Article Communication

Civility and its Discontents

For proponents of civility, it is the best of times, it is the worst of times. Political discourse has become so vitriolic that many Americans have simply tuned out in disgust, a trendline that doesn’t bode well for democracy. And every day, it seems, a new civic dialogue initiative springs to life. At the same time, every day brings some fresh new horror—some new act of barbarism that assaults the humanity and safety of immigrants, women, and other marginalized groups of people. The tangible harm caused by such attacks, which are themselves acts of extreme incivility, makes acts of everyday incivility seem trivial by comparison. 

The topic of civility has become, ironically, a divisive issue among leftists. For its defenders, civility is the foundation of democracy because, without it, hearts and minds harden and become guarded and resistant to change. When politics is a shouting match in which each side lobs harshly worded truth bombs at the other, the participants are likely to dig in their heels while those watching from the sidelines cheer for their team or wince at their mean-spiritedness. Absent civility, we dehumanize our ideological adversaries, and our ability to share a nation with them disintegrates. 

I speak here not of acts of civil disobedience and direct action which are, I believe, indispensable tools of liberation that oppressors often try to discredit as “uncivil”; what I’m challenging is, more narrowly, a particular form of incivility that dehumanizes our opponents and our oppressors, be they ordinary Trump voters or Trump himself. I call this form of incivility “contempt,” a stylistic square peg in the round hole of human liberation from hatred, fear and divisiveness.

For its detractors, civility is a standard of decorum enforced by the powerful in order to suppress dissenters and insulate themselves from harsh and inconvenient truths. Powerful people trying to avoid accountability flip the narrative so that they become the innocent victim of the actual victim’s “incivility.” Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley made a bad faith call for civility after her attempt to rehabilitate the Confederate Flag was roundly condemned. 

It is no doubt true that most powerful people would rather have a polite conversation—or none at all—than be confronted by angry critics, but this doesn’t answer what, for leftists, is the most urgent and important question: What style of communication is the most likely to create enduring progressive change and a harmonious society? 

When people do and say untrue or hateful things that hurt us and the people we love, there’s a very understandable inclination to want to lash back in kind. Humans have a retaliatory streak—it feels good and natural to punish wrongdoers. The carceral system is premised on this notion of retribution, with the state intervening to administer the punishment instead of allowing the victim to do so directly. But just because something feels good doesn’t mean it is good, nor does it necessarily result in a net gain for society. Putting someone in a cage may stop that person from harming people outside that cage, but imprisonment generates new forms of suffering—for the prisoner, their family and their community. Even prison guards risk having their own humanity and empathy diminished when their job duties call upon them to dominate and denigrate their charges.

Photo by Geoff Livingston | George Floyd protest near the White House (5/30/20)

Humans have another side, one that yearns for interpersonal harmony, healing and redemption. It is this aspect of human nature that forms the basis for systems of restorative justice or “peacemaking” practiced by more than a hundred tribal courts and, increasingly, in public schools and the criminal justice system. 

Tribal peacemaking consultant Diane LaResche distinguishes the “sacred justice” philosophy of many North American Indigenous peoples from the Eurocentric revenge model that ends with one party having “won” and both viewing each other as bitter enemies. 

The processes are not argumentative or adversarial. Peacemaking involves deep listening, not defending, arguing, or forcing. In a just procedure, respect, politeness, and treatment with dignity are shown for all the people concerned in the conflict. Indian values and practices which are an integral part of peacemaking (such as cooperation, respect for the interdependence of all, respect for differing points of view, deep listening skills, generosity, the importance of healing broken relationships, and recognition of the importance of the whole person in a context beyond the immediate dilemma, service of others with humility and modesty, appreciation of kinship ties, patience, and sharing) strengthen communities.

Under the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy, the use of force, including verbal force, is not permitted during tribal deliberations. Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Seneca Nations, explained, “When one member intrudes on another, we have a situation. We meet and just keep talking until there’s nothing left but the obvious truth, and both families agree to the solution.” The process is facilitated by chiefs who serve at the discretion of the people and are expected to be patient, fair, honest, calm, thick-skinned and unaggressive, even when they’re criticized or mistreated. Chiefs are valued for their ability to listen to, understand and respect other points of view (a far cry from political figureheads venerated for their ability to compose snarky tweets).

