This is a conversation I’ve seen before, and it has only escalated in recent months. It’s a conversation that has happened for years when it comes to protests for racial justice and other critical human rights issues, and it has made its way to climate conversation too. When Extinction Rebellion protesters began glueing themselves to public transport, or spraying buildings with fake blood. When kids start missing school, or organising en masse and challenging leaders. The words vary, but the general idea stays the same: why are they inconveniencing innocent people? Why are they blocking roads? Why don’t they let people do their job? Of course we should do something about injustice, but we don’t want to be an idiot about it.
Well, I decided it was time to address and examine these things a little more, because I imagine this conversation will happen a lot in the coming weeks. To save myself the time of having this conversation on repeat, and hopefully to help you too, I’m writing an explanation here.
So today let’s talk about the idea of civility.
Civility doesn’t mean what you think it means
When we have arguments about methods of protest, civility is a word that comes up a lot. When we think of the word civility, most of us will think of the modern definition, which is about politeness and courtesy. The idea is that protest movements like Extinction Rebellion aren’t civil, because they aren’t courteous and considerate of innocent bystanders, usually by disrupting their commutes by doing things like blocking roads. I understand this argument; of course it’s frustrating to be caught up in something when you aren’t the one that caused it.
However, it’s also important to recognise that the call for protestors to be more civil is also a fundamental misunderstanding of the word. Here’s a little etymology:
“‘Civitas’ is a juridical and political construct that Greco-Roman antiquity bequeathed to Western civilization. In Latin, it meant ‘city,’ in the sense of city-state, the body politic, the commonwealth. Consequently, ‘civilitas’—which became ‘civility’ in English—was the conduct becoming citizens in good standing, willing to give of themselves for the good of the city,”…
“Building on the notion of ‘civilitas,’ here is a possible definition of civility for our times: The civil person is someone who cares for his or her community and who looks at others with a benevolent disposition rooted in the belief that their claim to well being and happiness is as valid as his or her own.”
We associate civility with being polite, but at its heart civility is deeply concerned with justice. To be civil is to care for your community, for your neighbour, for people you don’t know. To be civil is to be concerned with true equality, which means one must also to be invested in the work of dismantling racism, homophobia, the patriarchy, ableism, economic inequality, corruption, persecution of Indigenous peoples, violence and more. Advocating for the environment is fundamental to these issues because the marginalised are the first to be hurt by climate breakdown.
We know that polite dialogue alone does not create change, because marginalised communities have been talking about these issues for decades, their voices largely ignored. Oppressed people are already hurt by climate breakdown both globally and locally, and so the notion of what it means to be a good citizen must evolve with this knowledge.
Because civility is concerned with morality and with fighting for the rights and quality of life for all, and because there is an urgent need to protect the most vulnerable in our society, this cannot and does not always look like politeness.
Due to the frequent conflation of politeness and civility, it may seem incongruent to call people who shout and heckle avatars of civility, but they can be. Confronted with the decision to silently stand aside while public servants disrespect and endanger their communities, the protesters of the Trump administration have chosen to speak out. While their strategies for doing so may be considered rude, protesters who do speak out against inhumane politics are often actually guarding civility of government, as institutional civility is, at root, an issue of treating fellow human beings with dignity.
“Civility is the shape that care takes,” Forni wrote. Protest is a profoundly civil action, even when the act of protest involves raising one’s voice, or politely refusing service on ethical grounds. It may not be mannerly to scream during a circus, but frequently it is the only way to be heard.
These contexts frame what civility means. True civility cannot align with the status quo, because the status quo kills and harms millions of oppressed individuals. These numbers will only increase as climate breakdown escalates, and so true civility can only result in protests. Especially because peaceful dialogue has continually been ignored and silenced.
Martin Luther King Jr was not civil
Most people who don’t like the actions of Indigenous activism, refugee activism, Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion or other movements concerned with human welfare (although these groups repeatedly emphasise that their actions are rooted in non-violence) tend to look back with rose-tinted glasses at the type of activism they’d prefer. The civil kind.
