Two Thoughts on Civility
I should be working on Unbound. (30K words and counting!) But I wanted to put two things out there first, both about the call for “civility” I’ve seen in various quarters.
1. Author Kari Sperring wrote this week about civility both as a protective mechanism against abuse, and as a behavior enforced by the threat of violence and abuse:
I absolutely support the right of those who are subjected to abuse, oppression, elision and exclusion to shout back, to push, to demand. This is not an area in which there can be compromise.
But there are also people of all races and backgrounds for whom this option is never available and they may speak and act as they do because it is their only safety.
2. I know many people have seen and quoted this already, but there are more who haven’t. What follows are excerpts from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
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. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
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 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. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
The whole thing is worth reading, but these bits struck me as particularly appropriate, given certain conversations I’ve seen and participated in recently…
June 23, 2013 @ 10:45 am
King’s description of white moderates pretty well describes my feeling of ‘allies’ who are more concerned about ‘tone’ than injustice and discrimination.
Nobody likes being called out, and certainly no one likes being called out harshly. But the onus is on those of us with privilege to recognize and respect the real hurt and legitimate anger that underlies a marginalized person’s tone. It only takes a little empathy to set aside the ego and respond to that, rather than telling a hurt person that they should shut up and wait because your feelings are more important.
The number of privileged people who can’t muster even that much in terms of empathy makes me very, very sad.
June 23, 2013 @ 11:22 am
I would agree with the comment that the ‘average’ middle of the roader just wants order – peace and quiet – which almost always means ‘no change’. Change makes things difficult because you have to make space, learn new things, maybe give some things up (privilege) and learn to do without them. I saw that reaction in South Africa, even among those who agreed that the situation simply wasn’t tenable. I see that reaction in those who find it comforting to have the Patriot Act in place, giving up freedoms in exchange for security. What ends up happening is that those middle of the roaders who are for whatever reason unable to adjust to a new situation (lack of security, lack of privilege) start becoming more conservative, start becoming defensive of what they have and aggressive towards those they see as threatening. While it may be true that you may have to defend yourself against those who would see the change as an opportunity to take revenge on those who wronged them, it is important to be able to recognize that not everything you had before was yours by right – some of it was taken forcibly from others at the expense of their comfort and security. The rights we have or feel entitled to are granted by other people. They are not universal or universally understood or upheld. If you do not extend them to all other people, then it is disingenuous to be surprised when they do not extend them to you.
June 23, 2013 @ 5:22 pm
Dr. King did a great service to a lot of people in those words. Everyone (well, most everyone) agrees he was a great man, a fine speaker/writer, and segregation was terrible. But you take his words and replace “Negroes” with “women” or “gays” and it’s exactly the same. It might get through to a few people. He nailed “the tone argument” before that phrase was invented — and he was non-violent! He didn’t want black supremacy, just equal opportunity.
I imagine he’d be bemused that we have mattress sales for his birthday, but he’s in good company with Washington and Lincoln there. And as long as ALL people, no matter the color of their skin, can get a queen-sized pillowtop for 30% off and free delivery, he’d probably be okay with it.
June 23, 2013 @ 6:54 pm
During the recent discussions about rape culture in your blog, I noticed repeated tone arguments along the lines of “You’ll never get men to be your allies if you keep talking about subjects that make them feel bad!”
As if anyone, anywhere ever made changes in their own behaviors and actions without feeling bad about the way they had been doing things. If people feel fine about what they’ve been doing, why on earth would they go to the trouble of changing it?
Yes, it’s always unpleasant to be called out and confronted. It happens to all of us, and the urge to defend ones behavior instead of change is a strong one. Most recently, I was called out by some of my disabled friends for using terms such as “moron” and “idiot” as ableist language. My initial reaction was to be defensive. I would argue that it has been long enough since these words were actual medical diagnoses that they really didn’t apply, unlike “retarded”, etc. But then I had to take a look at my own arguments and decide whether these words were really that important to me. Was the “freedom” to use them when others around me found them hurtful really vital to my ability to communicate? No. There are whole lots of words out there, and even if I, personally, didn’t think the words “should” be offensive or inappropriate, it wasn’t all about me. So, I’ve made a sincere effort to stop using them.
