When asked what he thought of “Western Civilization,” Mahatma Gandhi ostensibly responded, “I think it would be a good idea!” The notion of what it means to be “civil” and thus “civilized” has a long history that goes back to the ancient world. The word comes from the Latin civitas, to be a citizen, which in Roman law meant to be a free male of a particular stature. In the era of colonialism, and even before, it meant to be Christian. Those who did not know the truth of Christ were “uncivilized” and in need of moral education. Jews were often considered “uncivilized” because of their non-Christian mores and behaviors.
So today, when the question of civility is so prevalent, it is important to grapple with the word’s troubled history, a history that speaks more to power, policing, and colonialism than it does to some agreed-upon collective behavior. The anti-colonialist writer Frantz Fanon wrote that “non-violence” — a term loosely associated with “civility” — was used deceptively by the French in Algeria. The occupied North Africans should respond to their situation through non-violence whereas the occupiers could continue the violent control of their lives. And during the late 1960s, Black nationalists criticized the white call for civility as a tool of racism to discredit them, another way to keep the Black man in his place.
Today, “civility” is largely a term that those in power — including but not limited to liberals — use to express a style of privileged discourse on matters of dire concern. Its usage implies that cultural and political behavior coheres to a set of principles. Civility is a policing tool that determines what can and cannot be said. But, who decides what is uncivil? Republicans, for instance, claimed Democrats treated Judge Brett Kavanagh “too harshly” and yet seemed to ignore the arguably “uncivil” way he addressed them. Female protestors were deemed “uncivil” — an angry mob — when they exercised their “civil rights” by verbally accosting senators in a hallway.
I want the call for civil discourse to be fully understood in all its implications: Civility supports not tolerance but control. And control is often a way to maintain power by determining the rules of the debate that will almost always seek to benefit those already in power. I am not in favor of civility uber alles, above all. I believe that injustice has to be contested and often that injustice is not simply a matter of wrong vs. right but a matter of who controls the system of injustice. Fighting injustice without fighting the system that produces it is civil. Fighting the system will often be uncivil since civility is an expression of the system itself. While I do not advocate violence, I do recognize that there are times when incivility is justified, even necessary, to get to the root of the systemic problem. “Civility” itself can be a violent act — an act of coercive disempowerment — when it is used as a tool of control.
There is an important distinction in rabbinic teaching between “argument for the sake of heaven” (makhloket l’shem shamyaim) and “baseless hatred” (sinat hinam). “Baseless hatred” might be closer to unacceptable incivility. But “argument for the sake of heaven” is done with pure intent, though sometimes it takes on uncivil forms.
If one wants to observe Jewish incivility, study a page of Talmud; it is one of the most uncivil texts we have. It is not insignificant that the sages call their enterprise milk-hamtah shel Torah (the war of Torah). Yes, there is honor and respect, but there are no false pieties, no niceties, no empty praise, few manners. Sometimes it came to fisticuffs, blood flowing, even the violent act of excommunication. In the talmudic imagination, there is really no civil way to determine Divine will. There is the “war of Torah.”
I would advocate a robust adversarial response to this moment that may not always be civil. The trick is to occupy the space between an “argument for the sake of heaven” and “baseless hatred.” Civility is a manipulative tool. Let us not succumb to its promise of neutrality. Our present moment is too fragile for that.
Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Chair in Jewish Studies at Indiana University. His teaching focuses on Kabbala, Hasidism, Judaism and gender, Israel/Palestine, and American Jewish thought and culture. He is the author of Hasidism on the Margin: Reconciliation, Antinomianism, and Messianism in Izbica and Radzin Hasidism (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), and most recently, American Post-Judaism: Identity and Renewal in a Postethnic Society (Indiana University Press, 2013) and Hasidism Incarnate: Hasidism, Christianity, and the Construction of Modern Judaism (Stanford University Press, 2014). He is a Kogod Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of America and rabbi of the Fire Island Synagogue.