Sometimes There Are More Important Goals Than Civility

Confronting racism can be crucial, even when it’s not persuasive.

Mike Segar / Reuters

In the brushfire wars since Donald Trump won the presidency, skirmishes over how to speak to his coalition of voters have consumed liberals. Leading the vanguard in those conversations is a collection of writers and thinkers of otherwise divergent views, united by the painful process of reexamining identity politics, social norms, and—most urgently—how to address racism in an election clearly influenced by it. Though earnest and perhaps necessary, their emphasis on the civil persuasion of denizens of "middle America" effectively coddles white people. It mistakes civility for the only suitable tool of discourse, and persuasion as its only end.

This exploration of how to best win over white Americans to the liberal project is exemplified by reactions to Hillary Clinton’s placing many of Donald Trump’s supporters in a “basket of deplorables.” The debate about whether to classify these voters as racist or bigoted for supporting a candidate who constantly evinced views and policies many believe to be bigoted is still raging. As Dara Lind at Vox expertly notes, Clinton’s comments themselves were inartful precisely because they seemed focused solely on “overt” manifestations of racism, like Klan hoods and slurs. That focus ignores the ways in which white supremacy and patriarchy can function as systems of oppression, tends to forgive the more refined and subtle racism of elites, and may ultimately lead to a definition of racism in which no one is actually racist and yet discrimination remains ubiquitous.

At New York, Jesse Singal offered one of the most-thorough critiques of Clinton for alienating white Americans with blunt language. His colleague Drake Baer recently made a similar point, arguing that even if racism is systemic and white supremacy does actually endow advantages to millions of Americans, saying that plainly threatens to stifle constructive debate, because people will object to being labeled that way. For Singal and Baer, getting white Americans to join a diverse coalition and supporting initiatives for societal equality involves implicit appeals and cajoling, rather than explicit call-outs. Both of their arguments rely on a body of psychological research that supports the practicality of finesse in interpersonal conversations in changing individual views.

Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum argues that both the broadening of the definition of racism, and the actual application of the label stifle debate. Drum writes:

It's bad enough that liberals toss around charges of racism with more abandon than we should, but it's far worse if we start calling every sign of racial animus—big or small, accidental or deliberate—white supremacy. I can hardly imagine a better way of proving to the non-liberal community that we're all a bunch of out-of-touch nutbars who are going to label everyone and everything we don't like as racist.

Taken independently, these conclusions seem reasonable, though they are not backed by hard evidence. Perhaps broad definitions of racism and white supremacy really do muddle conversations, especially among people without the same level of critical understanding.

My colleague Conor Friedersdorf adds another layer to the debate in discussing a black social-media user’s critique of Drum’s argument, in which he points out that the usage of stigma and shame in disagreements among liberals about definitions of racism and white supremacy predicts their larger inability to build coalitions with people outside of the liberal experiment. “The coalition that opposes Trump needs to get better at persuading its fellow citizens and winning converts, rather than leaning so heavily on stigmatizing those who disagree with them,” Friedersdorf writes. “Among other problems with wielding stigma, it doesn’t work.” This again is a very reasonable and well-intentioned call for civility in discourse, especially in dealing with racism.

In the aggregate, though, these calls for civility threaten to impose a burden on people of color. If calling out racism is largely counterproductive, using a systemic definition like white supremacy is also unacceptable, and stigmatizing or shaming those who espouse racist beliefs is self-defeating, what tools remain? The only form of productive debate that people of color can engage in, it seems, is the gentle persuasion of white people who may or may not hold retrograde views.

That advice is of course probably most appealing to white Americans, for whom the social cost of being called racist may loom larger than the effects of racism itself, or for whom the ideal of a functioning marketplace of civil ideas is more important than the worry that they might be carved out of it. White Americans share a vested interest in not being called racist, straight people in not being called homophobic, and men in not being called misogynistic. Arguments in favor of civility cede valuable rhetorical ground by default and coddle people who may well know the score about their own views. Skepticism should be a default position here; instead, the bigoted views of individuals are privileged as artifacts of ignorance, and thus not considered as purposeful efforts to sabotage debate.

Minorities may suffer from racism and bigotry that goes well beyond incivility, but these arguments urge that it is their job in debate to remain civil, because that is the only productive way to reach across the aisle. As Singal notes, this is useful advice because racism is not always accepted as any single thing, and the parameters of the debate often depend on whether or not a belief or characteristic is actually racist. Americans each probably differ in our definitions of and tolerance to racism. Also, research cited by Baer and Singal finds that white people respond to being called “racist” in a way that resembles receipt of a slur, and in some experiments changed their biases in response to cooperation as opposed to heated debate. As they note, research also supports Friedersdorf’s claim that stigma may not be useful in one-on-one interactions.

