Incivility Is The Master's Tool (But Michelle Wolf Was Fine And People Saying Otherwise Are Lying)

There is a pseudo-controversy around the 2018 White House Correspondents Dinner.  To my friends not in America, this is an annual event wherein the press come and make nice with the ruling class they are supposed to be keeping honest. It includes a roast, wherein a designated court jester gets to roast those present and especially the President. Tbh it's generally a pretty gross and sycophantic affair. But, obviously, civility norms are very much relaxed at comedic roasts, and we all know that - that's pretty much the whole point. And if there is any defence to be had at all of the WHCD it's that at least we get the court jester speaking truth to power for just a little bit. But some folk on the right are pretending to be shocked, shocked!, at the ever so rude remarks of this year's court jester, Michelle Wolf. This is pretty transparently just propagandists attempting to marshal public sympathy for anti democratic (soft or hard) restrictions on criticism of Dear Leader, which is probably necessary for anyone in his orbit given how thin skinned a bully the man obviously is. And slow news days combined with a generally feckless and unscrupulous media have made this topic du jour among the chattering classes. (My only defence of adding one more hot take is that I am unimportant and can't make it any worse by posting!) None of what I say in what follows is intended to be inconsistent with this.

But it is inspired by a take I have seen a few people offer in response to the disingenuous behaviour of the propagandists. The idea is that given that Trump et al. obviously don’t care about civility norms, you’re fruitlessly tying your hands behind your back to insist on upholding them when in dialogue with the brutes. Don't bring a knife to a gun fight, don't obey Queensbury rules when they're hitting all and only below the belt, etc etc. One can see the intuition here fairly well; incivility is evidently a powerful weapon of rhetorical warfare (Trump is president!) and we shouldn't surrender it to people who will use the power they attain by it to do very great harm to a very great many people. I think that once upon a time I would have agreed (so, vain as I am, I certainly don't think this is an obviously wrong headed or foolish take or anything of the sort), but I'm now inclined to disagree.  This post is about why I changed my mind.

Audre Lorde - "Been waiting for you to get
the point of that slogan for a while now."
Consider the slogan "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house". The phrase can be traced to its use in this essay by Lorde, and while (as I discuss below) I think she's right, I think that people often use it in a misleading sloganeering fashion. As lots of folk have noted, after all, it is not so rare that the masters' tools really can dismantle the masters' house - there's no sympathetic magic involved in property relations, hammers may be quite indiscriminate in which windows they smash. This needn't be all that metaphorical: the same guns (maybe literally the same guns) that were once held by the slave masters could be used to drive the French from (what became) Haiti. The same goes for more abstract tools - saints and sinners alike can use statistics to compare quantities, the virtuous and the vicious may interview people to see what they think, the woke and the problematic equally well often make artistic depictions of their preferred form of society. So it goes. Not-that-thoughtful invocations of the phrase often aren't much more sophisticated than "The bad people did this so we ought not".

But in Lorde's initial usage she is pushing back against the idea that women must suppress or downplay their differences from one another to form an effective coalition - she thinks that to accept this is to take on a bit of dominant ideology that can't help build the kind of movement she thinks ought be built. I substantially agree with her here, and comparing her actual point with the sloganeering form has been a good object lesson in the misappropriation of black feminist ideas. I think that is because this particular tool (homogenise ourselves to act as a more effective unit!) has two features that are, if not absent, certainly less strongly present in some of the above cases. (i) regular and effective use of this tool will render the tool user unable to function in the kind of society we hope to build (ii) there are viable alternatives.

To illustrate, take the case of statistics - I presume that even when we get intersectional gay space communism (or whatever your favoured ideal) there will still be people counting things and making records of their results, indeed there will be no better way of working out how many horga'hns we'll need on Risa, and I don't especially mind people getting good at that and becoming used to thinking that way. In the case of using arms to drive out the French (then Spanish, then British) colonialists, there might just have been no other way of bringing the awful business of that national death camp to a halt. But, as Lorde argues, people who grow accustomed to having to suppress what makes them unique (and police such expression in others) are ultimately rendering themselves less like the kind of people we should hope will inhabit a better world, and they need not do so in order to build a strong movement. So when (i) and (ii) hold I think we should diagnose something to be a master's tool in Lorde's sense, and avoid its use.

Turn back to civility. I now think here is a case where both (i) and (ii) hold. On (i) - I take it that in the normal course of things, it is preferable that we generally behave pleasantly towards one another and do our best through our words and actions to express respect for one another and accommodate each others' feelings and sentiment. Habituating oneself to being unpleasant, hardening one's heart to fellow feelings and the sentiments of others, this is generally making yourself less like the kind of person we should like to have around. If it's avoidable, there's good prima facie case not to do it.  There are occasions when one really should not worry too much about niceties (it's a good thing indeed that the Haitian revolutionaries were not too concerned on this point!), but where one can... niceties are, well, nice, and that counts for something.

(I note that most times I have seen people disagree with this it has been one of the following three things: (a) people confusing, or cynically pretending not to see the difference between, disingenuous invocations of civility norms to silence dissent from actual concern for other people's well being. It's unavoidable that people will accuse any progressive movement of being incivil, that really does nothing for the question of whether we can or should hold ourselves to high standards of empathetic concern for our fellows. (b) angry young men on the internet, deceived by the kind of propagandists who say "Facts don't care about feelings!", and who think that one must be a wanker to be rational - they ought read this excellent post. And (c) middle class academics who don't actually know any working class people, but have an image of them as ever so rough and tumble, and who declare themselves against civility as a condescending means of expressing solidarity with their fantasy of the ghetto.)