Sid Hill and Oren Lyons examine historic peace treaty. (Kevin Wolf/AP Images for The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian)

According to Wanda McCaslin, the Indigenous Métis editor of Justice as Healing: Indigenous Ways, meaningful justice requires “bringing people together in thoughtful and sincere dialogue. She notes:

Through the establishment of stronger bonds with each other, the nature of the harm and the underlying causes come to the forefront. This is the exact opposite of isolating and vilifying the person. Instead, by bringing people together in thoughtful and sincere dialogues, the community recognizes and is given an opportunity to be cognizant of the imbalances leading to the action and to participate in rebuilding a way forward. Indigenous healing processes is about engaging ways of how to be in good relationships with ourselves, our families and our communities. Especially when we harm and disagree with each other. We do not dismiss the harm doer as unwelcomed with little or no value. Instead, we work to bring people even closer into our circles of friends, family and community. We rely on our Indigenous traditions of language, law and customs to listen, assist and help bridge commonality and core values of respect, empathy and transformation.

Indigenous Hawai’ians have a communication practice called ho’oponopono, in which participants commit at the outset to conduct themselves in the spirit of aloha or love. Anger is valued but “should not run unchecked or misdirected.” Robert Yazzie, Chief Justice Emeritus of the Navajo Nation, says that the traditional Navajo response to crime is to “talk the problem out with respect.” In his view, an offender is someone who doesn’t value relationships, and punishment does nothing to repair damaged interpersonal or community relationships, does nothing to help the victim, and does nothing to restore the peace.

Peacemaking. The concept comes up again and again in the literature regarding Indigenous notions of restorative justice. It reflects a holistic philosophy of interconnectedness in which we harm ourselves and the entire society when we harm another. Resolving a conflict between two people or two clans restores peace and harmony to the entire community. It allows wrongdoers to redeem themselves by taking accountability and demonstrating remorse to the victim, their family and the broader community. The ultimate objective is healing, not retribution.

There is, for many First Nations peoples, a respect for the inherent dignity of all persons, including the wrongdoer. People are not viewed dualistically as “good” or “wicked.” It is an imbalance or structural problem in the community that gives rise to bad behavior, and blaming and punishing the individual wrongdoer doesn’t get to the heart of the matter.

This notion of justice as peacemaking has no corollary in the carceral system, nor is it often in evidence in the political arena. Legal and political proceedings are adversarial, with one side pitted against the other in a fight over who can be blamed, shamed and punished. Each side sees the other as the moral transgressor whose wickedness must be castigated. Punishment settles the score, if not quite an eye for an eye then at least the extraction of a pound or two of flesh.  At the end of the verbal war, one side wins, perhaps with a modicum of justice served, but with the community still at war, the losers lying in wait to exact revenge.

Contemptuous discourse follows the same logic of retribution. Someone who expresses a wrongheaded or offensive belief must be scolded, shamed, and punished. Such verbal abuse does not hold open the possibility of redemption and, thus, there is none. On the contrary, it sows the seeds for future conflict.

A progressive who “owns” a “rabid right-winger” might enjoy fleeting gratification, and might be able to post the “epic smack down” on YouTube, but nothing else is achieved. They might walk away from the encounter thinking, “That’ll teach ‘em,” but, in reality, there is no learning, no restoration of relationships, no harmony, no aloha

Diné (Navajo) land and water protector and poet Lyla June Johnston, co-founder of the Taos Peace and Reconciliation Council, notes the contradiction between Indigenous reverence for life and hating the oppressors:

We are dehumanized when we slip into hatred toward them…Our hatred for them is no better than their hatred for us. It’s the same hatred… If I go into that same delusion that we’re enemies, then I’m just as deluded as they are… When we remind them I’m not your enemy, I’m your friend, I’m your sister, your brother…affirming that we are family is very powerful and every time someone does this, the whole world shudders…the whole model of punitive “justice” starts to come apart at the seams and the whole understanding of eye for an eye and revenge is exposed for the nothingness that it is.

Dialogue across the political divide often replicates the Eurocentric cycle of harm and revenge, but it doesn’t have to. When we speak to people who espouse beliefs we see as causing harm, we can lash back or, as the Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, counsels, “Speak the truth but not to punish.”

