at this point a little more closely later through discussing some personal perspective around how I’ve seen “civility” used in social change communities (the starting point for my thinking about its oppressive potentials), but next will examine a few other ways that “civility” shows up in political struggles for liberation and communities working for social change — the concepts of “respectability politics,” “tone policing,” and the politics of empathy.

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1 According to Freeman’s website, the earliest version of this article was given as a speech at a conference called by the Southern Female Rights Union, held in Beulah, Mississippi in May 1970. Its first official publication was in the journal The Second Wave in 1972. I’m using the version appearing on Freeman’s website for this essay’s purposes: Jo Freeman, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”,

2 I do not mean to suggest that these two men have any sort of intellectual or historical monopoly on revolutionary nonviolence as a practice, but want to recognize how central they are to how it is generally understood and transmitted within dominant — meaning white, including even white radical/lefty/liberal culture in the U.S. By focusing on MLK, I get that I am to some degree perpetuating this limited perspective around the “story” of revolutionary nonviolence in the U.S. But since the simultaneous reduction of his politics and foregrounding a particular image of this reduced MLK is precisely what makes this story hold such sway in both dominant culture and most social change movements, I’m working with this as departure point toward complicating this mythology.

3 For a great breakdown of the mythology around Martin Luther King, Jr., check out Ijeoma Oluo, “The Exploitation Of Martin Luther King’s Legacy By White Supremacy,” The Establishment, January 18, 2016, Also, Page May, “Reclaim MLK: Beyond Sanitized Narratives,” TruthOut, January 18, 2016,

4 This sets up a really fucked-up dynamic where white folks frequently invoke an understanding of MLK nonviolent principles in discussions around tactics in social change movements with folks of color pushing for a more diverse range of options that don’t acknowledge the context in which those principles were created — as critiques of white supremacy and imperialist domination. Or more plainly, white folks condescendingly explain nonviolence to people to color through the words of a man of color who worked to teach white folks to question their belief in their own superiority.

5 Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” First published in full in Liberation, June 1963. Republished in the book Why We Can’t Wait (also several editions, mine is a Signet Classic, published 2000). Full text available at

6 King, Jr. “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” See above link.

7 King, Jr. “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” See above link.

8 King, Jr. “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” See above link.