The figure that is most frequently recalled in these moments is Martin Luther King Jr.
When (white) people look back at Martin Luther King Jr’s legacy, it is incredible to see just how whitewashed it has become. Rather than the radical, visionary, brave leader that he was, he is often portrayed as a harmless, peaceful man who calmly asked for what he wanted. This is not the case. When it comes to the civil rights movement, the nonviolent methods of protest that were used were both radical and very unpopular with Americans at the time.
For King—and more so for the younger generation of student civil-rights leaders who initiated sit-ins and Freedom Rides—nonviolence was militant. It was confrontational by design. Often, this sort of protest required breaking laws—which is why King went to jail dozens of times.
…obstruction, public call-outs, and protests designed explicitly to provoke white onlookers into violence were part and parcel of the civil-rights strategy. But those tactics were not widely considered civil, and according to public-opinion polls, many whites believed black agitators were themselves the ones upending public order, and creating the conditions under which voters who supported white supremacy would only double down on their beliefs.
Just like climate protestors being arrested, Black Lives Matter blocking roads, or business owners refusing service to Trump officials, nonviolent direct action is rarely popular or orderly. But it is on the right side of history, and of morality. King knew this, and it is important that we remember the reality of the civil rights movement instead of propping up a fictional version as an excuse to delegitimise important protests.
And what is it America has failed to hear?” King asked. “It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity”…
King and his intellectual forebears engineered nonviolence specifically as a tool that would break the violent foundations of white supremacy, and doing so necessarily meant disrupting order and breaking the law. The current model of civility counsels accommodation to violent power, but that course of action is actually antithetical to the Kingian project. Civil-rights protesters escalated confrontation and provocation in proportion to the violence that met them, seeking to push that violence to its logical end—either exhausting its proponents or horrifying voting bystanders.
Protest is public and disruptive by nature, which normally leads it to be unpopular at the time it is happening. But it is important to remember that these protests have always been concerned with making the world a fairer, safer, and kinder place for everyone. With the benefit of hindsight we see these protests for what they really are: ordinary people doing extraordinary things to improve the world around them. Every advancement of society and human rights has been fought for and hard-won, and these fights have often inconvenienced bystanders at the times they took place. Society still has a long way to go, which means inconveniences must continue. But, as time continues on, we will remember these moments differently when we look back on them.
By kneeling silently, Kaepernick was acting in the same dignified way civil rights demonstrators did in the 1960s: Students sitting quietly at lunchroom counters until they were dragged away, matrons shoved into police wagons, children being fire-hosed: All were quietly resisting what they believed was a societal wrong…
As with so much, time changes things. Those students who had to be pulled away from lunch counters throughout the South were vilified back then. Today, many are considered heroes for their civil disobedience.
There is a history of effective protest
It’s not just the civil rights movement that proves this to be true. If we look back through the history of protests there are many notable examples of disruptive civil disobedience being effective, despite being unpopular with the general public or those in power.
Back in the late 1980s, many AIDS activists decided that the only way the country was going to become concerned about the growing human toll that HIV was claiming was to cause disruption.
Steven Petrow writes a column for The Washington Post on LGBT issues called Civilities. Back then, he says, most of the country had to be shocked into caring about AIDS — and trying to find a treatment for it.
A group of AIDS activists called ACT UP, which was dedicated to aggressively pressing for more research and services, infuriated a lot of people whose lives were disrupted by their demonstrations. But, Petrow says, something had to happen: “People were dying. The FDA was doing nothing. The Reagan White House had said nothing about AIDS well into the president’s second term. So, yes, that urgency justified that type of action.”
Although people probably felt their lives were inconvenienced by the choices of ACT UP, in retrospect it is clear that protesters were acting for the moral good. They were trying to save lives and save their communities. With time and a more well-rounded understanding, it is clear that this kind of disruption was necessary.
