Ten Ways of Looking at Civility


It’s such a funny word, “civil.”

From the Latin meaning “citizen,” which originated as “city dweller.”

To be “civil” is to be pleasant, acceptable, and kind. “Incivility” is rudeness.

“Civilization” is the Holy Grail of the Western world: organized, cultured and educated, filled with citizens who perform “civic” duties. “Civic” implying “for the good of people and civilization” – although in its origins it simply meant “of or pertaining to citizens.”


“Civil war” is another thing altogether. A bad thing. Basically, “a war between or among citizens.” Today we ascribe it to a wide variety of conflicts that divide peoples within a nation – although the actual combatants are often government and anti-government forces, or opposing political forces, where “civilians” (citizens?) become the victims.


The other day on NPR, I heard a commentator say that we might be on the way to a new civil war in the United States, because of how “polarized” our populace is. I’m not sure political polarization is necessarily a prelude to war, but now that he mentions it, the threat circulating on the internet that some conservative Christians might resort to violence if Trump were impeached does give on pause. (City-dwellers vs. the rest of the country?)


“Civil society” – that’s a complicated one, going back to Aristotle. It has evolved to denote a nation-state with robust nongovernmental institutions, a free press, etc., that provide a counterweight to authoritarian government. That makes it a close cousin of what we call “democracy.” The U.S. has a civil society and a robust democracy…right? Tell me again about our free press?


Then there’s “civil discourse.” Wikipedia places its origins with Locke, but I suspect academia has had a lot to do with its widespread adoption, approaching triteness. “Civil discourse” is held up as the ideal of respectful, constructive dialogue. To engage in anything but is considered anathema to progress (on the left) or preservation of certain “values” (on the right).


Academia is very interested in fostering civil discourse, by which is meant open and equal tolerance for the expression of views on “both” sides of the political spectrum. This rests on the very limited notion that there are only two sides, not multiple viewpoints. It often casts Republicans and conservatives as victims of the thought police, negating the obvious fact that Republicans and conservatives control the federal government and much of the dialogue in this country. In reality, civil discourse is used as an excuse to shove reactionary, hateful rhetoric down the throats of those who have no reason to accept such speech, and then paint them as the hateful bullies.


The other night I watched the Netflix special “Nanette,” a one-hour monologue by the Australian lesbian stand-up comedian Hannah Gadsby. I don’t want to spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it. You should watch it. My jaw dropped to the floor and I stood up and cheered into my TV at the end. It is anything but civil discourse. It is the exactly opposite, in fact. In an awe-inspiring act of courage, Gadsby pours rage and pain and a terrifying personal history into the microphone, plus damn good humor. She challenges her audience to sit with those feelings, that reality, her true story. Not only so she can begin her own healing and make herself whole, but so we can, too.


Hannah Gadsby is what we need in this moment. Not civil discourse. Not politeness. White hot rage from the legitimately oppressed majorities of this world. If you can’t take the heat, tough luck. (I wonder what academic institution might invite her to speak?)


I caught the last five minutes of Beto O’Rourke’s debate with Ted Cruz for the latter’s Senate seat from Texas. Beto is our newest hero – our new Bernie, Ocasio-Cortez, etc. A video that’s viral on the internet show him properly defending Colin Kaepernick’s reasons for protesting. (Gadsby-Kaepernick: my dream ticket for 2020, if only the Gadsby was American.)


So what did he have to say when asked to describe something good about his opponent? After Cruz had thrown the usual Republican playbook at him and had a tepid response to the question, at best? Oh, you know, he’s a nice, well-meaning public servant, yada yada. And for his closing statement, Beto mouthed some mealy platitudes about doing right for people.


This is the best we have to offer? Not we, really: the dollar-drenched Democrats. After nearly 40 years of “they’ll raise your taxes,” and they still don’t know how to answer, to call bullshit? They choose civil discourse over truth. They still refuse to fight back. (After the debate, I wrote on social media the lines from “West Side Story”: “They say knives, we say knives. They say guns, we say guns.”)


I guess they don’t disagree enough for it to matter. Even Beto. At the end of the day, for them, nothing’s at stake except pride and ambition.


Trump may or may not be the death of us all, but civility will finish us off for sure.


Fred Baumgarten is a writer living in western Massachusetts.