Talk from “Civility, Civil Rights and Civil Resistance: The CVille Syllabus” panel presentation at Institute for the Humanities and Global Culture, University of Virginia with Sophie Abramovitz, Maya Hislop, and Eva Latterner from Graduate Student Coalition for Liberation
April 5, 2018
“Social Power and the Oppressive Potential of Civility”
I want to thank Sophie, Maya, and Eva for putting this event together, the IHGC for hosting this, and everyone else who has played a role in making it happen.
Hello, I’m Marc Mazique. I’m a local writer and activist, and also a staff member here at UVA. I’ve lived in Charlottesville for almost three years, and prior to that, I lived in Seattle for many years. I arrived there in the summer of 1999, a few months before the massive WTO/anti-corporate globalization actions that occurred that winter, and have also been active in community struggles around police brutality, George W. Bush’s Iraq War, immigration, and even played in two radical marching bands that supported community actions.
While I’ve been involved in various community struggles and movements in a variety of places, it was primarily Seattle where I really began to develop my politics, and it’s there where the seeds of my thinking about this thing we call “civility” were planted — particularly how it shows up in struggles for social transformation and liberation. About two years ago, I finally decided to sit down and do some writing around it, and I subsequently published a series of four essays on what I and a few other folks have come to call the “tyranny of civility,” looking at this from a few different angles on my blog Black, Whole. I then collected the essays into a zine. (I decided to put these into a zine version after hearing from some folks I shared the blog with that reading articles online doesn’t really work for them. So in the interest of being more accessible, I decided to make it hard-copy for folks, so it can go into spaces that aren’t dependent on the Internet.)
Today, I will discuss some of the ideas from those essays and some observations I’ve had since then to hopefully highlight some issues that I believe are created by maintaining civility as an unquestioned social norm in a society where institutionalized and social oppression operates along a variety of dimensions.
But first, let’s start with a question: what do we talk about when we talk about civility in this society? (My fellow panelists are going to talk a bit about a definition as well, but I just want to lay out some specific contours I think necessary to my following discussion.)
Civility is generally seen as a formal norm and practice of social interaction — with both individuals and/or institutions — that’s intended to cultivate the conditions where mutual respect can flourish, and social conflict and tension are diminished. Fundamental to its practice is a rejection of ways of relating that can be seen as confrontational or provocative to others, and an emphasis on more seemingly objective, rational reality over subjective, emotional experience. Through practicing civility, we are thus generally engaging in ways of relating seen as supportive of consensus, mutuality, and social peace.
On its face, civility sounds like a wonderful practice to nurture in any diverse society striving towards greater equity and equality between all =peoples. But it all too often is practiced, and in some cases, enforced as if we’ve already reached that state of equity, instead of informed by the unpleasant reality that disparities in social power and expressions of oppression and hierarchy are woven deeply into this country’s fabric, and that all folks’ lives, voices, and experiences are not equally valued in this society. This uncritical practice of civility feels similar to the idealistic gesture of asserting that we live in a “color-blind” or “post-racial society”; it expresses a yearning to reach a destination many want to get to, but without actually doing the hard work of making the journey, or more pointedly, making the changes necessary to complete that journey.
When practiced in this uncritical way, based more in abstract principle vs. the social truth of oppression, civility actually obscures the current reality of where we are now, and instead of creating a more mutual, equal society, can actually reinforce existing disparities of social power and oppression. The problem is, this uncritical practice is precisely the version promoted throughout our society — in the media, in government, in culture, and in academic institutions and spaces — along with the notion that by doing so, we’re creating some sort of neutral space where everyone can be equally empowered and valued. For examples, we need look no farther than UVA and self-styled progressive cities like Charlottesville. By refusing to acknowledge how inequities in social power play out in how we craft and practice social norms, including civility, we instead just allow folks with more social power more space to exercise that power without any accountability or challenge.
This why I believe we need to think about what we mean when we use the norm or ideal of “civility” more critically, because I believe its practice, instead of furthering equality and disrupting oppressive power, can actually reinforce social power and hierarchy.
