Civility Won’t Save Us

The word has always been a weapon

Yesterday, the Washington Post editorial board published “Let the Trump team eat in peace.” The editorial condemns a Virginia restaurant’s decision to kick Sarah Huckabee Sanders out in protest. The editors disingenuously reprimand “those who are insisting that we are in a special moment justifying incivility.”

Civility is one of the keywords of our time. According to WaPo, the Obamas had it, Trump doesn’t, and a lack of it is currently ripping society apart.

The word civility is a weapon. Calls for “civility” amount to a cover for a violent status quo. They mean, “I benefit from things as they are, so please don’t shout about change.”

In the US, calls for “civility” have a racial dimension. If the sequence Obama-Trump taught us anything, it should have been that white people are permitted to get angry in public and run a national campaign on a platform of resentment in this country, and black and brown people are not. “When they go low, we. . .” lose state houses, Congress, the presidency, and the Supreme Court.

The earliest uses of civility in English had a slightly different charge. The word signified lawful political power. In the Wycliffite Bible ciuylite translates Latin civilitas ‘citizenship’ (Acts 22:28):

from the Oxford English Dictionary Online, ‘civility’

The modern sense emerged in the 15th century, but still in terms of political power. Things that could create civility were “commandments,” “ordinances,” “well-ruled cities and towns.” Civility was akin to “quietness”:

from the OED Online, ‘civility’

“Civility” was the opposite of “war” or “the prevalence of insolent, and sly rebels.” Into the 16th and 17th centuries, the word still held a specifically governmental connotation:

from the OED Online, ‘civility’

Back when “civility” was synonymous with secular political power, it could even be a bad thing. A Wycliffite treatise condemned priests for seeking it:

from the OED Online, ‘civility’

(“They busy themselves to be kings in their own right, and they revel very much in that civility or secularity.”)

In 2018, the connection between “civility” and political power has become muted, but it’s still very much there in the subtext. It’s the reason the Washington Post editors can wield civility against even relatively innocuous forms of anti-fascism— instead of, say, acknowledging how the election of our most flamboyantly un-civil president ever, who came to political prominence by spreading a racist lie about the citizenship (“civility,” in the older sense) of our famously “civil” first black president, demolishes the suggestion that civility wins elections, solves societal ills at home and abroad, and protects democracy.

Reactionaries who urge “civility” and deplore “incivility” can feel like they are promoting a universal moral good, and it’s just a coincidence that their favorite examples of “incivility” are always anti-fascist protest. It’s not a coincidence. It’s built into the word. What the civility trolls effectively want is “well-ruled cities and towns.” They want presidents who calmly order bombs to be dropped abroad. They want Congresses who agree to disagree about women’s bodily autonomy. They want CEOs who discreetly destroy the planet.

This is another case where studying medieval culture is useful because their text became our subtext. The history of the word civility shows why fascism doesn’t ever seem to count as not-civil in the minds of reactionaries who claim we need more civility. Since the Middle Ages, “civility” has always represented the interests of those in power. The least that can be said about medieval and early modern apologists for the status quo is that, unlike the WaPo editorial board, they understood this.

Civility won’t save us.