Is Incivility a Disease?

Is Incivility a Disease?

UUCC Member Jim Caldiero recently attended a public hearing where he observed what he felt were incivil, heavy-handed tactics, including an adult harassing a teen and a council member verbally berating a witness.

Jim wrote in an email that these events reminded him of what historian Thomas Fleming said about John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in the book A Disease in the Public Mind:

Fleming was struck by a statement by … President James Buchanan, who characterized Brown’s raid as a “reckless venture” caused by “an incurable disease in the public mind.”

Jim continued:

The public mind is not public opinion. It is not measurable by polling questions. Rather, the public mind, Fleming tells us, is a set of “fixed beliefs that are fundamental to the way people participate in the world of their time.” A disease in the public mind occurs when those beliefs about our behavior in the political process break down. It happened during the abolition of slavery, during the McCarthy era. It is happening again, now.

As a professional mediator, I found Jim’s words very thought-provoking.  Is incivility a disease?

“Incivility” is, by definition, behavior not appropriate in civil society. Thus, it can range all the way from garden-variety irritating words and whining; to boycotts and threats; and, beyond, to violence and bloodshed.  The John Brown example brings to mind a metaphor.  Incivility is like chemotherapy: it virtually always has destructive side effects, but when you’re dealing with a life-threatening cancer, sometimes you have to use it.

John Brown was a single individual challenging the cancer of slavery.  Although people may question his particular approach, few looking back today would argue that resistance was not called for.  In contrast, the people Jim described as incivil at the recent hearing were more powerful than the people on whom they imposed, and I think that in their cases the term “incivility” is just right.

Holding the disempowered and disenfranchised to the same standards of “niceness” as those in power is ludicrous.  When all you have is your outrage, you have to use it, and when all you have is your body, taking it into the streets is what you have to do.  Such behavior isn’t “diseased,” it’s “dis-eased.”  Collectively, the larger society is stuck with the consequential damage produced by such conduct – it’s one of the costs of oppression.  The “disease” is the condition that leads to the need for unpleasant behavior, not the behavior itself.

Isn’t it, in fact, wrong to describe resistance behavior as “incivility?”  When society turns its back on a group of people, and protesters act unpleasantly to get these lives to matter, it is NOT an act against civil society – it’s the exact opposite.  When used to resist oppression, we should not call it “incivility.”  Let’s call it “resistance” instead.  Or we could call it “patriotism.”

Persons and groups in power are now openly misappropriating resistance behavior and using it to double down on their power.  A false moral equivalency is trotted out to excuse it.  Oppression also thrives by creating denial and complacency in some; exhaustion and a sense of helplessness in others.

A related point: not all resistance behavior is a good idea.  To extend the medical metaphor, it would be a terrible idea to treat pneumonia or meningitis with chemotherapy – it would kill the patient.  Instead, you need things like rest, fluids and antibiotics.  Intense conflicts are mental minefields – they create unconscious biases (such as extreme demonization of the other side) that cause people to act against their own interests and make things worse.

For effective justice-making, biases and blindnesses associated with conflict and oppression must be understood so they can be compensated for.  I think we need to teach conflict theory and resistance behavior in our schools and especially in our religious education classes.

Regardless of political affiliation, people of goodwill want the moral arc of the universe to bend toward justice.  Head, AND heart, AND hands – bending the arc will require all three.  We need to understand our resistance pharmacopeia, and then use it courageously, judiciously, and with love. icon-fire


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