In last weekend’s New York Times Magazine, New York University professor Kwame Anthony Appiah had a useful meditation on what colleges and universities are actually for, a question that lurks behind debates on everything from campus speech codes to the development of disciplinary systems meant to stand in for failures of the criminal justice system. I was particularly struck by a throw-away line about halfway through the article.
“It’s easy to roll your eyes at ‘social justice warriors,’ but there’s a perfectly good idea here: People don’t think well when they feel personally insulted or aggrieved. And in classes, thinking well is the main objective,” Appiah writes. “Buzzwords aside, a lot of this is just courtesy — Emily Post by way of Foucault.”
That’s an elegant and catchy way of summing up something I’ve been thinking about more frequently of late. Microaggressions, a particular kind of slight aimed at members of marginalized groups, may be different in kind and magnitude of injury from run-of-the-mill impoliteness. But both categories function the same way: they’re the result of a lack of agreed-upon norms for language and behavior. Or, as Megan McArdle put it in Bloomberg View, “We used to call this ‘rudeness,’ ‘slights’ or ‘ignorant remarks.'” McArdle’s solution –“Mostly, people ignored them”– seems unlikely to gain wide adoption, at least in the short term, nor am I sure that it should. Instead, Appiah and McArdle’s reframing of “microaggressions” as the more familiar rudeness opens up a new way to advance a deadlocked conversation.
If activists are suspicious of calls to manners and civility as tools of change, I’m not entirely unsympathetic to their skepticism. There’s a long and ignoble history of using standards of manners to diffuse or legitimize protest and calls for equality.
“In 1895, as the economic, social, and political progress that black Americans had made under Reconstruction was being chipped away, Booker T. Washington chastised black America in his ‘Atlanta Compromise’ speech for being ‘ignorant and inexperienced,’ seeking political representation in Congress rather than acquiring ‘real estate or industrial skill,’ and attending political conventions and speeches rather than ‘starting a dairy farm or truck garden,'” Fredrick C. Hall wrote in Dissent in 2011. “He declared that, as blacks, ‘we should not permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.'”
If Washington was urging listeners not to wait for conditions to improve to begin the work of improving themselves, Hall argued that so-called respectability politics have evolved such that they’re an excuse for lawmakers not to do anything at all: “In an era marked by rising inequality and declining economic mobility for most Americans — but particularly for black Americans — the twenty-first-century version of the politics of respectability works to accommodate neoliberalism.”
In a similar way, clucking about the “tone” someone has used to express a political proposition or demand has long been a convenient way for people in power to make perfectly reasonable ideas seem radical. Complaining that someone’s “tone” is disqualifying allows people who prefer the status quo to sidestep taking a position on the substance of a proposed change to policy, culture or custom while positioning themselves as the defenders of reasonable, respectful discourse. It’s a remarkable feat of airiness, a way to narrow the political debate without having to commit to anything more than an imaginary ideal that has never reflected how we actually speak to each other.
What I’m proposing instead is a kind of reversed magnetic polarity. I wonder if activists might get farther by claiming the protection of good manners rather than a right to safety from speech. If you criticize someone as rude rather than actively threatening, it’s much more difficult for the object of your complaint to claim overreach, over-sensitivity, or even outright censoriousness. There are plenty of people eager to prove that they’re not politically correct. But even people who want to show that they can buck whoever they’ve identified as the scolds of the moment don’t like to be thought of as loutish. The writing of my own colleagues at The Washington Post suggests that even if appeals to mannerliness don’t convince anyone, they might sway some behavior.
George Will, writing about the reexamination of names of sports teams and institutions, groused that “This is liberalism’s dilemma: There are so many things to be offended by, and so little time to agonize about each.” But two years ago, Charles Krauthammer issued a sensible reminder that at least when it comes to our personal behavior, it’s not so onerous to change our language.
“When I was growing up, I thought ‘gyp’ was simply a synonym for ‘cheat,’ and used it accordingly,” he explained. “It was only when I was an adult that I learned that gyp was short for gypsy. At which point, I stopped using it. Not because I took a poll of Roma to find out if they were offended. If some mysterious disease had carried away every gypsy on the planet, and there were none left to offend, I still wouldn’t use it. Why? Simple decency. I wouldn’t want to use a word that defines a people — living or dead, offended or not — in a most demeaning way. It’s a question not of who or how many had their feelings hurt, but of whether you want to associate yourself with a word that, for whatever historical reason having nothing to do with you, carries inherently derogatory connotations.”
Changing the name of existing institutions may be a heavy lift. But it’s a much lighter one to consider candidates for such honors in the future. And it’s easier still to behave with common courtesy when you interact with someone one-on-one. If we can remember to call married women who change their names by their new surnames, is it really so difficult to adopt the pronouns and name that a transgender person prefers when speaking to them? If we know — or are told — that a certain way of talking is hurtful to someone, does it really cost us so much to to file that knowledge away for next time?
There will be times when people ask us for things that we don’t grant, or when we take a particular person’s sensitivities into account while declining to change our behavior in situations that aren’t present. But good manners compel us to do the same in many situations, whether we’ve been asked to accommodate a request for a plus-one at a wedding or abide by an inconvenient dress code. Sometimes we’ll say no and take the hit. And on other occasions, it will really trouble us very little to comply. The important thing is to analyze the real costs and benefits of granting a request, rather than reacting with adolescent horror at having been asked to alter our behavior at all.