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“Civility” Is Now Officially a Meaningless Word

protest of family separation immigration policy

“Civility” as a meaningful term first died in June of 2018, when Sarah Huckabee Sanders kicked off a trend of Republicans getting kicked out of restaurants.

Despite what many conservatives would have you believe, this wasn’t just due to their party affiliation. These were powerful figures, and the Sanders incident happened shortly after the Trump administration’s policy of separating families at the U.S./Mexico border was implemented and became public.

This wasn’t liberal vs. conservative. It was regular people vs. those whose profession was defending Trump and his inhumane policies.

It’s also important to remember that the initial Huckabee Sanders incident at the Red Hen restaurant was incredibly—to use the once applicable definition of the term—civil. By all firsthand accounts, no one was rude to her or her party. Their cheese board was comped after the owner asked her to leave—civility all around.

Soon after that, we began seeing more instances of Republican officials encountering trouble in restaurants, as well as other public figures. These were often other customers expressing anger, and they were less definitively “civil,” because those people placed the expression of their feelings over established manners.

And why shouldn’t they, when even that excessively polite encounter at the Red Hen was being decried for the same lack of “civility” as people yelling Ted Cruz or Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen out of similar spaces?

Maxine Waters encouraged people to create a disturbance around members of the Trump administration, to “create a crowd,” to “push back on them,” and to “tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.” Some people found that extreme. Of course, those same people didn’t seem to have the same level of condemnation for the death threats Waters then received.

But many of those people thought that the owner of a small restaurant asking one of Trump’s major spokespeople and defenders of family separation to leave her place of business quietly and politely was too extreme. That was the first indication that the goalposts in this conversation were never intended to be set on fair ground.

To many of us, it seemed immediately obvious that the term “civility” had been corrupted. Our own Kylie Cheung wrote at the time that “‘civility’ is an excuse used to silence the marginalized and their defenders.” It was beyond clear that “the ‘civility’ argument is a convenient excuse to cover up a dismissal that would have happened whether the person in question remained ‘civil’ or not.”

So how are we still having these conversations about civility?

Earlier this month, Jay Leno appeared on the Today Show and criticized the “one-sided” politics of late night comedy. “I’d just like to see a bit of civility come back to it, you know?” he said.

That’s a sentiment that appealed to Trump, who tweeted out his appreciation in a tone one would might trouble describing as “civil.”

John Oliver addressed Leno’s call for civility during his recent Last Week Tonight segment on Monica Lewinsky and public shaming. “Many comedians have since publicly expressed regret about things they said [about Lewinsky], although one who hasn’t, and who’s among the most relentless, was Jay Leno,” Oliver said before showing a montage of truly uncivil jokes at her expense.

“Those jokes have not dated well in any sense of the word,” Oliver said. “And they’re pretty rough, especially coming from a guy who just this week complained about late night TV, saying that he’d like to see ‘a bit of civility come back.’ You know, like that time that he did a bit with a fake book about Lewinsky titled ‘The Slut in the Hat.’ And if that’s what he means by ‘civility,’ may I offer my new book, ‘Oh, the Places You Can Go F— Yourself, Jay Leno!’”

It appears that “civility” to Jay Leno, as to so many others, really just means that he doesn’t agree with denouncing the specific people or politics that are currently being called out by entertainment media. It has nothing to do with manners, tone, or the concept of respect.

Also in the news recently is Donna Brazile—the interim chair of the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election who subsequently put out a really weird and poorly written book about the presidential primary—who has joined Fox News as a political contributor. Why? You guessed it: “civility.”

“This is a critical period in our country,” she says. “It’s a time for dialogue, it’s a time for civility, but most of all, it’s a time for openness. And we’re not going to get ahead by yelling at each other and sending nasty tweets.”

Look, if you don’t know by now why that statement is ridiculous, I don’t know what to tell you. This is the network of racism, more racism, Islamophobia, misogyny, more misogyny, and just pure bald-faced lies. Tucker Carlson’s entire job seems to be yelling at people who disagree with him. Hell, Laura Ingraham literally has a segment where she reads out her “nasty tweets.”

But sure, let’s call it civility.

This week, NPR ran an article titled “Charlottesville Is Forced to Redefine Civility.” Looking back, the aftermath of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017 was definitely the first death of civility. When neo-Nazis killed counter-protester Heather Heyer and injured others, and the president responded with a mind-boggling statement of both-sidesism, that was when “civility” was redefined as “not insulting conservatives.”

And that means any conservatives, apparently, from slightly right-leaning independents all the way down to actual Nazis.

There was a great episode of the New York Times podcast The Daily a while back, about how Charlottesville struggled with civility following the violent rally. The mayor at the time, Mike Signer, reportedly chose to lean into enforcing existing rules at city council meetings, limiting people’s ability to speak at length, heckle, or generally express natural anger.

At the time, Nikuyah Walker was an activist who took issue with the perceived insistence on civility at the expense of discussing the city and country’s white supremacist problem, as well as other issues in the city. In an email (per The Daily Progress), she called Signer and the other council members “masters of pretense” who “have continuously participated in modern day lynchings.” Her approach appears to have spoken to people, as she was appointed to be Signer’s successor. (In Charlottesville, the mayor is not elected, but appointed by the city council.)

Talking now to NPR, Signer still says that he sees “civility just as an instrument to let people, with very strong opinions, very strong emotions, be in the same body to get things done.”

Jalane Schmidt, a local organizer with Black Lives Matter, counters that in reality, “Civility is actually used to shut down discussion. It is often a way to ‘tone police’ the folks that don’t have power and that don’t speak in four-syllable words.”

The call for “civility” has become, on its face, a bad-faith argument. If the people using the term actually cared about what it meant, they wouldn’t mock the left’s requests to treat LGBTQ+ people, POC, women, immigrants, or anyone else with a basic level of respect. What “civility” actually means is don’t express your anger at the party in power; we don’t like it.

When Jay Leno, Fox News, Donald Trump, and actual Nazis get to decide what civility means and how important it is to our national discourse, with absolutely zero input from anyone else, it’s time to let the word die—which, of course, is different from letting the concept of civility die.

But those calling for it now never had any interest in that to begin with.

This article has been updated to clarify Charlottesville’s mayoral appointment process. 

(image: DAVID MCNEW/AFP/Getty Images)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) has a lot of opinions about a lot of things. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband Brock Wilbur and too many cats.