Incivility as Moral Obligation
Does Unfriending Work to Create Change?
Many years ago, my mother gave me a biography of the late poet Philip Larkin for my birthday. We both loved Larkin’s work, but mama’s gift came with an admonition. “Don’t tell me anything about the book. I know he was a difficult person, and finding out bad things about him will spoil his poetry for me.”
I kept my promise to my mother. We still recite snippets of Larkin to each other, but we do not discuss his complicated private life, which was apparently characterized in part by outbursts of racism and misogyny. Mama’s love for certain writers is contingent on not knowing the fullness of truth about them. While I am drawn to complicated figures whose private lives are filled with as much shadow as light, mama isn’t. (She has me, after all, and I am quite enough in that department.)
Mama is not on Facebook, or Twitter. Most of us are. And most of us are like my mother knows she would be if she were on social media: regularly shattered to learn things we wish did not know about those we love. I’m not talking about unsavory revelations about poets or actors. I’m talking about the window into the views of one’s cousins, neighbors, and high school classmates, windows that were shut until Mark Zuckerberg threw them wide open to a disappointing, maddening hurricane of Too Much Information about What Other People Think.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016, and the election that looms before us now, have laid bare all the sorts of things about each other that were hidden as much by lack of access as by politeness. It was one thing to listen to Cousin Wilberforce’s annual Thanksgiving mutterings about the depredations of the Clintons. It is another thing altogether to be granted barely willing access to that same cousin’s daily torrent of conspiracy theories popping up on your Facebook page.
A few years ago, you might have decided to still see your cousin at these rare family gatherings, but you block him on social media. Now, the urgency of the moment has made that muting insufficient; now you must make sure that Wilberforce knows that you consider his views dangerous and immoral. A growing number of voices on social media declare that you must not sit down with, shelter under a roof with, or pass the cranberry one afternoon a year to someone whose politics are so abjectly awful. One’s commitment to justice isn’t about how you spend your money or cast your vote; it’s about who you embrace – and who you exclude. To fail to exclude certain people is to be complicit in their wickedness. Like our Puritan forebears, we denounce and shun. Politely changing the subject with the Wilberforces of the world while staying in relationship with them is to betray the vulnerable.
You can’t change the world, but you can curate your social circle until you are surrounded only by the like-minded. You can’t cancel the president, at least not until the election, but you can remove his supporters from even the outer circles of your affections. Blocking and unfriending, and severing long-nurtured ties – these are not only tangible actions, they flatter our sense of our own commitment to social justice. If I’m willing to choose solidarity with children in cages over staying in relationship with my own grandfather, how serious and compassionate a person I must be! If I’m willing to cut off all contact with my best friend in high school, the one who held me when my parents were so awful, the one who hosted my bridal shower, because she flies a Trump flag? How aware and awakened to the stakes I must be! What better demonstration of one’s commitment to the Great Culture War than to sever ties with those you loved, before the “Great Sorting” showed you who they really are?
The most efficient way to display virtue whilst ridding yourself of the unclean is through a method you’ve no doubt seen. You post a short declaration on your accounts: “If you support this president, unfriend me now.” You establish your bona fides with those who regard civility as complicity with injustice. It seems that nothing says, “I’m committed to a cause” than an eagerness to wash your hands of all those friends and relations who have radically different commitments.
If you’re still reading, and you’re annoyed with my tack here, let me ask the simple question. Does any of this unfriending and incivility work? Does it work when it’s done to you? By “work,” does it accomplish the goal of changing hearts and minds? When you unfriend your Trump-supporting cousin, what do you think she concludes? Do you imagine that she thinks, “My politics are so wretched they have cost me my family. Oh, what a fool I’ve been; losing this relation is such bitterness, I will repent and rethink my views?”
Come on, now.
When someone tells you that your views are beyond the pale of acceptability, is your first reaction to reassess your politics? Or is it to double down in indignation? If Dianne Feinstein had kicked Lindsey Graham in the shins instead of hugging him, would Lindsey have realized his abundant errors? Would there have been any different outcome in the Senate Judiciary Committee?
When you cancel cousin Wilberforce from your table, will he change his politics in order to win you back, or will he grow closer to those who offer comfort that he’s fine just the way he is? Will he soften or harden?
You know the answer.
When you think civility is the problem, you imagine confrontation to be the solution. When you decide friendship is the problem, you imagine ostracism will produce a better result. When you imagine pacifism is the problem, you hope violence will be more efficacious. You hope, but you hope without evidence.
One of the great myths of Hitler’s rise to power is that the left did not take him seriously, and acquiesced too easily. The reality is that the German left fought pitched street battles against the Nazis, far bloodier than anything we saw in Portland and Kenosha this summer. They deployed every club and stone and fist they had, and though they won some of those street fights, they lost the larger war. Their violence, indeed, was decidedly counterproductive: it accelerated the growing sense of instability and insecurity in the Weimar Republic, and helped turn a small plurality of German voters towards the National Socialists. A lot of folks on the left are invested in a false narrative that suggests people were blind to the dangers of the Nazis, and treated Hitler too civilly. That’s not what happened.
It’s common in these tense times to deride civility as a tactic of those largely immune from harm at the hands of those on the other side of the divide. There may be some truth to that. And it is certainly true that no one is under any obligation to remain friendly with those they despise. If you must cut people off for your own sanity, that’s self-care. I’m not sure it follows that self-care for yourself is a universal prescription for a healthy society.
The attack on friendship and the contempt for manners rests on an unproven assumption that confrontation and coldness will produce better results. Those who see civility as betrayal owe those of us who still believe in it either the benefit of the doubt – or they owe us actual evidence that incivility works.