Don’t tell me to be civil

Opinion by Connor Toups
Feb. 22, 2019, 1:00 a.m.

I was 8 years old when California voters banned gay marriage in 2008. I was 16 when I had my first crush. His name was Marcus (*not actually his name*): He was my height, he had dark hair and he told me he was gay. He also told me he would never tell his parents, that his dad hated gay people, that he was scared. Sometimes, I think about Marcus, and I wonder what could have been in a different political climate.

Last week, one of my peers at The Stanford Daily argued in his op-ed that we as a society need to engage more “civilly” with those who disagree with us. He wrote that we must view politics “as a negotiation rather than a battlefield,” and that people should aspire for an “ethos of civility” where parties “temper the emotional stakes involved.”

I bring up the story of my first crush not to explain my personal history with men (you can DM me for that), but to illustrate that for many of us, and especially for those who traditionally reside on the margins of society, those whose stories have been ignored for generations, those who were never afforded seats at the conversation, we view politics as a battleground because we have been forced to fight for basic human rights and recognition, and we refuse to negotiate on the premise of our humanity.

It is hard to “temper the emotional stakes involved” because of how unavoidably emotional these topics are. Politics affect people in the most personal way possible: We have loved ones who have had an abortion, we have friends who couldn’t marry because of their sexuality, we have grandparents who have contended with the broken healthcare systems.

The politics of civility merely seek to cast blame and further exclude marginalized peoples whose voices we so often refuse to respect or acknowledge; they seek to discredit a new wave of diverse activists on account of their “hyper-emotionality.” For those who look back fondly to the “civility” of the U.S. Senate of the 1960s, it was easy for the all-white, all-male Senate to disagree about civil rights and then go to the bar together and have a beer and a laugh together because they knew that, at the end of the day, they would never have to experience the stinging pain of systemic racism and sexism.

When we talk about the politics of civility, we must reorient ourselves away from the dangerous rhetoric of blaming people for sharing the emotional ways in which politics affects them; instead, we must reframe “civility” as respecting the deeply human impact that policies have on peoples’ lives.

Do not tell us to temper the emotional stakes: The emotional stakes cannot be tempered. Do not tell us to negotiate instead of fight. Nobody listened to us when we tried to negotiate; nobody cared when gay men were dying of AIDS on the streets or when women were dying in back alleys from botched abortions or when unarmed black men were dying on the streets at the hands of police. Do not tell us that our “incivility” has corrupted this political system; the system’s unwillingness to acknowledge the emotional stakes of these laws is the true corrupter of this democratic society.

I agree with my colleague in that we are in a moment of extreme polarization in this nation. However, solving that crisis means rejecting any notions of tempering emotional stakes. Instead, demand that we double down on affirming and recognizing people’s stories, that we listen to their pain and that we seek reconciliation by lifting up marginalized voices.

To be clear, this attitude does not merely extend to “social” issues. We must listen to people for whom the pain of deindustrialization rings true; we must, as students at a school inextricably linked with Silicon Valley and technology, recognize the pain of lifelong Bay Area residents who have been priced out of their homes or of workers whose livelihoods have been automated away by programmers in the valley.       

The path towards a brighter political future begins in acknowledging the visceral, emotional nature of politics and embracing an attitude which allows people to tell their stories and their own truths without being dismissed as emotional and uncivil.


Contact Connor Toups at ctoups22 ‘at’

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