X Close

Our age of incivility must end Narcissistic radicals turn politics into a vacuum

(Sean Rayford/Getty Images)


February 18, 2022   5 mins

In the summer of 2020, protestors — and criminals — installed a reign of disorder in many American cities. On the news and on social media, one could see videos of arson in Minneapolis, mass looting in Manhattan and Los Angeles, blocked highways in Texas, and protests in Washington, DC, in which crowds of activists harassed and intimidated restaurant patrons. These actions, though alarming to many Americans, were met with nuanced sympathy and outright endorsement in venues of polite liberal opinion such as the New York Times, the Nation, and National Public Radio.

Watching the mainstream accept, or even welcome, such incivility, in defiance of public health directives that had banned even the smallest of public gatherings, was a dizzying experience. After months in which Americans had been cajoled and sometimes ordered into staying isolated and indoors, the script had suddenly changed.

It changed yet again after January 6, 2021, when “riot” no longer meant an eloquent expression of the “language of the unheard”, something to be championed or at least sympathetically understood, but a despicable betrayal of the nation, akin to treason or terrorism. For the establishment, norms around civility seemed to matter only as a weapon against the Right.

For the political scientist Alex Zamalin, however, the problem with America is simply that there is too much civility. A self-defeating desire for moderation and compromise at the expense of radical-Left politics, he argues in Against Civility: The Hidden Racism in America’s Obsession with Civility, is “everywhere you look”.

According to Zamalin, “a consensus narrative” has emerged in American elite political discourse. While he avers that without civility, our “everyday life” would be impossible, he argues that “politics is not everyday life” — it is a distinct “arena of power and struggle”. And our obsession with finding “common ground” with opponents and preserving “nonpolitical” spaces in our society is holding back anti-racist movements.

Zamalin is certainly right that politics shouldn’t be everyday life. Preserving the political character of politics — that is, making sure that it remains an enclosed arena of competition over power — is as necessary as protecting everything outside that arena from politics’ crushing intensity. We might describe civility, rightly understood, as the formula that lets us keep politics in its proper place — as an intense but limited contest among rivals who see each other as belonging to the same community.

For Zamalin, however, civility is a central theme of American history, and it has always been an arm of white supremacy. In its historical sections, Against Civility offer a wearingly familiar story that pits villainous white racists and misguided black moderates like Booker T. Washington against virtuous radicals like W.E.B. Dubois and Malcom X.

In Zamalin’s telling, the failures of America’s black radicals are inevitably the result of their having adopted “white” standards of civility. When Martin Luther King, Jr. excluded the gay writer James Baldwin from the 1963 March on Washington, the civil rights leader was, Zamalin argues, “applying the same standards of civility found in the white racism he denounced”. Two decades later, when Baldwin, in a public conversation with Audre Lorde at Hampshire College, declared that he couldn’t understand why Lorde, a lesbian feminist, insisted that black women faced struggles distinct from those of black men, he too was replicating the moral failures of whites.

It is hard to understand why prejudice against gay men or resistance to feminism among black intellectuals should require explanation in terms of white people’s moral failings, or what this has to do with civility. Unless, of course, one shares Zamalin’s implicit premise, common across a swath of the American Left, that only white people possess real moral agency. When black people err, it is through a kind of excursion into, or infection by, whiteness. Indeed, white people appear in this conception as the authentic protagonists of history, which they drive forward by their nefarious will to dominate.

The role of non-whites, by contrast, is to offer romantic but ultimately ineffective resistance. Every generation’s valiant struggles for justice are suppressed by open enemies and unreliable allies who insist on upholding civility rather than seeking racial equality. That this narrative might be insulting, given that repeatedly trying the same thing and failing is a sign of political ineptitude, doesn’t seem to compute.

Zamalin appears equally dense about recent history. In his account, the years since Trump’s election in 2016 saw elite moderates punish those who bravely spoke out against racism, such as former NFL player Colin Kaepernick. In fact, Kaepernick’s activism was lionised by the mainstream media — GQ magazine named him “Citizen of the Year” in 2017 — and led Nike to offer the ex-quarterback a multimillion dollar sponsorship and his own branded clothing line. Likewise, while the Black Lives Matter movement might seem to have imposed its slogans throughout many of America’s prestige institutions, Zamalin can only see it as a force at the margins of society, “dismissed” and “treated with disdain” by elites.

