You Should Be Angry: Why civility is a privilege

Ahmed Moustafa 9 March 2020
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Discussions of civility in political discourse are endlessly frustrating to me because it is a seemingly secular law that is treated with the reverence and blind faith of a mythical one. Be it debate club enthusiasts or ‘objective’ journalists, they all embody what is wrong with the debate. Any insult by an interlocutor is an ad hominem, a violation of the official debate rulebook and a sign of losing the argument – whatever that means. It does not matter how morally reprehensible the views of the insulted party are, nor does it matter how philosophically or scientifically grounded your position is: if you say naughty words, your opinions are discarded.

All of this has its roots in the liberal mythos of democracy and their unquestioning trust in the process and institutions of their states. To them, people can civilly discuss their disagreement over a glass of wine, then go and cast their votes in their preferred ballots and go to bed that night with a clean conscience. As far as they are concerned, the process takes the wheel. The process will produce the most fair outcome and they did their part by participating. It is too uncomfortable to consider the ways in which said process might be fundamentally flawed, disproportionately controlled by those who seek to preserve the status quo to the detriment of the working class and minorities. It is too scary to consider that the outcome of the process might easily result in immense suffering and cruelty and that focusing on how polite you were to your fascist dinner guest the night before is unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

Perhaps surprisingly, the great example of this flawed outlook is the liberal outrage against Trump. It is not the intensity of their outrage that disturbs me but the reasoning behind it. To them, Trump erodes trust in the office. He is abrasive to the image of the polished patriotic American president. Donald Trump is, of course, a fascist. However he is no more a fascist than the softer spoken heroes of American yore. Trump’s predecessor and liberal idol Obama authorised more drone strikes during his first year in office than Bush’s entire presidency. The handsome and charismatic Kennedy – one of the most highly approved presidents in US history – authorised the use of napalm in Vietnam and tried to illegally overthrow the Cuban government.

In a sane world, caring about the theatre of politics more than brown lives would be an outrage but we do not live in a sane world. Rather, we live in the shadow of a putrid empire, for which Trump is an uncomfortably accurate face. The fact that one can get away with war crimes if they use the smoke and mirrors of being civil, as long as they smile and say inspiring speeches, is an indictment of the backwards priorities of many people’s politics. It does not matter to the Pakistani teenager who hates the clear sky for fear of a drone strike whether the person who ordered it followed protocol. It does not matter to the tens of thousands who die annually from lack of access to healthcare that the people responsible use college-grade English grammar. Focusing on decorum misses the point.

Moreover, it is intellectually lazy. It is a refusal to acknowledge that not all disagreements are the same. Disagreeing with your neighbour over how high the city municipality should allow apartments to be built is not the same as disagreeing over whether starving asylum seekers is evil. Outrage has its legitimate and mobilising place within politics and equivocating all of it is tantamount to claiming that all animals with tails are horses.

The demand for civil and well-headed discussion in situations like these can be, if nothing else, a sign of immense privilege. After all, it is not your human rights which are being put up for debate. You have the option of separating the political from the personal. However, for those who are reliant on crumbling social programs to survive, for those who are harassed and discriminated against, for those who are systematically funnelled into prisons or robbed of their resources, the fight against systems of power is the fight of their lives. It is one forced upon them by their experiences, one they have to contend with regardless of how fed up they become. To look them in the eye and demand their civility and patience in the face of their oppression is the real offense.

That is not to say I advocate some sort of grim dystopia where people do not smile at each other on the subway or cease to invite each other to parties over the smallest hint of tension. Civility often is strategically useful and there are times when the best way to be heard, on an individual basis, is to be calm. However there are other times when you are not speaking to individuals but to the faces of structurally rotten institutions. There are times when your pleas for your rights are falling on deaf or apathetic ears that profit off of your continued harm. These are the times when the best way to speak is to be loud and rightfully indignant.

For as much as our culture seems to sanctify civility, it paradoxically seems to fetishise righteous retribution. If you are someone who normally views incivility as a sin but ascribes to the eye-for-an-eye mentality, I leave you with this reminder: there is nothing civil with how they treated us first. There is nothing civil about forced prison labor, about austerity cuts, about destroying the planet. There is nothing civil about colonialism, or ethnic cleansing, or concentration camps. There is nothing civil about starvation wages and rape culture. You should be angry.