This is also the case for many protest movements that are happening today, including climate activism and racial justice activism (which are inherently connected). If we reach a point in the future where we have taken proper action to tackle the oncoming climate crisis, where we have clean air that doesn’t kill millions each year, where Indigenous people have legal rights and land rights, where the biodiversity of plants and animals is thriving, where people are connected to the natural world, we will look back and talk about how those who stood up, advocated and put themselves on the line were heroes too.
Protestors don’t want to be here either
There is also one key element that I also think often gets missed in discourse, and that is the fundamentally incorrect belief that the protestors love inconveniencing people.
I want to be really clear on this: protestors do not want to be protesting. People who protest are people who want their voices to be heard and action and reform to happen. Groups that organise protests are doing so in response to the fact that nothing is being done to dismantle injustice. They have tried other tactics, they have tried dialogue. Protest is an option that is resorted to because people are desperate for change, and those in power are blatantly ignoring them.
there’s an extent to which all protesters are going to seem uncivil to someone, depending on how narrowly you’re going to define civility. In itself, protest is uncivil if you consider only calm and reasoned dialogue around a table to be the gold standard of how to behave civilly in a democratic society. The very idea of protesting in the streets is disruptive. Even if you’re doing it peacefully, it could be considered uncivil by someone. And yet, protesters believe this disruption is necessary to get their point across, especially if they’ve done those other things – dialogue, negotiations, the quieter, calmer action – and it didn’t get them anywhere.
I know protest may frustrate or inconvenience you, but please remember that protestors are frustrated and inconvenienced too. Nobody wants to take time off work to sit outside in the cold, desperate to be heard. If they had the option of not protesting and leaders actually listening and acting on the demands made, they would take this option. Additionally, please know that in the case of Extinction Rebellion, organisers have coordinated with the London emergency services for months in advance of their rebellion, and it was Transport for London who refused to cooperate with them. Regardless, specific pathways have been kept clear to allow emergency vehicles and MPs through, tube lines are running, and local citizens are still able to cross many of the bridges on foot.
Ultimately, it’s also important to remember that apathy and indifference are the biggest threats to change, and in terms of climate we need change on such a huge scale that many have likened it to the mobilisation efforts of WW2. There is an urgency because we essentially only have a decade to make massive strides towards a different world, and so there isn’t the time to use dialogue as a strategy on its own. Because that, so far, has not been enough.
It’s unfortunate that normal people sometimes get caught up in these more drastic methods of protest, but please remember that protestors are not deliberately trying to make your life worse. In fact, they’re trying to fight for it, alongside the lives of your children and grandchildren, and they’re trying to stand up for the millions of people that are already seriously harmed by the climate crisis.
That being said, if you are a person that cares about climate, there’s also an opportunity to be glad that you’re inconvenienced because it means that you can participate even when you can’t. When large numbers of people protest, there’s a hope that leaders will respond in order to stop the protests. A large part of this is also due to the inconvenience caused on the other side. When lives are disrupted it can prompt policymakers to act in order to keep the peace on all fronts, both by making protesters leave and by appeasing angry disrupted people. It lends itself to a larger collective voice demanding change. So if you care about climate but can’t miss work, be glad if your commute is interrupted! It also means you can participate too.
Civility can be a tool of oppression
I think this point is the most important. Please don’t read it as an attack, but as an opportunity to reflect, look inwards, and potentially grow.
If, when you see news of protests, your first reaction is to get upset about how disruptive these actions are, I implore you to ask yourself why you feel like this.
Because, here’s the thing, the notion of civility is often used as a tool of oppression.
We can see this stretching back through history in the form of colonialism. Instead of seeing colonisation for the violent, destructive practice of tearing apart communities and extracting resources for profit, colonisers have long seem themselves as bringing civility to savage nations. The problem is that the colonisers are the only ones defining what civility is.
That belief would indicate that some people are innately civil, while others need to have civility taught to — or imposed upon — them. Johnson says this is part of the underlying rationale for the enslavement of Africans imported into America and the genocide of Native peoples.
