Incivility Is Not the Problem

Incivility Is Not the Problem November 9, 2018

One of the strangest comments I saw, after the tragic mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue, was from someone deploring the “incivility” of it all.

I can think of a number of tags I might use to designate such a horrific, hate-filled, and nihilistic attack on the Jewish people – but “incivility” would not be anywhere on that list.

I might complain about incivility if someone flipped me off for going the speed limit, or pushed past me in the cinema line. There’s a certain “incivility” in the sense of “uncivil behavior” in the behavior of those who heap trash in their yards, or play their music too loudly. But none of this is remotely on the par with physical violence, especially the kind of extremist and deadly violence which wiped out the lives of the victims of the synagogue shooting.

When it comes to disruptive behavior, even, I would not call all of it “uncivil.” Civil disobedience is peaceful, but disruptive in the sense that it cuts through the false unity and false peace of unjust systems. Sit-ins, marches, and protests are intended to be disruptive, but I would not call them “uncivil.” There’s nothing civil, in the sense of civic order, in a society that denies people justice and equality.

And then there’s impassioned behavior. It might not always be ideal of well-thought-out, but when people are hotly debating, or engaged in the pursuit of truth or justice, sometimes they lose their cool. This has always been the case in the world of politics, and is hardly a new phenomenon to be deplored. Perhaps we should simply be glad that people who disagree vehemently tend not to shoot each other in duels quite so much as they used to. Again, though, I would not categorize this with the uncivil and loutish behavior of those with no sense of social responsibility (the trash-heapers, and the loud-music-blasters). Often, it’s more that excess of social responsibility can get people overly fired up.

And many of the behaviors that are wrongly dubbed “uncivil” are in fact precisely intended to counter the actions of men like the Pittsburgh shooter. Speaking out against injustice, raising awareness about hate groups, calling people’s attention to who in power is abusing it: this may make people uncomfortable, and even angry, but I’m afraid the alternative is worse. The alternative is that we turn away from things that make us uncomfortable, turning a blind eye to hate groups and ideologies of prejudice – until it is too late. Until we find that the ones who came for the “Others” are now coming for us.

So, if you want to complain about incivility, focus on the people who take up two parking places, or loudly discuss their digestive ailments – not about movements of  social justice, nor about those who are passionate in their defense of decency or equality. Don’t use a blanket term of condemnation to refer both to them, and to the actual killers they oppose.

But, hey, if incivility means standing up for basic human rights – well, maybe we could use a little more of it.

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