It is certainly true that BLM has not managed to effect meaningful changes to American law enforcement, except insofar as violent protests and riots in the summer of 2020 lead many municipal governments to constrain the policing of sensitive neighbourhoods, causing a spike in crime that has led to hundreds more murders than might otherwise have taken place. But while it has been unable to achieve substantive legislative changes, BLM has been taken into the bosom of American elites, neutralising the movement’s radical potential while draping the country’s institutions in the moral authority of anti-racism.

Zamalin cannot seem to comprehend the double-sided nature of the contemporary politics of anti-racism. As an ethical discourse, it is hegemonic throughout US universities, corporations, offices of government, and even the military. At the same time, it appears totally impotent as a political force. Making sense of this would mean sounding the strange gulf between discourse and power in our era. It would mean, for example, asking how Donald Trump — who, as Zamalin recognises, flamboyantly transgressed norms of civility — managed to violate all the political pieties of the conservative establishment only to fail to achieve any of his goals once in office.

For the nationalist and anti-establishment Right, Trump’s orgy of incivility was the beginning not of its empowerment but of a detour into spectacle, in which the imaginary pleasures of “owning the libs” and annoying the media took precedence over winning actual political victories. The January 6 “insurrection” was the ultimate drama in this theatre of resistance. Clueless conspiracy theorists stormed the Capitol on Trump’s behalf, as if, once freed from the shadowy forces holding him back, he might finally accomplish his stated goals.

No sensible person on the Left should wish such a fate for their own side. Or rather, sensible people on the Left might grieve that their own side has for years been caught up in the same fantasies of uncivil resistance, and the same unmooring from the realities of power, that now characterise the populist Right.

In the 21st century, the dramaturgies of protest against the Iraq War led by groups like Code Pink were as elaborate as they were ineffective. These protests were the template for the Left’s resistance to Trump a decade later — both were noisy, lame, and brought Nancy Pelosi to power as Speaker of the House.

Incivility of this sort is dangerous precisely because it is impotent. Theatrical gestures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s appearance at the Met Gala in a “Tax the Rich” dress and Trump’s mockery of journalists share with the BLM riots and January 6 a common perversion of the difference between politics and everyday life. Performative incivility disrupts our normal, non-political lives with attention-seeking dramatics while at the same time draining politics of its specificity and substance.

What we need is not more incivility — more self-aggrandising antinomianism by narcissists posing as radicals — but a painstaking recommitment to a kind of civility that, by keeping politics off the streets, out of schools, and out of our private lives, channels it back into contests over policy.

If we want real change, from the Right or the Left, we need to depoliticise everyday life and repoliticise politics. If we do not, we will remain stuck together in an unbounded arena of shrill, but pointless, symbolic struggle.


Blake Smith is a Harper-Schmidt Fellow at the University of Chicago. A historian of modern France, he is also a translator of contemporary francophone fiction and a regular contributor to Tablet.

blejksmith

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

21 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

Social media of course. It gives a megaphone to the moron who used to sit in the pub corner muttering. Journos and commentators make a living complaining about it and by repeating this numpty stuff amplify the noise. Irony! Just turn off notifications and go for a walk folks. Delete apps so you have to reload them if you want to dip in. You’ll find you can’t be bothered.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

Whoops- there goes UnHerd…..

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

Yes I see the irony but I think this site is self evidently an ideas discussion site where most people try to argue through issues. Social media sites appear to be something else- fun, entertainment, lightweight or only linking people when they insidiously can be more. I don’t have notifications on for this site and deleted Facebook ( used it only for membership of litter picking group) and don’t do twitter or Instagram. Definitely deleted The Guardian a while ago though and mainly Whatsapp family and a few emails plus read this site. Avidly read books though.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

I have used UnHerd to wean myself off algorithm based online media like YT, Twitter, FB, … So far so good.

Galeti Tavas
VS
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

So how about Unherd starts a talk forum?

I could tell in horrible detail all about my house build, my experiences with yetis and bear attacks and being shot at by Cambodians…..addictions, beatings, fights with the planning and zoning office…….

Warren T
WT
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

LOL, I doubt any of us have that much time on our hands!

Albireo Double
Albireo Double
2 years ago

“Our age of incivility must end…”

Then somebody needs to tell the political left, because in the UK, that is where 95% of the incivility is coming from and it always has done.