“People of color don’t get to orchestrate the terms of civility,” she explains. “Instead, we’re always responding to what civility is supposed to be.”
So the relationship between alleged civilizers and the people they’re “gifting” with civility, Johnson points out, is “inherently undemocratic, unequal and racist.” (Think of Native American children being forcibly removed from their homes and placed in so-called Indian boarding schools or Mexican children being punished for speaking Spanish in schools or African-Americans being forced to listen to sermons that preached that servants should obey their masters, etc.)
While we may not see this playing out in exactly the same historical patterns, this does still occur in many ways. One of these is in how we frame protest.
people are more likely to evaluate protesters as uncivil if the protesters are members of relatively marginalized groups, of lower social status, with less political power, or with less economic resources. Those groups are less likely to get the benefit of the doubt in terms of how the public perceives them. But this is not to say that some high status groups won’t be considered uncivil, too.
This will massively differ depending on the type of protest, and what the protest focuses on, but the biases are always there. Whether its hysteria over Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protest or upset over climate demands, the facts remain the same. The marginalised are the most at risk in these situations. Climate breakdown hurts Indigenous people, global south countries, island nation states, people of colour, women, the poor and the disabled first. White, rich, global northerners will not feel these effects for much longer. If we focus on the method of protest and not the topic, we are silencing and tone policing the oppressed.
When protesters go out they’re doing it because they have a set of demands, concerns, a message they want to get across, and they struggle to get it across in any other way. When the response to that protest is not to engage on the actual issue but to instead talk about whether they protested appropriately, it’s a way of changing the subject.
Changing the subject like this effectively erases the voices of those protesting and those they are advocating for as a whole.
Honestly, if you are focused on how civil a protest is rather than the very real, urgent issues it is addressing, I would say that it is you that is being uncivil, if we take the original definition of the word. While protestors act in the true role of civility by advocating for equality and for their neighbour, it is the critics of the method of protest that erase these issues and don’t look out for their communities, instead changing the subject and ignoring dealing with the very real problems we are facing in today’s world.
The role of the media
It’s also important to critically examine the role our media plays in this. I have no doubt that the next few weeks will be filled with coverage that completely misses the point and instead focuses on the methods of protest.
Take, for example, the XR activists who sprayed fake blood on to the Treasury recently. This coverage from The Guardian very quickly explains what the protestors were concerned with, namely the UK’s role in the Middle East and investments in fossil fuels, and takes the time to look at these topics in more depth. Now, look at the same event covered by the BBC. The topic of protest is barely covered (note how the mention of the Middle East is completely absent), with much more focus on the means of protest. This is not to say that all Guardian reporting is good and all BBC reporting is bad, but that it’s important to look beyond the surface and engage thoughtfully with how the media covers protests.
It’s hard to put a fine point on the role media is playing, in part because they have a couple of different interests. On one hand, they might play up the more dramatic and disruptive nature of protest, in which case they may play a role in making protest seem more uncivil than it is, if they only go to the people holding the most outlandish signs and they don’t talk to the hundred other people who are out there protesting peacefully without that kind of outlandish message. They can heighten this appearance of incivility. They are also drawn to larger and more disruptive protest events in the first place, which, again, might lead to the impression that protest is more uncivil than it is. The vast majority of protest events are relatively small, peaceful, and uneventful, but that doesn’t get covered very much in the press, so they’re playing this role that is amplifying uncivility.
As we move forward, as you engage with news media, I urge you to remember that our media is owned and dominated by a very small number of people, who have specific biases and motivations. Please make sure to not just take reports on protest at face value, but to dig deeper below the surface to get an accurate timeline of events, as well as noting what people are actually protesting about, rather than how they’re protesting.
Ultimately, I know protests may make your life more of a hassle. But please try to remember that protestors know this too, and they are only acting because they want you to be able to live in a thriving world. The fight for human rights is always messy, but people are trying their best.
Right now we’re in urgent times, and we have to act like it.