Theatrical poster, circa 1880s (retouched). | Wikimedia Commons

American Jekyll, American Hyde

Politeness goes along and gets along with brutality

Theatrical poster, circa 1880s (retouched). | Wikimedia Commons
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“If You Cough, Sneeze, Sigh, or Yawn, do it not Loud but Privately; and Speak not in your Yawning, but put Your handkerchief or Hand before your face and turn aside.” This gleaming pearl of axiomatic banality was one of 110 scribbled by a teenage George Washington in 1744 (or 1745), and although it was a verbatim transcription of a translation written by a twelve-year-old from a century earlier, it was nonetheless later reproduced with Washington’s original title, Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation, for the edification of the reading public. For his part, it is speculated that Washington transcribed the document in an effort to ingratiate himself with polite society, but we can imagine other thoughts coursing through the future president’s nervous teen-brain: “Whatever you do, George, don’t sneeze in front of the slaves.” With Washington, we can see the duplicity of “civility” at the vanguard of a nation’s founding—while the young nation plunged deep into an era of racism and the “sivilizing” of the natives.

“All civility is but the mask of design,” wrote Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his novel Falkland, proving that even the nineteenth-century English knew “civility,” and especially Anglo-American civility, to be a means of protecting whiteness, wealth, property, and power. Civility is a police function that works best when it is normative and invisible, which explains in part why the present debate about civility is embarrassing: our “civility” is showing. But the embarrassment doesn’t hide the design. It is not a coincidence that this flare of civilizing discourse is being shot out by pundits and politicians at a moment when promises of investment in infrastructure give way to the construction of concentration camps. It is not, broadly speaking, a matter of chance that we’re asked to pay deference to our institutions as a majority Supremacist Court openly persecutes Muslims. Even our patrician talking heads and representatives, educated beyond their intelligence, present a Scribd-level acquaintance with antiquity: civility and citizenship are conceptually and etymologically entangled. Any demand for “civility” is now a coded attempt to proscribe the citizenship of non-whites.

This is why I do not believe that the “politics” of civility is merely a luxury of the pundit class, although it’s that, too. It’s more viciously an act of collaboration with Trumpism, an attempt to extend complicity to those on the left whom it cannot otherwise police without violence—to make those who oppose Trump into partners of chaos. It’s also a compensatory, tag-team maneuver that gives Trump a break from destroying things, from doing that which usually rejuvenates him. In a representative week under this administration, Trump gleefully obliterates civil norms; he says what pundits—even many who express dissatisfaction with his policies—wish they could say. But then a rare moment arrives when Trump’s transgressions fail him (rhetorically, at least)—the public reacts with broad disgust to child detention and the separation of immigrant families. The demand for civility fills this vacuum and collaborates with power: it lets Trump off the hook. There is no material difference between the Washington Post’s prescription to “Let the Trump team eat in peace” and Trump’s own declaration, made after the neo-fascist murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, that there are “some very fine people on both sides.”

This flare of civilizing discourse is being shot out by pundits and politicians at a moment when promises of investment in infrastructure give way to the construction of concentration camps.

“Civility spreads, as a democratic norm, on the basis of consensus,” Charles Lane wrote for the Post on June 25. He’s wrong: civility is not a democratic norm but a republican dream. Nor is it within the grey zone of “consensus” and “civility,” as many would have it, that we find legitimate acts of what Max Weber called “the ethic of responsibility.” Instead, we find expressions of moral deliberation in moments of disagreement and solidarity. In the last week, the American media has made Stephanie Wilkinson’s act of refusal at the Red Hen restaurant into a cartoon; what we’ve lost, accordingly, is a more nuanced story about her deliberations. By her own admission “not a fan of confrontation,” Wilkinson weighed her values and conferred with the restaurant’s staff before acting. The resulting maelstrom is a consequence of her thoughtfulness and not her incivility. The consensusphere spins wildly when it is forced to acknowledge genuine acts of contemplation.

Those who prop up the consensus, such as the conjoined twins Axelrod and Brooks, want us to believe that civility is not only a good-in-itself; it is also an instrumental, even efficacious, virtue. “Kind of amazed and appalled by the number of folks on Left who applauded the expulsion of @PressSec and her family from a restaurant,” David Axelrod tweeted on Sunday. “This, in the end, is a triumph for @realDonaldTrump vision of America: Now we’re divided by red plates & blue plates! #sad.” Many counter-pundits have noted the absurdity of Axelrod’s lament: America is already divided between red and blue, between the Obamas’ high and low—civility becomes the maintenance of these divides. But look again at the form of Axelrod’s tweet—the exclamation mark, the crypto-Trumpian “#sad”—and ask yourself which “vision of America” he truly supports.

Axelrod’s dream is the peaceable conservation of a violent and unjust empire, a way of buying time for the return to politeness, when we can default to the Obama-style deportation of immigrants. But civility is not the opposite of violence; it’s the other side of violence. In our time of global civil war, the fantasy of consensus fostered by “civility” becomes, as Jacques Rancière has written, a map of war operations. The horror of Trump is the horror of witnessing the monstrosity of global civil violence made visible within our national borders; “civility” is a call to order that ensures this violence will be carried out in the name of peace. Its efficacy lies in its expansion of collaboration and abstinence, which is to say that it is useless. In times of deepening civil conflict, writes historian Enzo Traverso in Fire and Blood, his history of the European civil wars, “it is not the ‘grey zone’ that is decisive, but active minorities.”

“Civility is not a suicide pact,” wrote David Brooks in October of 2017. This is, of course, exactly what civility is. Following Christopher Lane’s Hatred and Civility, I prefer to think of our pundit class’s relation to Trumpism as a Jekyll-and-Hyde phenomenon. Prevailing opinion, which tells us our pundits are the lightly annoying civil gentleman (Brooks) trying to keep a bloodthirsty villain (Trump) at bay, has it wrong. The point is that our amicable doctors of civility, our Dr. Jekylls, inhabit the same political body as our murderous Hydes; below the calm mania for civility lurks the wish to dominate. This attempt at civil order is just a potion that soothes both—a desperate act of control in advance of an inevitable suicide. 

Jonathon Sturgeon is senior editor of The Baffler. He was previously deputy editor of artnet News, literary editor at Flavorwire, and senior editor at The American Reader. He has contributed essays on literature, visual art, cinema, and politics to the Guardian, Frieze, ArtNews, and The Paris Review, among other outlets.

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