Hanh’s wisdom is spiritual, but it’s supported by social psychology research. At best, attempts to browbeat and shame people out of their bigotry are met with defensive resistance; at worst, they prompt people to double down in their faulty belief system and deepen their loyalty to the group of people who see things the same way, the people wearing MAGA hats. 

The head of Team MAGA is, of course, Trump. And what that means for liberals, progressives and anyone who wants to see Trump gone, is that every time we display contempt toward Trump and his supporters (especially the 23 million ambivalent ones capable of flipping), we push them deeper into his corner. “They” must band together against the common enemy of “us.” And if we, their enemy, think that climate change is an existential threat and that black lives matter and that Donald Trump is not fit for office, then the opposite must be true.

Contempt, sarcasm and vitriol are verbal punishment. We mete out this punishment because we are so legitimately outraged, terrified, and heartbroken by what’s going on in this country. We’re bewildered and frustrated that anyone who is not a wealthy, white, straight, Christian man with a Groupon for Planet B would even consider voting for Trump. And instead of seeking to understand their motivations, we assume we know what moves them —they’re bigots!—and we berate them accordingly.

Conservatives don’t enjoy being called racists, rabid right-wing nutjobs or Fox News dupes any more than a leftist warms to the wokety woke snowflake label. Why would you listen to someone who holds you in such low regard? And why would you bother conversing at all with someone who presumes you to be some combination of evil and stupid? 

Karen Nussbaum, founding director of Working America, AFL-CIO, and someone with a keen eye for how the Left is shooting itself in the foot, put it like this:

If Democrats just want to keep piling on Trump, that will be the way to get Trump reelected…I suspect that for a lot of prosperous liberals, it [Trump’s reelection] wouldn’t be such a bad thing. For them, there’s an alternative to political victory: a utopia of scolding. Who needs to win elections when you can personally reestablish the rightful social order every day on Twitter and Facebook? When you can scold, and scold, and scold, and scold. That’s their future, and it’s a satisfying one: a finger wagging in some deplorable’s face, forever.

Many leftists see the virtues in restorative justice but maintain that Trump supporters are deplorable sub-humans unworthy of anything but our scorn. Compassion is the enemy—wait, that’s Trump’s line. In a 1990 interview, Trump said of then-President Bush, “I disagree with him when he talks of a kinder, gentler America. I think if this country gets any kinder or gentler, it’s literally going to cease to exist.”

Compassion and empathy are sometimes confused with agreement. To have empathy for someone who abuses drugs and neglects their children isn’t to say, yeah, great idea, keep it up, but rather to touch and feel the pain that led to drug use and the pain that any parent, even a neglectful one, experiences when they see how they’ve harmed their beloved children. A restorative justice system would find ways to help this family rather than lock up the parent. A restorative justice mindset can understand that two seemingly opposite things can be true at the same time—the parent is at once victim and perpetrator. What can be done to repair this parent and this family? How has society failed them? What can be done to repair the desperation or bewilderment or prejudice or fear or cynicism or greed or resentment that drove a voter into Trump’s arms? How has society failed them? We need not agree with or accept their reasoning, only understand it so that we can meet them where they’re at, not where we wish they were at.

Beyond the strategic implications of bashing Trump supporters, our ability to continue as one nation, indivisible, is damaged. Much has been written about the ways in which Trump has sown divisiveness and stirred up hatreds that are finding outlet in acts of horrific violence. In addition, people on the Left who denigrate Trump supporters and conservatives, bear some responsibility for the divisiveness and polarization. 

I speak here not of acts of civil disobedience and direct action which are, I believe, indispensable tools of liberation that oppressors often try to discredit as “uncivil”; what I’m challenging is, more narrowly, a particular form of incivility that dehumanizes our opponents and our oppressors, be they ordinary Trump voters or Trump himself. I call this form of incivility “contempt,” a stylistic square peg in the round hole of human liberation from hatred, fear and divisiveness.

Contempt is a blend of anger, disgust and superiority. Dishing out contempt feels good because it activates the brain’s reward center, but being on the receiving end feels horrible. When we register someone’s contempt for us, we experience anger and shame which, in turn, generate feelings of hostility and a desire to return the person’s contempt. This creates a retaliatory spiral of contempt and backlash contempt that ruptures relationships and fosters deep social, cultural and political divides.

