ChoiceWords Blog

Your urgent thoughts, urging action

Don’t tell me to “be civil”

Posted by

November 19, 2019

Every country, culture, and region has unspoken rules that its residents or members internalize. The Deep South is no different. We’re quite well known for our etiquette and manners. Walking down any street in my city, you can expect greetings from many of the people you encounter. Here, we’re all about being civil.

Via GIPHY

Civility is an interesting concept, especially when you consider how it’s become a buzzword touted as a solution for the divisive times in which we exist.

If only we could hold civil conversations, talk to each other through civil discourse, be civil when debating the merits of one policy over another, and so on. You get the point.

Via GIPHY

It’s equally interesting to think about who this is mostly applied to. Who is seen as civil? (Hint: It’s not usually the individuals who face systems of oppression)

More importantly, whose voice is silenced by civility? Whose existence is allowed to be restricted in the pursuit of civility?

It’s BIPOC activists. It’s members of marginalized populations. It’s the voices that are commonly silenced. Warranted anger (or even literally reacting) is policed by typically white commenters. If it’s not outright hostility, it’s warnings on how this could isolate non-marginalized people from helping the cause or just messages soaked with self-pity and “But I don’t”’s. It’s also important to recognize that tone policing is not the only avenue through which marginalized folks are restricted; people have been censored by disenfranchisement, institutions, or even death in the name of civility.

Additionally, civility almost always combined with messaging that ultimately says don’t rock the boat. Don’t disturb the system that benefits them. To me, that affirms the sentiment that in this context, civility isn’t really about courtesy. It’s about their comfort, it’s about redirecting efforts that could destabilize their control.

I remember having a conversation with my partner, who is white, in which he expressed his concerns about violent reactions to Nazism. I certainly don’t espouse violence, but I quickly became frustrated when he invoked the slippery slope fallacy. If we punch Nazis, who else will be treated with violence because of their beliefs? He then concluded that people should treat issues with civility, hate cannot drive out hate, etc. 

It’s easy for people that don’t belong to marginalized groups to think of what-ifs in which their rights could be endangered, but what they fail to realize is that in the status quo, this is the reality for many marginalized folks. In the “civil” current state of the world they are comfortable in, our beliefs are responded to with violence, whether that be physically, institutionally, or structurally. And the people who menace us have the power to make good on those threats.

Just our existences are threatened by violence in the world we live in, and people worry about hypothetical futures in which civility will not exist for them when right now, it is not offered to us.

My mom can’t speak Korean at a grocery store without worrying about racist and xenophobic diatribes on immigration and the quintessential go-back-to-your-country.

My BIPOC friends have been attacked for the color of their skin and simply standing.

If we’re talking about beliefs, when I protested against white supremacy at my university, I was fearful about being attacked for mine. A member of the white supremacist group, which was part of the reason we were protesting, showed up and took pictures of protestors (including me) to doxx them later. While I have no way of knowing if they followed through, this was and is a real threat. I’m sure there’s a photo of my face circulating on their server, and the worry of potential violence against me and my family members is something that I will have to live with. I don’t regret fighting for what I believe in—it’s also led me to realize that the concept of civility is largely only extended one direction, and it’s not for activists or marginalized folks. 

The graciousness offered to soothe fragility and uphold oppressive systems is not truly civility. It is insidious suppression of marginalized voices and gaslighting of marginalized experiences. 

Want to show off some of that famous Southern hospitality (which, by the way, has racist roots in slavery)?

Stop tone policing others and silencing voices under the name of “civility” and listen, even if you feel uncomfortable or defensive. If you think that keeping the status quo outburst-free is an example of civil discourse, you only uphold the current systems of oppression. We cannot have civility while people are punished or extinguished because of their existence.

What are your thoughts on civility? How can we best be civil while still uplifting marginalized voices? Let me know in the comments below.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)