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Is Civility Futile in the Face of Injustice?

civility and injustice

“You cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about.”

So said Hilary Clinton in an interview with CNN. She continued, asserting that when Democrats win back Congress, only then “civility can start again.”

But true civility is fundamental respect for the dignity of all those with whom we interact—including those with whom we have deep differences—and it therefore cannot be temporarily discarded when it gets in the way of achieving our ends.

America’s Declaration of Independence recognizes that all persons are created equal and bear natural rights to life and liberty. This universal equality implies that all people are owed a certain level of respect, even if they are deeply wrong about very important things.

Many of the men—they were all men—who wrote and signed this Declaration did so while also owning persons as property. Their hypocrisy should not be understated or ignored: it demonstrates that it is all too easy to ignore principle when we can profit from doing so. We should learn from this and refuse to dispense with standards we find temporarily inconvenient.

Still, we must ask: Should we be willing to overlook the fundamental respect we owe to others in the name of achieving justice?

Lessons from the Abolitionists

If there was any time in history—American or otherwise—where it was morally justified to depart from civility, it was in the fight to abolish slavery. Abolitionists had every reason to consider violence as a tool to achieve their just ends; some, such as Rev. John Brown, did. But many of the most prominent did not, because they knew justice at any cost was not justice at all.

William Lloyd Garrison, the founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, was a pacifist for whom even voting for the abolition of slavery was too coercive. Yet he was no shrinking violet: “as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice,” Garrison once scandalized supporters and opponents alike when he burned the Constitution, claiming it was complicit in slavery. He knew that true civility was more than trivial courtesy or naive “niceness.” Civility requires taking our opponents’ dignity seriously, which means taking their ideas seriously, and that sometimes requires forceful and robust argumentation. But for Garrison, that never meant disregarding the dignity of his opponents. He was committed to the proposition that equality applies to everyone—friend and foe.

Escaped slave and antislavery writer and orator Frederick Douglass—although more confident than Garrison in the value of the Constitution to the abolitionist cause—also knew that persuasion, not bullying one’s opponents, was the more effective tool. He understood that “if there is no struggle, there is no progress.” But for Douglass, “struggle” did not mean winning at any cost. He knew that if he was to ensure that all enjoyed the advantages of the rule of law, he could not undermine the rule of law in the process.

And let’s not forget the words of the great English abolitionist William Wilberforce, who wrote, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners.” In essence, opposing slavery and promoting true civility are two sides of the same coin: both respect the fundamental dignity of others, and consider others as oneself. In so doing, both abolition and civility curb the impulse to dominate and discriminate against broad swaths of humanity. Respect for others, especially when they holds views different from our own, begins with appreciating the value inherent in each human being.

Civility vs. Violence

The tendency to dehumanize those of the opposite political party is more prominent and insidious than other forms of discrimination because it enjoys a social sanctioning among many, unlike racism and sexism. Partisan bias is on the rise and also dangerous because it causes us to rationalize the inexcusable in our own ranks while condemning that same bad behavior on the other side.

Considering how to conduct ourselves in the face of incivility—or violence—is an important question, and according to some, an increasingly relevant one. The principled approach is for each of us, of all parties and political persuasions, to decide in advance and for ourselves what is beyond the pale. Once that line is drawn, and once one has decided what conduct is out of bounds, one must resolve neither to cross it nor condone it, even when others choose to—no matter how appealing the potential political payoff or gain.

The inverse of Clausewitz’s famous formulation is that politics is war by other means. The political realm exists so disagreements can be resolved without violence. Normal political disagreements can and should be resolved through normal political means. Negative ads, though perhaps not the greatest boon to public discourse, are relatively mainstream and nonviolent political tools. But when one party decides the other is acting outside the conventional practices of normal politics, that party will begin to consider responses in kind. In deciding in advance what is out of bounds, what tools and means must never be resorted to, the temptation to act irresponsibly is removed from the calculation.

Today many grave challenges face our nation, but none come close to the horrors of Hitler’s Third Reich. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer had been a pacifist all his life before returning to his native Germany from America to help in the struggle against the Third Reich. He was ultimately executed for being complicit in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Yet Bonhoeffer was never certain that violence, even toward a murderous dictator, was right in the first place.

If Bonhoeffer wasn’t sure of the righteousness in assassinating Hitler, leader of one of the most inhumane regimes in history, then it behooves us to be deeply humble in considering the righteousness of engaging in violence to fight our political battles. If Garrison, Douglass, and Wilberforce could be civil while criticizing slaveholders—people who actually owned other persons—we can be civil in disagreements on tax or immigration policy.

Though consequentialist violence has sometimes led to liberty, dispensing with civility and the fundamental respect we owe to others is far more often the quickest path to gross injustice. Just as we are gravely disappointed in our Founders for failing to recognize the dignity of all in the past, so we cannot justify negating the value of some today for a greater end. Though it required a civil war to end the institution of slavery, leading abolitionists refused to ignore the humanity of their opponents. Great human rights advocates in America’s past show us the path to a more just and civil future—one that respects the dignity and liberty of everyone we encounter.


Alexandra Hudson is passionate about the way that ideas and storytelling can change people’s lives. A writer, bibliophile, and refugee from federal politics, she earned her MSc from the London School of Economics, currently lives in the American Midwest, and is writing a book on civility. Follow her on Twitter @LexiOHudson.


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