Prisoners at Angola return from farm work detail, guarded by a man on horseback.

Unlike Indigenous restorative justice traditions, contempt is a form of Eurocentric punishment. But just as incarceration doesn’t deter crime and doesn’t heal communities and allow for learning and redemption, neither does disdain accomplish anything other than the fleeting gratification of seeing the deplorable get a rhetorical comeuppance. But even worse than accomplishing nothing, contempt often backfires. When leftists act as though we are woke and know it all, this superior attitude creates a polarized “them,” a pitifully unwoke tribe of know-nothings who are too gullible or privileged to grasp reality. Trump and Fox News personalities revel in this us-them polarization that binds conservatives and the far right together against the common enemy—politically correct bullies they see as more invested in scolding deplorables than in building a better world.

Trump and his base may not, in your view, “deserve” to be treated with civility, but the question of who deserves or doesn’t deserve civility is less important than the more holistic question of what creates more social good—civility or incivility? The avenger asks, “What punishment does this bad person deserve?” The restorative justice proponent asks, “What form of treatment of this person will make for a better society?” 

Feminist philosopher Amy Olberding makes a crucial observation in her brilliant 20 Theses Regarding Civility

Taking a wrecking ball to civility to help the downtrodden or oppressed is not always or automatically helpful. The oppressed already suffer much more from incivility than you do. Wielding incivility on behalf of the oppressed risks more widely normalizing incivility as a general mode of interaction. And, let’s face it, a world in which people uncivilly say exactly what they think will be a world that may well (and almost certainly will) go harder for the oppressed.

It’s tempting to lash out at bigots, but doing so creates huge risks for the oppressed communities upon whom the bigot will retaliate.

We can speak the truth without punishing and doing so is, I believe, the true meaning of civility. We can tell people what we believe and value and why, what experiences we’ve had that led us to see the world differently than they do, what data we’re relying on and why we trust it. We can tell people how certain beliefs and policies hurt us and the people we love. We can tell them what we expect our candidate-of-choice will do as president and why we see that yielding a better outcome than what Trump has in store. We can say all of these things without being condescending, self-righteous or abusive and without damaging our relationship with them.

My own truth, my highest good, does not involve belittling and ridiculing my opponents, even when they’re so profoundly wrong as to have embraced white nationalism or other ideologies of hate. People are more than the worst thing they’ve ever thought or done, and nothing is gained when I treat someone with deplorable beliefs as deplorable. 

The Left (and the Right) is engaged in an internal performative outrage arms race in which we measure our morality by the intensity of our disdain. By “performative,” I mean expressions of outrage that exceed the intensity of one’s genuine feeling and are undertaken for the sake of signaling one’s moral worth to their tribe so that they can be leaders or, at least, members in good standing. 

The performative outrage arms race keeps many of us engaging in greater and greater feats of incivility in order to avoid being seen as lacking in sufficient moral rectitude. Such incivility ends with everyone walking around bearing deep grudges against each other. The deeper the grudge, the less likely someone is to hear how others are suffering and take accountability for what role they might be playing in causing that suffering. The deeper the divisiveness, the more vulnerable we are to aggressive leaders who rise to power on the promise of punishing those on the losing side. Meanwhile, if we’re not careful, “Winners can lose what winning was for,” as the poet and conscientious objector William Stafford wrote. 

To adhere to civility is to be a conscientious objector to verbal warfare, lest the war of words become a fight to the death. Civility is the best way to treat political winners and losers. It gives us more power to speak hard truths to people with whom, like it or not, we share a country and a future, and with whom we will eventually trade places in the eternal wheelhouse of political struggle.


Wanda D. McCaslin, Ed., Justice as Healing, Living Justice Press, 2005.

Juliana E. Okulski , “Complex Adaptive Peacemaking: How Systems Theory Reveals Advantages of Traditional Tribal Dispute Resolution.” American Indian Law Journal, Vol. 5, Issue 1, 1/24/17.

Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred, Sierra Club Books, 1992.

About Erica Etelson

Erica Etelson is a resistance activist, mutual aid organizer and the author of Beyond Contempt: How Liberals Can Communicate Across the Great Divide (New Society Publishers, 2020). A former human rights attorney, she has represented indigenous land sovereignty leaders, welfare recipients, and enivronmental activists. 

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