(DeMott 1996) Seduced by civility


DeMott, Benjamin. Seduced by civility: political manners and the crisis of democratic values. Nation. 1996 Dec 9; 263(19):11–19.

DeMott exposes the demand for “civility” as an aspect of class warfare from above — a demand to concede up front that the more privileged interlocutors in a debate are deserving of respect, when that is precisely the substantive point that their behavior has called into question, and that would otherwise be principally at issue. “Civility” discourse inhibits serious ethical analysis by implicitly equating trivial matters of etiquette with the gravest violations of human rights. DeMott points out that the charge of “incivility” has in the past been used in attempts to delegitimize attacks on extreme social evils, including slavery. He quotes Randall Kennedy’s remark, in a symposium on civility, that “when you’re in an argument with a thug, there are things much more important than civility.” At the end, DeMott states:

Democracy continues to oblige citizens to render serious, right-valued judgments on others as well as upon themselves.

Democracy can coexist with the belief that all humans are sinners but not with the belief that all sins are equal.

Democracy has within each of its camps, not excluding the civilitarian camp, thugs in number. And when you’re in an argument with a thug, there are things much more important than civility.

 

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