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Who Decides What’s “Civil”?

When acts of protest are met with calls for civility, it’s a good idea to give students some historical context about the concept.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about what constitutes civility. Much of this debate illustrates why it’s so important to discuss this concept in the classroom—and why it’s critical we frame the conversation about civility with historical context. When we build these connections for students, it’s easier for them to understand current political discourse and to decide how to engage each other. 

So, what does it mean to be civil? It’s more than pleasantries or politeness. The Institute for Civility in Government defines civility as “claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.”

This is a good definition to share with students because it locates civility within the larger context of respect, and it distinguishes civility from politeness. It also shows why civility is important: because it helps create a society in which the identities, needs and beliefs of all people are respected. 

But the concept of civility has also been used as a tool of oppression. A foundational, historical aspect of civility lies in its colonial roots—a demand for non-European people to conform. From the brutal treatment of Native Americans (who were considered “savages” who needed to assimilate into Western culture) to justifications for slavery and other acts of violence and inhumanity, efforts to “civilize” people of color have a long history in what is now the United States.

Present-day interpretations of civility that center on polite, courteous behavior and speech can also be harmful. It’s important for students to know, for example, that calls for civility are often used to avoid difficult conversations—particularly about race—or to mask acts and policies that denigrate marginalized populations. 

If you break down the history of “civility” in the United States, students will see that calls for civility are often racially coded. They’ll also begin to understand how an exclusive claim to civility by people in power created the power structure that thrives today.

The civil rights movement is a great place to start. Remind students that, at the time, activists were often represented as lacking in “civility.” They defied Jim Crow laws, disrupted businesses and marched in streets. People of all ages took on segregated bus laws in 1955 and 1956 with a boycott, severely hurting Montgomery’s public transportation system. College students began staging sit-ins at lunch counters in North Carolina in 1960, throwing the established social order into disarray. These actions were peaceful, if disruptive. Yet they prompted the powerful to urge a restoration of “law and order.” When we introduce the rhetoric of “civility” into our teaching of this history, students quickly see the irony: Law enforcement officers and everyday citizens responded to peaceful, civil protests with intimidation and violence.

What those in power demanded was not “civil discourse,” but silence. Their calls for civility were calls for the quieting of the marginalized voices pushing back against an undisturbed racial hierarchy. We can encourage students to recognize this repeated cycle of the powerful demanding civility while acting uncivilly throughout history and even today.

Looking for current examples, students will be quick to note that former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been criticized and essentially blacklisted because his quiet statement of resistance drew attention to the subject of police brutality. They may point out that in Ferguson in 2014 and in Baltimore in 2015, nonviolent protests of violence were answered almost immediately with shows of force.

Perhaps nothing is more symbolic of this dynamic than the viral 2016 photograph of Iesha Evans, who peacefully protested the shooting death of Alton Sterling while state troopers in riot gear rushed to arrest her. Encourage students to analyze this photo and discuss it as a group. 

Members of Black Lives Matter and their supporters endure criticism that their protests aren’t at the “right” place and time. They’ve been told they are uncivil, their strategies intemperate. 

But if we pay attention to our history, we’d know that such criticism is nothing new, and we’d acknowledge the words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.—not just “I have a dream” but also “I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was ‘well timed.’” 

In his 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King chastised moderate clergy who suggested that oppressed people find a better way and more appropriate time to air their grievances. As a leader who promoted civil disobedience as a method to create a just society, he argued that “freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” He knew that powerful and complacent people had to become uncomfortable in order to bring about justice.

Involve students in the process of finding connections between our nation’s history and present. When it comes to civility—specifically, who’s expected to be civil and who isn’t—mapping the ways in which racism persists today helps students evaluate how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. More importantly, it can help them understand their power to make change. 

Dillard is a staff writer for Teaching Tolerance.