Civility and Civil Disobedience: Not Mutually Exclusive

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published July 21, 2018 in Common Dreams.

"Civility" is the ability to conduct a respectful conversation with someone who has completely different views about an important topic.  Recent events (such as the treatment of Trump Administration officials at restaurants) have stimulated public debate about the role of civility in political discourse.  This debate is likely to become more heated between now and the midterm elections.

According to civility proponents, civility is not a solution to disagreement, but it could be a prerequisite by recognizing an opponent’s common humanity and establishing a positive emotional connection and making that person feel safe.  It’s easier to solve societal problems when parties in conflict are talking with, rather than at, each other. 

Also, we learn more from people with whom we disagree.  Civil discourse requires people to listen to and understand how another person’s views were formed, even though the practice of civility does not require one to abandon or compromise one’s position, beliefs, or moral values.  When we treat each other with civility, we are less likely to attribute false motivations to others and are more open to considering information that contradicts our beliefs.

Civility contributes to our society’s health by combating the tribalism and distrust that now infect national politics.  When “othering” is routinely deployed as a political tactic, re-humanizing each other becomes a form of resistance.  Civility combats negative stereotyping (i.e. Trump supporters are a basket of deplorables; Mexican immigrants are murderers).  The more communities retain a diverse and complex web of human relationships, the more resilient they are in managing crises such as natural disasters. 

Civility skeptics, however, remind us that “politics ain’t beanbag” and that the other side is guilty of worse incivility.  Accordingly, skeptics say that calls for both sides to de-escalate are based on false equivalence.  They believe that uncivil actions are justified in the face of cruel or abhorrent actions, speech, and policies.  Those who reject the equality of others because of race, religion, sexual orientation, etc., do not deserve respectful exchange. 

Calls for civility can be used as a partisan strategy to obscure or divert attention from efforts to consolidate power (as in authoritarian regimes), the skeptics warn.  Absolute adherence to civility can insulate public officials from feeling the consequences of abuses of power.  Some argue that civility lends tacit support to a political system that is structurally broken due to the distorting effects of the electoral college, gerrymandering, money buying elections, and politicized courts.  With our political system entrenching those in power, confrontation and noisy protest are among the few tools left to rebalance the system and recover our democracy, if only by a little.

As an activist for both civility and social justice, I empathize with many of the above “either/or” arguments.  But civility can comfortably co-exist with passionate advocacy, just not at the same moment.  I apply different civility standards for engaging with friends and family than those I apply to public officials whom I hold accountable for their actions.  If I have a dispute with a next-door neighbor, my approach to resolving it takes account of my desire to retain a positive relationship with someone I might see every day.  In contrast, I may choose to be distinctly uncivil to a public official who pursues a policy that I consider reprehensible if causing temporary discomfort may contribute to re-examining the policy.

In contemplating an act of incivility, I need to ask myself if my purpose is primarily to generate a visceral feeling of righteous indignation.  If so, my action risks being turned into a recruitment tool for the other side, especially if it becomes perceived as physically threatening or as public shaming that excludes the possibility of reconciliation. 

On the other hand, an uncivil action may be a component of a consciously-organized strategy.  Organized civil disobedience, bearing witness, and making politicians uncomfortable were critical to the civil rights movement.  Politics is a transactional occupation, and politicians constantly weigh the costs and benefits of their actions.  

There is no magic formula for weighing the potential benefits and risks of civility versus incivility, other than to remain mindful about one’s decisions.  I will continue to exercise my love of country by promoting civil dialogue with people from across the political divide, and I will also exercise my right to protest against individuals and policies that I believe are harming our country.

Urban Resilience