No one wants to believe they are hurting anyone. We all want to believe we’re good, nurturing people (and many people seem to believe, incorrectly, that if they ever admit they’ve ever been imperfect and occasionally ‘part of the problem’, that it means they’re not). If we let people just keep being deluded that everything they do and accept is just fine, nothing useful will get done. The people we “drive away” with our “tone” are the people who refuse to look past their own fragile “But I’m just a totally great person!” egos, and those people are not going to “get it” until they are willing to do that anyway.
June 24, 2013 @ 12:41 am
You raise a good point when you address the link between being an oppressed class and being able to raise voices to address oppression. I get ultra irritated when an oppressor class, witnessing that the oppressed class is gaining grounds, attempts to hijack the tactics, and claims oppression in order to then be able to claim the ‘right’ to yell back at the oppressed class in order to beat them back down. We’re seeing a lot of that right now with the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage imminent, with certain people who claim to be Christian stating that other peoples’ marriages somehow oppress them by existing, and that they must ‘make a stand’ on this issue.
I don’t know how to address this with these folks, as many of them truly doing have the critical thinking capacity to understand the difference between having one’s life fundamentally limited by laws and customs designed to oppress a class of people, and laws and customs that grant rights that one finds distasteful but which do not directly affect one’s life.
If you figure out how to educate people in the distinction, please let me know.
Update on the Recent Unpleasantness — Radish Reviews
June 24, 2013 @ 8:31 am
[…] And on the side of incivility, Jim Hines has two thoughts, but they’re important ones. […]
Stephen A. Watkins
June 24, 2013 @ 9:37 am
Powerful and wise words from Dr. King… Great quote, and highly appropriate with such a laser-focused precision.
June 24, 2013 @ 2:54 pm
What do you mean when you use the word ‘civility’? You seem to have a specific definition in mind but on reading this and Kari Sperring’s original post I can’t figure out what it is. What you both seem to be saying is that civility between two people is a bad thing, always, because it either means one of the two speakers is being forced by social pressures to be pleasant to the other because of one or more power disparities between them, or one of the two has been oppressed/abused in the past and being anything other than polite feels unsafe. Is this what you meant? Can you define ‘civility’ as you use it here?
Jim C. Hines
June 24, 2013 @ 3:00 pm
That’s the danger of posting commentary about a conversation without the full context of the conversation.
I don’t see anyone saying or suggesting that civility between people is a bad thing, always. Or even that it’s a bad thing in general.
The bulk of my frustration comes from people who are speaking out against bigotry, prejudice, and oppression being told, “You’re too angry. I’d listen to you if you were nicer. Come back when you’re ready to have a ‘civil’ conversation.”
There are so many problems here, one of which is that “civility” is a moving target, one that never seems to be defined, making it easier to use as an excuse to shut down conversation.
I have nothing against civility. I have nothing against anger, either. But I do have a problem with “civility” being forced on people with threat of punishment, or used as an excuse to shut down conversation or ignore justified anger.
Does that help at all?
June 24, 2013 @ 11:34 pm
I think so. Reading this post definitely felt like I walked in on a conversation already in progress. Usually when I check your links the original thought or event you’re responding to becomes clear (as in, for example, your thoughts on the recent SFWA misogyny flap wherein you were responding to an event I previously hadn’t known about). But this time I felt like I missed the agreed-upon working definition of ‘civility’ that made it a bad thing. Now I think I get it, but like you said it’s extremely hard to put into words why it would be disrespectful to ask someone to be nice to you. Glad you’re not advocating we be jerks to each other all the time in order to make sure everyone is treated equally!