ARC Review: Against Civility by Alex Zamalin

The idea and practice of civility has always been wielded to silence dissent, repress political participation, and justify violence upon people of color. Although many progressives today are told that we need to be more polite and thoughtful, less rancorous and angry, when we talk about race in America, civility maintains rather than disrupts racial injustice.

Spanning two hundred years, Zamalin’s accessible blend of intellectual history, political biography, and contemporary political criticism shows that civility has never been neutral in its political uses and impacts. The best way to tackle racial inequality is through “civic radicalism,” an alternative to civility found in the actions of Black radical leaders including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Audre Lorde. Civic radicals shock and provoke people. They name injustice and who is responsible for it. They protest, march, strike, boycott, and mobilize collectively rather than form alliances with those who fundamentally oppose them.

In Against Civility, citizens who care deeply about racial and socioeconomic equality will see that they need to abandon this concept of discreet politeness when it comes to racial justice and instead more fully support disruptive actions and calls for liberation, which have already begun with movements like #MeToo, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, and Black Lives Matter.

This wasn’t a book that was on my radar but I just noticed it while browsing on Edelweiss and decided to pick it up. And now when I read it, it feels so prescient. 

We all have seen the political discourse for the past five years where many moderates/centrists have lamented the loss of civility in politics than the authoritarian tendencies of an openly law breaking president and his administration. So, it wasn’t a surprise that we got to read many such calls for bipartisan compromise and democrats to reach out to their right wing counterparts, after the 2020 election. But the farce that has been playing out since then, with a party and the president trying all they can to disenfranchise a complete section of voters and overturn a democratically elected next President – it clearly shows that calls for civility and compromise have no place in our politics anymore, because we can’t be civil with people who will usurp our rights at any given  chance so that they can maintain their white supremacist power. 

And the author shows through his writing – tracing back such calls for civility and morality from the days of slavery to civil war to reconstruction to Jim Crow to the civil rights movement – that anytime a group of civic minded people come together to create a movement that tries to disrupt the status quo and fights for rights like equitable justice, eradication of poverty, antiracist and anti discrimination policies, climate action etc, all the elite who benefit from the status quo try to undermine the movement through calls for civility. Strongly worded speeches, protests, sit-ins, boycotts – these are legitimate forms of  nonviolent action that have the power to energize people to fight more proactively for their rights, and that’s what scares the beneficiaries of this racist inequitable system and they try to frame all the protests in terms of a law and order issue, diverging from the core narrative of what the activists are fighting for. The author rightly points out that being civil has never worked out for any of the progressive movements before, and only disruptive activism has led to some systemic changes. 

But the work is still a lot incomplete, which is even more glaringly obvious after the results of this election and it is the duty of every civic minded person to unfailingly question the inequities of our society and the role government plays in perpetuating them; while not heeding to the voices of those who call for moderation and incremental changes instead of radical progress. 

Inequality and exclusion have always been evident in American culture, and these conditions have always been maintained through violence. The plea for activists to be civil—in the past, now, and always—subverts this reality and implies that things can’t really be that bad. After all, how can one even call for civility if catastrophe is staring one in the face? Isn’t the call to civility a product of a smug insistence that individual moral virtue will magically fix an ailing society? It can’t and it hasn’t.

— Alex Zamalin, Against Civility

In conclusion, though this book looks back at lots of important movements through American history, it is much more relevant to our current political reality and I would definitely encourage anyone to pick it up. Learning from the past is very important, especially when our country is going through turmoil – and history teaches us that progress happens only after a prolonged collective fight for it, not by being silent or civil individuals. 

PS: Thank you to Beacon Press and Edelweiss for providing me with this advance review copy. All opinions expressed here are unbiased and solely mine.

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