But there are limits to the conclusions of those studies, and they are complicated by other evidence. For one, a 2013 study from researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison finds that constant explicit disclosure of an individual’s biased views—albeit in a scientific setting and based on an assessment—are vital in diminishing bias, as are constant interactions with stereotyped groups and targeted information. In real-world settings, research indicates that those constant interactions are made more difficult given that the very presence of minority people around white people increases bigoted views. The research Singal and Baer cite also seems to mostly revolve around episodic interpersonal interactions, and not necessarily around the complex sociological processes by which social mores are made, enforced, and internalized.

But even if we do assume that levying claims of racism and shame is counterproductive in persuading white people to join diverse coalitions, there is another suspect claim at work here: that persuasion is the sole end-goal for argument.

For people who suffer the incivil burden of bigotry, that claim doesn’t quite hold up. Sometimes the goal of argument is to vent. Sometimes it is to simply tell the truth. Sometimes it’s just to loudly proclaim one’s own humanity. The general burden to always remain civil in arguments—even if it means coddling white egos and casting a blind eye to obvious bigotry—can even create that need to commit to truth-telling at any cost. Civil discussions with people who themselves may have already breached the bounds of civility are difficult.

One way around that difficulty for marginalized folks is abandoning civility. The labels of racism and bigotry can impose a social cost on bigoted actions, policy preferences, or speech, regardless of whether hearts or minds are changed. Stigma can be useful.

Further, the goal of arguments isn’t necessarily to directly change one opponent, but often to convince onlookers and create social incentives. Such was the gist of Clinton’s statement: She was not intending to convince Trump supporters to not be bigoted, but to draw people who see themselves as opposed to bigotry into her corner. Motivated candidates and institutions can create social conditions and stigmas by which bigotry is diminished, and they also change the way in which media transmit information and people absorb it. Imagine if the same outrage manifest in media coverage about the ideas of microaggressions and safe spaces pioneered by marginalized people had been marshaled against stubborn implicit racial biases and resistance to multiculturalism among whites, or if the useless term “racially charged” in media descriptions of racist things had been replaced with something more potent, like “racist.”

The main thing that this debate could use is a discussion of the effects of rigorously calling out racism on people who suffer from the effects of racism. In the vein of W.E.B. Du Bois’s thought, and Ida B. Wells anti-lynching work, perhaps there is an element of empowerment among people of color in calling out racism. Part of this is the effect of stigma itself: Stigmatization and appeals to moral rightness are among the most effective ways to seize power when dispossessed of it. But also, calling out racism aids its victims in understanding the powers at play in their own lives, and is the foundation of solidarity for many people of color. There is a reason why movements like the civil-rights movement and Black Lives Matter that have had dramatic impacts on the course of American history have developed around rather vivid and unflinching call-outs of white supremacy and racism, even leveled against their own white members.

The movements and empowerment built around calling out racism are what give activists the vocabulary to disassemble it, regardless of whether they choose to use the tactics of civility in individual conversations or not. The ultimate irony of Drum’s objection to expanding definitions of white supremacy is that it took decades of open emotional appeals by black people to persuade—and perhaps stigmatize—the country into believing that segregation, disenfranchisement, and other actions of “real” racists, were in fact racist. Given the objections to incivility that Wells, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other black leaders faced generations ago, it is rather clear that incivility watered the rhetorical ground on which both sides of the debate over racism today stand.

Those concerns among communities of color seem to muddle Singal’s conclusion, focused as it is on psychological rather than sociological analysis, and on the reactions of recalcitrant white people rather than the transformative development of people of color. Maybe, in a limited sense, Singal is right: White Americans can be persuaded to join the liberal project by individual interlocutors jettisoning identity politics and abandoning moralizing about racism. But maybe incivility can be used to empower people of color, establish social penalties for racism, and change social mores and modes of mass communication, which all in the aggregate could push white society towards inclusion and away from bias. Or perhaps calling out racism just helps people of color cope with racism.

Civility is not the highest moral imperative—especially in response to perceived injustices—nor is hand-holding and guiding reluctant people to confront their bigotry gently. American history is full of fights, including the ongoing struggle for civil rights, that have been as fierce as they are ultimately effective. Civility is overrated.