A super-brief aside: I tend to use the term “more social power” instead of “privilege.” I do that for two reasons: 1) I feel like it both captures the fact that hierarchies in our society are based not just about allocating specific benefits, like wealth, but also mobility and freedom to engage the world on your own terms towards serving your own interests, based on your position within a hierarchy, and 2) it recognizes that the disparate levels of freedom different folks have access to aren’t based in nature, but in systems, institutions, and practices that people have created, institutionalized, and defended, and that we maintain.
To draw out some of the issues I believe the norm of civility creates more plainly, we can look at an iconic text, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written by one of the icons of nonviolent revolutionary thought, Martin Luther King, Jr. This text is particularly useful because of the profound influence that MLK’s life and political vision have had on U.S. culture, particularly U.S. leftist culture, and also because the peculiar mythology that has been constructed around him in the fifty years since his murder have shaped the boundaries of what is considered legitimate nonviolent struggle. This iconic status, however, has only been made possible through caricature and myth-making that frequently erases many of his critiques of whiteness and racial hierarchy, so he can be remade into a less-threatening, more easily digestible product, primarily for white liberal consumption. I believe this mythology — crafted by both folks on the right and left — is, for the most part, only possible through selective reading of his words. So I’d like to highlight a few points made in “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that generally aren’t discussed as often as others.
To briefly summarize, King’s “Letter…” is addressed to eight white Alabama clergymen who issued a statement against King’s nonviolent direct action tactics during the 1963 Birmingham anti-segregation campaign. The section quoted most often speaks of his disappointment with what he calls “white moderates” — white folks who say they oppose racism, but who also oppose ending it through disruptive direct action. King challenges both the legitimacy and intentions of those not targeted by racial oppression — i.e. whites, particularly those claiming to be allies — to impose standards onto black folks around how they should fight to end it, particularly in terms of calls to do so solely through non-disruptive, legalistic forms of petitioning and grievance. He questions blind allegiance to law, noting that under racism, laws frequently do not serve all equally, but instead serve to maintain racial hierarchy and oppression. King sees uncritical adherence to consensus and legal order as complicity with a system and culture of injustice. In fact, he says such adherence simply works to maintain what he calls “a negative peace, which is the absence of tension,” in contrast to a “positive peace, which is the presence of justice” (King, p. 73). King thus directly identifies a stark choice: one can either choose to prioritize the law and social order (an “absence of tension”), or one can commit to fighting racism in all its forms (towards creating the presence of justice), but one can’t do both. And that the choice to prioritize social order is a choice to preserve the social power and comfort of whites, at the expense of black humanity.
Through his discussions of disruptive direct action, King asserts it as an essential tool for disturbing this existing negative peace, and moving towards the positive. He writes:
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. (King, pg. 67)
The creation of a state of crisis — also opportunity — forces the negotiation and rearrangement of existing relations of power. And so again, King presents white folks (but all of us as well) with a choice: either prioritizing a status quo that keeps white folks in power and allows forms of racism to persist, or being willing to ride the “constructive, nonviolent tension necessary for growth,” towards a society where black folks’ humanity and social power is finally equal to that of whites. The degree to which those with more social power – people and institutions — seek to enforce civility as a way of defusing tension when such moments of crisis/opportunity emerge can highlight what choice they have made.
Besides “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a lot of my thinking on the intersection of race and civility has been influenced by the black writer Ijeoma Oluo. She recently put out a book entitled So You Want to Talk About Race. In a chapter pointedly named, “But What If I Hate Al Sharpton?,” she talks about how when she used to talk about race and would get pushback, she would “second guess [herself], check [her] language, quiet [her] voice” (Oluo, p. 203). But eventually she realized the burden doing this, over and over again, placed on her as a black woman, and all black people, since “No matter what we ask for, if it threatens the system of White Supremacy, it will always be too much,” and that “a quieter, gentler voice did not bring a quieter, gentler world”(Oluo, p. 203).
She eventually came to see the situation as a choice as stark as those we’ve looked out in King’s “Letter.” She writes,
For hundreds of years we have been told that the path to freedom from racial oppression lies in our virtue, that our humanity must be earned. We simply don’t deserve equality yet.
So when people say that they don’t like my tone, or when they say they can’t support the “militancy” of Black Lives Matter, or when they say it would be easier if we just didn’t talk race all the time–I ask one question:
Do you believe in justice and equality?
