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  • Civility, Subordination, and Praxis
  • Amy Olberding (bio)

I am grateful to the reviewers who have so carefully and insightfully engaged with my work. Promoting civility at our present political moment is often nauseating. Even as I write this (in February 2020), I am acutely aware that by the time it reaches print, the world may well be worse in ways that would alter whatever arguments or reflections I can offer here. The struggle is one caught most directly in Olufemi Taiwo's response: the world we inhabit is not just riven by social and political conflicts, it is also engaged in a heated struggle over just what "civility" will come to mean socially. Like Taiwo, I think we sacrifice too much and to quite uncertain effect if we abandon civility to those who employ it mostly as a cudgel to compel compliance with unjust structures and social arrangements. Even so, I am tempted to say that embracing civility begins in lamentation. So let me just begin by acknowledging all of the ways that civility is terrible by agreeing with the critiques outlined by Taiwo, McRae, and MacLachlan in particular.

Taiwo's focus is on the structural, and here the problems are several. The most basic is that the inequities of a society will often be built into its systems of civility. The codes of Southern Rhodesia are an aggressive case in point. Because to be civil is to perform social conventions that are symbolically coded to represent respect, the colonial powers of Southern Rhodesia effectively scripted the performed self-abnegation of its black population into the code. To show respect was to make a visible public sacrifice of one's own dignity. In the case of Southern Rhodesia, the demand for such sacrifices was enforced by explicit punitive measures against those who refused, but even where overt sanctions are not encoded into law, [End Page 1120] systems of power that reproduce through practices of civility will be sustained by other sorts of sanctions. Civilities of subordination can exact penalties that include denying the refuser any of the social and personal goods that submission can bring: acceptance, inclusion, participation, and recognition. These are no mere psychological goods, but often function socially as gateways to material well-being: whether one receives material support, opportunities, employment, or even a voice in matters of concern can hinge on them.

The structural issues that Taiwo indicates establish a choice between compliance and defiance, with each choice carrying penalties. Systems of civility encoding morally pernicious and unjust power structures effectively require subordinated people to pick their poison: to sacrifice self-respect or to sacrifice one's own interest in evading sanctions and harms. Whatever the choice, you must drink the poison and there will be sacrifices. Emily McRae's discussion serves, I think, to establish what it is experientially like to drink poison. That is, where Taiwo focuses on the operation of corrosive broad social structures, McRae focuses on the corrosive personal effects of civilities of subordination, of the choices imposed in these broader structures. As she establishes, deciding between compliance and defiance is itself not even a clean choice. Where some of our moral-philosophical dilemmas permit crisp representation as dilemmas with clearly marked alternative options, the choices attached to our social conduct, to civility, are not like this. By its nature, the practice of civility transpires in social settings, and what we choose to do acquires its meaning and generates effects within its setting.

As McRae articulates, the choice of what to do in circumstances where I am positioned to comply with or to defy morally pernicious and unjust social structures is a struggle not just over what I will do, but over what my action can and will mean—to others, as well as to me. We, none of us, are free to definitively articulate what our gestures and actions can mean socially, but civility dynamics in subordinated contexts often entails being conscripted into social roles one wants to refuse but cannot. My bold defiance of civil practices that would subordinate me may not be seen for the rebellion and protest I would have them be. I may just be seen and received...


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pp. 1120-1129
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