When Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked in June to leave a Virginia restaurant — a restaurant that, in response, allegedly had chicken feces thrown at it by a man who drove over two hours to achieve this rather creative form of “protest” — she made a point of saying that she left “politely” and that she always tries to “treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully.”
Later during the week, President Trump suggested that Democratic candidates would have more success at the polls if they were “nicer and more respectful” — specifically, to him.
When reporter Selene San Felice, a survivor of the Capital Gazette shooting in Maryland in which five people were killed, told Anderson Cooper on CNN she “couldn’t give a fuck” about the inevitable thoughts and prayers that would be offered ad nauseam, Marco Rubio’s response was to complain about the bothersome word she chose to use.
Although it might seem like a recent development, the prioritization of politeness is traditional for conservatives.
How could it not be? Conservatives are averse to large-scale social change. Politeness functions as a way to preserve the status quo. That’s why they, consciously or otherwise, leverage the social contract (“we must all be polite”) to silence criticism and demonize opponents as abrasive and hostile.
It would be one thing if politeness could prevent bloodshed — but that’s not what we’re talking about here. In reality, calls for politeness are just about policing people’s vocabulary in order to stifle attempts at raising awareness for legitimate judicial issues through more confrontational language and direct forms of action.
In the recent debate over civility, politeness and respectfulness are encouraged as the sorts of values a democratic state should emphasize. But what civility advocates fail to realize is that are may be some issues that are impossible to discuss with the level of seriousness they deserve while remaining within the bounds of politeness.
What if some desired social changes can be more readily achieved by discarding polite discourse and taking more aggressive actions?
Many, of course, think the opposite is true, that the movement that is more confrontational will alienate the key voters necessary to grant them governing power.
But even if that were true for most cases, or true in an overall sense, there could be many important cases in which rejecting politeness is the way to go from a pragmatic standpoint and the right thing to do from an ethical one.
There is an argument to be made that politeness as a concept isn’t about being nice at all, but conspicuously advertising a rejection of hostility. The people most committed to politeness, then, aren’t most committed to justice — they’re just committed to avoiding conflict. There certainly seems to be nothing in the cultural politeness of, for instance, English or Japanese society to keep their representatives, historically, from committing acts of the most brutal barbarity.
In fact, collective compliance with norms of politeness can serve to enable seriously destructive behaviors.
As Naomi Shulman said of her parents’ neighbors in the Third Reich: “Nice people make the best Nazis.”
This story is excerpted from the essay “Is Punching Nazis Impolite?” and is reprinted here with permission.
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