Because if you believe in justice and equality you believe in it all of the time, for all people…you believe in justice and equality for people you like, and people you don’t. You believe in it for people who don’t say please.
And if there was anything I could say or do that would convince someone that I or people like me don’t deserve justice or equality, then they never believed in justice and equality in the first place. (Oluo, p. 204)
While she doesn’t reference civility in this chapter as a term, it’s clear that Oluo is talking about some conception of it here. She’s laying out an undeniably clear measure for examining what a person is committed to by what they prioritize when opportunities to address and challenge racism come up — justice and equality, or social order and the absence of social tension.
She discusses a few specific tactics folks use — consciously or not — to defuse the disruptive potential of both naming the pervasiveness of racism and confronting it head-on, including tone policing. This tactic — usually used by those with more social power in a given situation — is a shifting of focus in a conversation or situation about oppression from what’s being discussed to how it’s being discussed. The intention is always to reorient the conversation or situation in a way that enables the person or party with more social power to maintain their comfort and power. And it burdens those with less social power in the situation with accepting that reorientation for their experience to be considered valid. This can happen at the personal level, as well as at the level of movements or institutions, but in the end, Oluo says, “tone policing places prerequisites on being heard and being helped, ” (Oluo, p. 206) and, “When you instead shift your focus to getting people of color to fight oppression in a way in which you approve, racial justice is no longer your main goal — your approval is” (Oluo, p. 208).
Civility, tone policing, respectability politics, at root these are all norms based in assimilation, intent on getting oppressed folks to recenter the experiences and comfort of those with more social power. The experiences of the oppressed are thus, only seen as valid, as real and worthy of social attention based on how they can be translated into a form that feels unthreatening to those with more social power. The requirement of this translation is itself a form of oppression. Oluo writes, “To refuse to listen to someone’s cries for justice and equality until the request comes in a language you feel comfortable with is a way of asserting dominance over them” (Oluo, p. 207).
This implicit demand for oppressed folks to translate their experiences of oppression into something acceptable by those with more social power as a condition for solidarity leads into the problems inherent in the “politics of empathy.” Empathy, generally understood as the ability to understand the experience and emotions of another, has been promoted by many as a way for those who don’t suffer a particular type of oppression to build connection and solidarity with those directly affected by it, to better enable collective, collaborative action to create change.
To some degree, the increasing prominence of the politics of empathy could be seen as a positive development, showing a growing understanding among folks with more social power of how intersecting oppressions work to create a range of experiences they may not share. Working to “feel” or “understand” others’ pain, even if we can’t share their experiences of oppression or social trauma, might hold some constructive potential through the decentering of our own experience. But making our capacity to empathize so central to our choice of whether or not to act towards ending the the oppression of others is problematic, because in most cases, we simply can’t understand or feel others’ oppression, and if we can’t, we will sometimes make the choice not to act.
The third essay in my zine is actually built around a radio interview Oluo did a few years back, where she discussed race in Seattle and what could be called the “politics of empathy.” In the radio segment Oluo points out this very issue with the politics of empathy, rendering it suspect. But she also provides an alternative. Instead of requiring that others’ experiences be translatable into our own in order to work with them against oppressions that may not impact us directly, she insists that we need to begin accepting others’ experiences and their expressions of those experiences on their terms, regardless of whether we can fully identify with it or not. She says:
I would say as a feminist, as a Black woman, as someone who campaigns for underprivileged people, day in and day out, if there is one common thing I’ve learned is that we have to believe people. We have to stop trying to filter everything through our own lenses. Every single one of us, we have this process, where someone says, this is happening to me and this is hurting me, and we run it through our own personal experience to see if it computes, and if it doesn’t, we reject it. And that is a fundamental denial of the humanity of the person you are talking to. Because that person is already capable of interpreting their own experience and communicating it to you, and they don’t need you to then further interpret it and run it through your own set of checks and balances that are already swayed by your own sets of privilege. You know, people deserve to be heard and believed. (00:09:19–00:10:19)
Oluo’s alternative is a direct rejection of the sometimes insurmountable burden of proof folks with less social power are required to meet to make their experiences believable and “real” to those with greater social power, and thus, affirms their full humanity and autonomy. This approach is intersectional, meaning that it recognizes that different people who may share a general oppressive experience (folks of color under white supremacy) might still experience it differently (black folks as opposed to indigenous folks, folks of Asian descent, folks of Latinx descent, and on and on). Even further, it also recognizes that folks who might belong to a particular identity (black) may not share the same oppressive experiences due to other dimensions to their identity along which other oppressions might operate — gender, class, ability, immigrant status, all sorts of combinations of the previous and more, etc. Instead of focusing on empathy (which can render some folks’ full experiences invisible), committing to believing in the experiences of marginalized folks as they themselves express them can build useful connection, collective knowledge,and power on the way to ending oppressions of all kinds — while foregrounding the experiences of those most affected by them.
