- Civility as Self-Determination
What purpose does civility actually serve? In an age of increasing political polarization, Amy Olberding's recently published The Wrong of Rudeness defends politeness, with some unexpected help from ancient Chinese thought. This defense sits in tension with a broader social conversation that focuses on the interaction of civility with oppressive social structures.
Through a critical engagement with Olberding's book, I argue here that taking oppression seriously requires us to reclaim and repurpose civility. This means that we must attend to the social-structural function of what we often split into "civility, manners, and etiquette." Olberding wisely suggests that we follow Confucius' lead in replacing this list with the encompassing term li, which I treat here as encompassing informal social structure, capaciously understood—essentially, a society's moral social structure.1 Careful attention to the role of li in the maintenance of both a given social order and the social projects aimed at changing that social order will reveal its importance.
Much of the popular discontent about civility stems from the fact that politeness and good manners are far from neutral in the face of wider social injustice. Neither what politeness demands, who it obligates, nor how it punishes transgression are evenly or fairly distributed. One might even call "politeness" and "manners" the policed borders of political freedom. And, as with regular policing, the costs and punishments of the "civility" system are applied with extreme prejudice. The #MeToo movement, for example, rose in response to the fact that the most powerful—whether by wealth, identity, occupation, or combinations of these—often face the least demands for respect and consideration of other people and the most lenient punishment for trespass of what few lines exist for them.
Moreover, calls for civility often function as defenses of the status quo, defanging and diluting the righteous anger of protestors and political gadflies. This shield of the status quo can also be its sword, as Eve Fairbanks notes in a recent opinion piece linking contemporary conservative calls for [End Page 1073] "civility" with similar rhetorical tactics used by defenders of slavery in the run-up to the Civil War.2 Nevertheless, I join Olberding in defending the import of li, though from a more social-structural perspective than Olberding tends to take in her book.
The concept of li was not borne out of political naiveté about peace and conflict. Confucius' time was even more conflict-ridden than ours. By one estimate, there were more than 670 wars in the 259-year "Spring and Autumn" period.3 In response to this history, Confucius and his students championed li, a single concept that ties together what we might call "civility," "etiquette," and "manners."
These concepts might seem like they are simply about rules, but Olberding is careful to see past the window dressing. Rather, li is about making space for other people and for our communities in all of our interactions, from the symbolically charged to the quotidian. It's how you move through the world while affirming that other people, the history you share together, and the history you're forming together right now, matter.
This argument turns on a distinction well put by Adam Serwer in his recent, provocatively titled article "Civility is Overrated." Serwer claims: "There are two definitions of civility. The first is not being an asshole. The second is 'I can do what I want and you can shut up.' The latter definition currently dominates American political discourse."4 Colorful language aside, the point is clear: civility functions to dictate the terms that specify how respect is codified in society (not being an asshole), but those terms are exploitable by the elites and comparatively advantaged ("I can do what I want and you shut up").
Careful attention to this distinction reveals that denunciations of civility itself may rest on conflating the value of particular, contingent uses of the prevailing codes that elites have made with the value of having any such codes at all. Or, alternatively, denunciations of...