The Politics of Incivility

The Flemish painter, Pieter Bruegel, portrayed in his artwork men relieving themselves, cripples begging, and peasants toiling—as well as butchery and the gallows. In his masterful work, The Civilizing Process, Norbert Elias showed how the “late medieval upper class” had not yet demanded, as later generations would, that “everything vulgar should be suppressed from life and therefore from pictures.”

For centuries now, defining incivility has been intimately connected with social rank, class status, political hierarchy, and relations of power. The ability to identify and sanction incivility has been associated with positions of political privilege—and simultaneously has constituted and reinforced political power. This, I fear, remains true today: Defining incivility in political discourse continues to be a political strategy that is deeply embedded in relations of power.

In the aftermath of the Tucson shootings, there have been renewed calls for greater civility in our political discourse. Although at a personal level I favor civil discourse as the wiser path in politics, I recognize that it is inevitably a political strategy that comes more easily to those who already have an audience or a professional position that affords them greater access to the media and the public. This suggests, at least to me, that we should be cautious about telling others how civilly they should speak.