Last edited 2 years ago by Albireo Double
Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
2 years ago
Reply to  Albireo Double

Aware. But there must be a better response than simply rolling over and taking it.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  Albireo Double

Good point. In the 1950s the CND Marches on Aldermaston were peaceful. By the late 1960s demonstrations against Vietnam were violent. Rugby League had no crowd violence but football did. Rugby League is a much tougher sport than football and attracts support from poor areas usually associated with heavy industry. Many American use swear words frequently such as Robert de Niro but compare him with Sir Colin Meads or Willie John McBride who are tough men.
Those Labour supporters who grow in labouring backgrounds in tough areas tend to be polite because they have experience of where impolite words can lead. As Orwell said left wing intellectuals play with fire and do not know it burns. It is the middle class labour type intellectual who tend to start verbal aggression and encourage physical violence but only when they are out of harms way.

Douglas Proudfoot
Douglas Proudfoot
2 years ago

I notice that calls for civility always increase whenever the left begins to lose arguments. However, the left never hesitates to call anybody who disagrees with them white supremacist racist Na* is. Civility is only intended for Republicans. According to Critical Racist Theory, the words “colorblind” and “meritocracy” are both dog whistles for white supremacy.

Trump’s actual political victories included tax cuts, deregulation, energy independence, the Abraham Accords, between Israel and several Gulf Arab States, and appointing 3 Supreme Court Justices, as well as numerous lower court judges. All of these victories occurred in spite of a 4 year campaign of Russia Hoax lies and 2 Impeachments without any admissible evidence. I would argue the rude tweets helped Trump more than they hurt him, by keeping his base fired up to support him.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago

“Critical Racist Theory”
Splendid modification. Mind if I pinch it off you?

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago

Ironically, those who advocate for less civility are often the ones who cry the most when they feel offended.

Last edited 2 years ago by Julian Farrows
Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

It would be great if the politics-obsessed confined their activities to politics.
However, they have had limited success in the democratic arena so instead have invaded every area of civilian life, via the institutions of state and local government, regulatory authorities, HR departments of big companies, education etc etc.
Anywhere they can exert power and have access to funds without sullying themselves with the dirty, despised business of creating the wealth that props up all these activities..

Chauncey Gardiner
Chauncey Gardiner
2 years ago

Allow me to pose this idea:
It’s nice to talk about “we” have to de-toxify our political discourse and “depoliticize everything,” but the only agent who is situated to take the toxic politics out of everyday life is the individual! There is no “we” in “I”, “ego”.
But, then note an obstacle: Progressive pronouncements like “The personal is political and the political is personal!” amount to exhortations to abdicate personal responsibility, to blame others (“society”) for one’s discontentments, and then to demand that society make accommodations.
If you’re interested: I develop this point in a short essay that I posted just yesterday on Substack. It’s titled “The Revenge of the Nerds: Critical Theory.”
https://dvwilliamson.substack.com/p/the-revenge-of-the-nerds-critical

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

I particularly liked “allows the victim to become the underdog”

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

FREE THE TRUCKERS!

I did not read this tosh when it began to talk of how Civility is a White Supremacist thing, which minorities have taken up to their own harm….Maybe the writer was just being ironic, but I did not explore as I am off to work.

But I really like the civility of the Canadian Truckers –

V Solar
V Solar
2 years ago

I give Blake Smith five stars!

Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
2 years ago

The uncivil find their voice and power in shrill noise. Fine points of reasoning fall away, and all seems clear. The one who calls names and hurls insults is freed from the mental burden of forming finely-tuned arguments and logical structures. In other words, it saves time and effort both. This, in a nutshell, is the reason for incivility. If it continues, the “uncivil” actually lose their ability to construct finely-reasoned arguments, for obvious reasons.

Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
2 years ago

If you can eliminate incivility so everyone treats everyone else as they wish to be treated themselves you have eliminated discrimination. You just have to stop seeing people as different from yourself.

Galeti Tavas
VS
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

Actually – the more you get around the more you realize people are not the same. Ever lived with the criminal class? The street addicts? In different lands, and with different peoples? Because the thing you find is everyone is not just as good as everyone else. Same for societies, groups, classes, – what ever people are – they are not just as good as each-other. Under the law? Yes, but in every other way? No.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

I’m still scratching my head over this one.