When is civility appropriate?

When is civility appropriate? December 1, 2014

Over at Temple of the Future, fellow Patheos blogger James Croft has a few notes about civility in the aftermath of Ferguson:

Civility is not the most important value. There are times when incivility is warranted and useful – and times like that arise frequently during events such as those we are seeing in St. Louis right now. Incivility can be an effective jolt to a complacent mind – or a complacent system which is harming people. Individuals under duress and suffering from oppression cannot reasonably be expected to be civil while the world tramples on them. “Get your fucking boot off my neck!” is a perfectly valid response – even a dignified one. When a community is under attack, the powerful often use calls for “civility” to silence legitimate attempts at self-defense. I am angry about what is happening in St. Louis – I have spent much of the last few days in a state of constant teeth-gritting fury – and I think a measure of anger is healthy. It is right to be angry at injustice.

At the same time, we must preserve some spaces for civil discussion. Without them we risk being unable to engage with people who do not understand an issue, or who simply take a different view. We lose an opportunity to learn and a technique we might use to change people’s minds. In the most extreme forms of incivility, we begin to dehumanize others, seeing them not as people with (in our minds) mistaken views, but merely as carriers for opinions we despise. When people feel attacked and threatened by others, instead of heard and respected, they are far less likely to genuinely think about their positions. To let go of our beliefs takes comfort and courage, and incivility banishes both. Furthermore, in a congregational community like ours, everyone has to live with each other after the dust has settled. If we don’t want to break our community apart, we cannot allow disagreements to become divisions which drive people irrevocably apart.

Croft is a leader in training at the Ethical Society in St Luis, and I think his post provides one of the more nuanced takes on civility I’ve recently read. I think this is a contentious topic in nonreligious circles, and I think few people get it right. As Croft notes, civility isn’t the end-all-be-all of discussion, there are indeed cases where it’s warranted to be crass, rude, or even violent. But even more, I find myself noticing that many atheists too often seem to co-opt and overextend the language used to justify righteous anger at being denied basic humanity to derail conversations about the importance of showing respect to religious believers and practicing greater tolerance to diversity.

My first piece for The Daily Beast explored the ways in which atheists experience prejudice. On the whole, I found myself extremely uncomfortable applying the language of social justice struggles, however legitimate some concerns and issues are:

Richard Dawkins said in The God Delusion that the struggles of atheists today are “on par with that of homosexuality 50 years ago,” citing a 1999 Gallup poll that showed that 79 percent of respondents would vote for a qualified homosexual candidate, as opposed to 49 percent who said they would vote for an atheist. This data is certainly troubling, but such comments seem to act as if it wasn’t hate crimes, anti-sodomy laws, and the absence of legal recognition for their partnerships that held back gay men and women, but rather how electable they were.

Warmth, electability, and moral standing are abstract compared to other civil rights struggles, which focus on issues more vital: the pay gap, rape on college campuses, stop-and-frisk, marriage equality, the brown bodies shot with their hands up, the teenagers beaten or worse because of who they love. Atheists speak a lot of being distrusted—and studies about moral character show what they show—but you rarely hear stories of how regularly atheists are followed in convenience stores, or disproportionately jailed, or kicked off a plane because they might be terrorists.

In a sense, I end with how civility, in the form of mutual respect and positive relationships, might actually be the best way to abate the problems we do have:

While it strikes me as disingenuous to put atheism on par with the civil rights issues of the past and of today, organizations like Openly Secular are helping with problems that, civil rights issue or not, are no less real. And it seems to me that, given the scientific data on the subject, it’s a step in the right direction to be open about our atheism in ways that aren’t antagonistic, but positive. I’d love to see us go further, though, and be collaborative by forming communities and doing good work, both as atheists and with our religious neighbors.

There are obviously exceptions—ex-Muslims or fundamentalists who have faced harsh abuse at the hands of religious communities come readily to mind—but on the whole, what works for Ferguson protestors isn’t going to work for us, and I think the face of atheism could benefit from a less judgmental and more open perspective.


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