The inspiration for this follow-up was a very interesting conversation on Twitter with one of my occasional correspondents who felt I came across as endorsing what might broadly be called respectability politics, the set of ideas suggesting that oppressed people ought to conduct themselves in a less unruly manner, and thereby win the respect of and concessions from their oppressors.
I understand the distaste for such calls for civility, and I share them. There is something obscene about asking that people behave much better than they are being treated by people with much greater power. Such a request often serves to obscure the failures of the person or institution making it to treat other people humanely and with dignity. If manners and codes of conduct are to mean anything, they cannot end at the boardroom door or the dining room lintel.
If you want to undermine a movement to dismantle sexism, racism or homophobia, a very effective way to do it is to get people to focus on their personal advancement instead. I always think of the final image of “12 Years a Slave” when I think of respectability politics. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), having finally been freed from slavery through his persistence, courage and the education and ability to write that make him appealing to a white abolitionist (Brad Pitt), sits on the cart that will take him away from the plantation where he has been held in bondage. And to make his journey home bearable, he must look away from Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who he must leave behind to a life of unimaginable abuse.
As a tool of protest, unruliness absolutely has its purposes. It looks as though Ava DuVernay’s upcoming “Selma,” for example, will do a strong job of communicating what it looks like when orderly people behave in a minorly disorderly way and provoke a much more shameful and uncontrolled reaction upon themselves. A small violation of the rules, such as walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, elicited a wildly disproportionate response from Alabama law enforcement officials: The events would become known as Bloody Sunday, and a powerful part of the shameful record of the civil rights movement.
Civil disobedience often tests the desire of powerful organizations to be seen as legitimate and bound by clear rules and standards — it is, essentially, a test of manners and norms. There is something radical about making such a request for civility and good manners upward, and to turn powerful people’s sense of their own sophistication and goodness against them.
Asking someone who would not use racial slurs against Jews or African Americans why he or she is uncomfortable extending that same courtesy and consideration to Native Americans will force a genuinely good-hearted, thoughtful person to confront his or her contradictions. Asking someone like physicist Matt Taylor whether he considered the feelings of his female colleagues and science fans everywhere before putting on that stupid bowling shirt would probably make him think twice.
It might feel futile to ask people to imagine what it would feel like if their sons were stopped and shot by the police. But that question obligates the people to whom it is directed to justify any difference they might see between young men like Michael Brown and Jordan Davis and their own children. That is a very different conversation than one in which we need to argue for Brown and Davis’s humanity against the presumption that they were thugs and criminals.
These conversations and requests for polite considerations will not work with all people, and they are certainly not a solution to the significant structural problems of race, class, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity that confront us today. They are certainly harder to pose to people we do not know personally.
But fighting the big fights takes tremendous energy. If we can save each other some of the constant little stings that sap our resources, I’m all for adding etiquette to the list of demands.