My Middle-class Neighborhood’s Civility and Cruelty: A Wellspring of Systemic Racism

Joe Abramajtys

6–24–2021

My white middle-class neighborhood prizes civility as the glue that binds our community. This civility is framed as tolerance of each other’s political and religious identities and allegiances…a tolerance that is displayed by avoiding any discussion of “sensitive subjects.” It is a civility that avoids understanding what others think and believe, and the challenges that may have to be addressed if we actually discussed our thoughts and beliefs. It is an unreal condition in that it is an artifice of know-nothingism: In Christian terms, a turning of one’s cheek to look away from the uncomfortable in support of white privilege.

I have learned from the Trump years and the Covid pandemic that our community’s civility veneer cloaks a Christian Nationalist core of cruelty and indifference to suffering; our neighborly bonhomie is a shield of denial protecting a traditional white dominated power structure, and our civility is sometimes used as a cudgel to attack and disparage those who would challenge us.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “The world stands by balanced antagonisms,” and when I think about my adult life’s work, I know this to be true. Nothing worthwhile that I accomplished was without opposition or challenge, and involved engaging skeptical participants; never was it a case of ignoring and delegitimatizing others’ thoughts; rather it was a willingness to engage others by listening and questioning…which is my definition for civility. Civility is not just about being polite; it’s about honest encounter.

The etiquette of civility between equals is necessary for collaborative dialog and understanding, but civility to avoid heated discussion is little more than denial. True, heated discussion can lead to conflict, but conflicts can be resolved if there is the will to do so through honest and open communication.

Often demands for civility act to suppress the complaints, arguments, and insistence of groups experiencing economic and social harm. Calls for civility in the face of verbal and physical violence are often nothing more than defending existing power structures. Civility in the face of violence is used to defend the status quo. Civility in the face of thuggery is denial.

My neighborhood’s civility is a throw-back to the civility 17th Century English philosopher Thomas Hobbs espoused, as described by Teresa M. Bejan in Mere Civility:

“Hobbes insisted only a civil silence about religious matters [the big issue at the time was religious wars] would suffice to secure peace by freeing individuals from the unpleasant and inflammatory of disagreeing at all.”

Hobbes thought it was okay to think something as long as you kept those thoughts to yourself, that social silence would foster harmonious community…what he called concordia.

Historically, America civility is intimately linked to the white Christian nationalist world; a world in which one group sees itself as anointed by God to “civilize” others who are declared uncivilized. In contemporary terms, the uncivilized are law breakers, fake news mongers, Hollywood elite, and those who cannibalize children in between stealing elections. In this regard, civility is not something shared between equals, but instead a condition imposed on one group by another that precludes an honest exchange of ideas between equals in an attempt to secure concordia.

Appeals for civility are often made with the ostensible intent of declaring every idea or position as equally laudable and defensible. This is ridiculous since ideas such as ‘gays are processed by evil spirits,’ ‘racial discrimination no longer exists,’ and ‘elites kidnap and cannibalize children,’ are not only distractions from social problem solving, but dangerously marginalize those targeted groups through degradation and disrespect. As James Baldwin said, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

Cruelty is fast becoming a norm in our society, and with this tolerance of cruelty comes Qanon type beliefs that provide justification and social room for the administration of that cruelty. This indifference to cruelty is sustained by the human desire to belong, to participate in a group identity, to advance in a cause, and to submit to an authority. Thus, civility is able to harness normal human emotional needs in service to cruelty and an indifference to suffering, instead of encouraging positive encounters characterized by mutual respect and equality.

Perhaps it’s best to view civility as a strategy equally useful in defending the status quo as it is in fighting racism and authoritarianism. Which strategy prevails depends on who holds the power and prestige to do the defining.

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