And, (ii), it is avoidable. I can't prove this here (once upon a time this is the point I would have disagreed with) but I can indicate some reasons I disagree. First, I suspect it won't just not work but will be actively counter-productive. I am on record as having nothing against virtue signalling. My reason then was that I think that people respond to social incentives, and so if we make it socially rewarded to be decent then we might reasonably expect more people to be decent. Sure they'll be doing it for the sakes of being showy - but, hey, it'll do. I still think that, and so I worry about the social effects of making it be a sign of one's status as down-with-the-cause that one be a jerk for justice; I don't look at Ben Shapiro's online following and think to myself "There is a social environment I should like to emulate!" But let me now add that it seems that there is a second more positive case to be made for ostentatious virtue, which is that it has both theoretical and historical support.

W.EB. Du Bois - "When you think about it,
being decent means putting me in charge."
Gooding-Williams builds a very persuasive case that calling for knowledgeable people who ostentatiously embody the cultural values of the rural black population to take up leadership roles is the political message underlying Du Bois' Souls of Black Folk ... well, it was that plus a sales pitch that he, himself, embodied those very virtues! And it is the surface reading of Confucianism that ostentatious virtue is its prescription for good and effective political leadership. I recommend you check these out. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi seem to be two cases of something like these theories being successfully applied. (I sometimes wonder if St. Joan of Arc came to occupy the role she did by a similar process.) What these theories have in common is something to the effect that people find clearly displayed virtue suasive, and generally will be willing to engage in difficult common tasks with the decent. Ostentatious concern for the well being of others is something that can actually build up movements.

(Not, of course, that Gandhi or MLK or St. Joan of Arc were perfect political agents who achieved all they wanted to achieve, or that it would have been good had they done so: #NoHeroes. But, let's not kid ourselves, we'd be lucky to achieve anything so problematic as the movement for Indian self-rule!)

So, yeah, I think incivility is the kind of tool that would make us worse if we used it. Maybe we'd be able to win power, but we'd be less able to wield it to bring about the kind of society we should now like, because we'd no longer be the kind of people who'd fit into that very society. In fact, and relatedly, we'd be less likely to even want to use power for the common weal. A hardened heart can end up being quite indiscriminating in its indifference. The examples of leadership through ostentatious decency suggest that another way really is possible. I have not even nearly lived up to these principles myself, as I said I have only recently come to agree with this. And I don't want to ignore how hard it is to be Christlike and turn the other cheek when provoked by those who do not live up to these norms. We should hold ourselves to these standards, but be very forgiving of others who become angry or frustrated in the face of oppression, injustice, and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. When it comes to trying to change the world through decency, the road is long and the burden is heavy. But I think it's worth it all the same.

Xunzi - "Yo but isn't this what I
already said?"


  1. So, Liam suggested I might come add my 2 cents, based on my work on civility. A few years ago, in an article called "Asking Too Much?...", I wrestled with part of what Liam is focused on here. My concern was how we can both value civility and think carefully about when incivility might be justified. In a morally diverse society, civility gives us the tools to deal with each other. But civility is also used as a hammer to quash serious criticisms. I argued that exceptionless civility traps us in a functional relativism where we must respond to extraordinarily immoral acts in the same way that we must respond to those acts that are compatible with the human good in a pluralist society. Can we ever make exceptions? Can we ever “go low”? I proposed that we shouldn’t think of civility as a stabilizing force for society's preservation, but rather as grounded in respect for persons. Generally, obeying the norms of civility leads us to be respectful to those with whom we disagree. BUT there are kinds of behaviors we must critique, and when civil criticism does not do the job, I think there are circumstances in which INcivility is justified. I came up with a rule for Accepted Exceptions to Civility (yes, ha ha, young Reiheld):
    Violations of formal civility are acceptable if and only if they are required to preserve the substantive ground of civility qua respect for persons. When this is the case, they are not only acceptable, but necessary.
    I think it a merit of my position that it uses the very reason we generally follow the norms of civility--respect for persons--is the reason it is sometimes acceptable to violate them. It is a variant moral particularist approach where a clear defeasibility condition is described.
    In my paper, I used righteous anger as an example of when acceptable incivility. While Myisha Cherry's work on anger (see her edited volume rel. Jan ’18) is far better developed than mine, I continue to think on this. One focal point I am developing right now is directly relevant to the reaction to Wolf's WHCD gig: how taking structural critiques personally, or moral critiques as ad hominems, is a derailing and silencing technique. Lots of folks have addressed this. See Kristie Dotson's work on how a key feature of silencing is to refuse to recognize another's speech either at all or, if at all, as it is meant to be taken. I, myself, am particularly interested in how civility is abused to enforce these responses. If white students walk out of a lecture on structural racism and claim that they did so because their professor was attacking them personally, they are in part making a civility claim. If attendees at or observers of the WHCD claim that Wolf was attacking SHS because of her appearance rather than her moral choices when in fact it was the latter, they are in part making a civility claim. Why?
    Accusations and grave insults are often considered violations of civility, so personalizing systemic or moral critiques is, like a dismissive reaction to angry speech, a mode of silencing employed to quash criticism. If you angrily critique a form of privilege from which I benefit, intending to reveal systemic power relations within which I am embedded, but instead I take this as a personal attack, I am silencing you as surely as if I flatly ignore you for indeed I ignore what you are actually saying.
    Personalization works in tandem with an impoverished civility to affect not only what is said, but what is heard to be said. It preserves order under the status quo and so preserves power. But it does not preserve respect for persons. This is what happened with reaction to Wolf and the WHCD gig.
    I agree with Liam that civility isn't just "the master's tool" (and really appreciate his elucidation of how Lorde's words are so often misinterpreted). But it can be. I hope the Acceptable Exceptions Rule can help us figure out when it is being used that way and when we should stop deploying it or allowing it to be used against us.


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