This alternative is oppositional to the norm of civility, in that instead of locating authority in an illusory neutral, consensus-based, normative space free from tension, it instead locates it — unconditionally — in the experiences of those without social power. It affirms the truth of their experiences and the value of their expressions of the pain and anger resulting from oppression and injustice and their actions to address the same, without setting standards around what these should look like. Folks with less social power should root themselves in their own experiences and fight for their humanity on their own terms, not let others dictate the terms and timeline of their freedom to them.
A few personal experiences around how I’ve seen the tyranny of civility show up in social justice struggles, which I’ll offer up before wrapping up.
Again, I was in Seattle during George W. Bush’s Iraq war. Leading up to the war, as with many places, a diverse anti-war community made up of several different groups rose to oppose it. These groups had different tactics and analyses, but still usually worked in reluctant coalition. As things escalated, however, one of the most prominent, Sound Nonviolent Opponents of War or SNOW — ironically named because of the prevalence of white middle class liberals in its ranks — actually began disavowing disruptive civil disobedience. This led to situations where SNOW organizers actively encouraged folks at their actions to abandon anyone who didn’t show deference to the police or who engaged in disruptive nonviolence (not breaking windows, but doing things like blocking sidewalks) to the whims of the police. SNOW’s strategy was to be agreeably disagreeable and media-friendly, and thus, was only effective at being an reactionary force in a revolutionary moment. This was the beginning of my thinking about the tyranny of civility.
Fast-forward roughly 12 years, to the disruption of a Bernie Sanders rally in downtown Seattle in the summer of 2015 by three members of the city’s Black Lives Matter chapter, on the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s murder by Darren Wilson. Instead of allowing space for their black neighbors to speak and 4 ½ minutes of silence, many white folks in attendance shouted them down, and called for their removal. In the aftermath, many white progressives — and some black as well — made uncomfortable by the challenging of Sanders’ status as progressive messiah, made statements saying they could no longer support Black Lives Matter, because these disruptors had acted so “disrespectfully.”
Fast-forward to last summer, and our previous mayor’s constant invoking of civility at City Council meetings to avoid grappling with the very real threat and danger many community members asked city officials to protect them from. And the City’s attempts following the Summer of Hate to address the trauma primarily through entertainment and feel-good rebranding, instead of affordable housing, police accountability, and other more transformative work.
Disruption and the creation of crisis and discomfort for those with more social power need to be seen as essential elements in oppressed folks’ struggles for liberation. The “tyranny of civility,” in all its various forms, needs to be jettisoned, in favor of a commitment to challenging oppressive power and norms wherever and whenever they show up – even in communities and movements focused on social change. Oppressed folks need to stake their claim to the fullness of their humanity, through being loud and unapologetic in the dismantling of systems that deny it to them, and unconcerned with the comfort of those with social power, who benefit from those systems. This necessary and intentional “incivility” must become part of our visions for a freer, more fully human world, one based in a positive peace, where justice and equality are finally, authentically present.
*This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
King, Jr., Martin Luther. “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).
Oluo, Ijeoma. So You Want Want to Talk About Race. New York: Seal Press, 2018.
“Ijeoma Oluo Discusses How Seattle May Be ‘Nice’ But It’s Not Always ‘Kind’,” Gabriel Spitzer and Ijeoma Oluo, KNKX, October 21, 2015, http://knkx.org/post/ijeoma-oluo-discusses-how-seattle-may-be-nice-its-not-always-kind.
This talk draws on ideas and text from my essay series, The Tyranny of Civility, published on the blog Black, Whole, and in a zine of the same name.