The most recent debates and discussions over immigration, race, and national security have generated a deeper conversation on the meaning of the word “civility” in American culture.
Civility has become a word that both defines some Americans’ expectations about how we debate and disagree, but also a kind of weapon that gets used to silence opposition.
Critics have claimed some of President Donald Trump’s speeches and policies are uncivil. Meanwhile, a restaurant in Lexington, Virginia asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave, prompting her to call the restaurant’s action uncivil.
In response to this incident, Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) has urged more people to harass members of the Trump administration to express their disapproval. As a result, her Democratic colleagues denounced her as uncivil.
Detroit Today host Stephen Henderson speaks with Vann Newkirk II, a staff writer at The Atlantic, and Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the nonpartisan National Institute for Civil Discourse.
In December of 2016, Newkirk wrote an article titled “Sometimes There Are More Important Goals than Civility,” arguing that “calls for civility threaten to impose a burden on people of color” and other marginalized groups.
Today, Lukensmeyer writes an op-ed in The Hill titled “Incivility Is Not Going to Fix This Crisis,” which articulates that “We’re going to need civility if we want to climb out of this. It remains a foundational element of our American system and it is integral to solving each and every issue moving forward.”
On the history and meaning of civility:
“If you look at the history of the word civility in American political discourse, it is often used more as a way to constrain the options available to marginalized people than it is to elevate the debate,” says Newkirk.
Newkirk recalls how people have considered every nonviolent protest — from the Civil Rights Movement to today’s national anthem protest — uncivil.
“I think you’ve seen from people like Colin Kaepernick on, there isn’t really an actual protest that everyone agrees is civil, so what are we talking about?”
“There are many times in our history and in the current situation when people call for civility to control a view different than their own,” says Lukensmeyer. “But that’s really a misuse of the role of civility in a democratic society.”
On the “false equivalence” of civility in America and the disconnect between “discourse” and “politics”:
Newkirk describes the conflicting definitions of incivility as a “false equivalent” where real violence is the same as name-calling and being asked to leave a restaurant.
“Families are being separated, children are being permanently taken from their mothers, that is real violence and it places it in direct contrast to Robert DeNiro using a bad word,” says Newkirk. “Those are not equivalent things.”
Newkirk considers there to be two disconnected ideas of what civility means. One refers to the “discourse, which is this idealized sort of marketplace of ideas” where people disagree.
The second refers real politics where “regularly people are targeted by other people and made to be victims, made to be marginalized and stripped of their rights.”
On the “paradox” of civility:
Lukensmeyer considers these two uses of the word “civility” to be a paradox where one is “calling on the oppressed group to behave only in the social norms of the oppressor group.”
However, “that is a misuse of what the word ‘civility’ meant actually as it was discussed as the Constitutional Convention was happening.”
Click on the audio player above to hear the full conversation.