The Problem of Civility: A Genealogy

To speak of civility at the present moment is to intervene in a vexed and often vicious debate. When, in November 2016, the cast of Hamilton took to the stage to urge the incoming administration to “uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us,” it sparked a firestorm of public debate, some generative—about the “safety” of performative spaces—and some quite disingenuous: about the seeming “incivility” of their discourse. In June 2018, when a restaurant in Virginia asked the White House press secretary to leave mid-meal, and other prominent members of the administration were challenged as they ate in public, that debate intensified. The Washington Post urged its readers to let these public figures “eat dinner in peace,” arguing against a “special moment justifying incivility.” That same month, The New York Times noted that the administration’s “coarse discourse … seems to inspire opponents to respond with vituperative words of their own.” In these iterations, “incivility” was used to justify the bourgeois re-imagination of spaces of thoughtful communitas—the theatre, the dining room—as places where one paid to be entertained, where one expected to be served “in peace.”

But the slippage between service and the imperative to civility has a longer history, one crucially animated by discourses of race. In early modern England, for instance, “civility,” then as now, had a range of meanings, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “educated; cultured, cultivated; well-bred”; “benevolent; kind; considerate”; as well as “courteous, or obliging in behaviour to others,” “polite.” But as the last meaning suggests, civility slipped into the sense of graciousness, accommodation, even obsequiousness. The enactment of “courtesy” could also comprise a form of unacceptable servility. In Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755), to “cringe” was defined as “servile civility.” “Civil” and “servile”: the terms slip from one to the other; the assonance between the terms is immediately heard, noted, ratified. Our current sense of civil service, of course, preserves the conflation between the idea of the civis and the concept of the servant; yet, on November 29, 2018, The New York Times reported that employees of the federal government would be forbidden from discussing impeachment or mentioning “resistance,” a clear turn in the direction of civil servility.

But as Robert Cawdrey glosses the term “civil” in A Table Alphabeticall (1609), to be “ciuill” is also to be “honest in conuersation, or gentle in behauiour.” “Gentle,” however, also resonated in terms of class and rank, including what we would now understand as “race,” throughout the early modern period. The pun on “gentle” and “gentile” that is so significant in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice famously relies on the way in which, in each iteration of the term, both the eye and the ear invoke “gentle’s” semantic—and racialized—twin. To be “un-gentile” is to be ungentle. When, in Othello, Roderigo relates Desdemona’s elopement with a “lascivious Moor,” “a knave of common hire, a gondolier”—deliberately and strategically analogizing Othello to a figure who can be paid to perform on cue, to entertain and serve “in peace”—he invokes his own “sense of all civility” to ratify his claim.

Attending to early modern meanings of civility thus uncovers the intersections between civility and servility, civil “gentility” and strategic marginalization, revealing as it does so the particularly racialized ramifications of discourses of “civility.” As historians of civil rights movements have widely noted, the (mis)appropriation of the imperative to “civility” not only rehearses mistaken adages about “peaceful protest”; it also works in service of regimes of privilege, power, and whiteness, mobilizing an insidious strategy to thwart change by silencing the voices of dissidence and difference. To invoke the “civil” has always been to demarcate the boundaries of those who do not and cannot belong: the slave, the stranger, the outcast. To rely on civility is to enact and re-enact the forms of psychic, social, and legal violence that have always separated the “civil” body from the uncivil one, and thereby to authorize the reading of the civically inconvenient body as insufficiently “peaceful,” inordinately “ungentle,” inappropriately servile.  It is no accident that those against whom the charge of “incivility” has recently been levied—the cast members of Hamilton; a restaurant manager; public protestors; those who reject quiet subservience and repudiate the entitlement of certain kinds of bodies to be served “in peace”—embody or invoke precisely those precarious, often racialized members of our social body. The imperative to civility must no longer sanction their civic erasure.

Urvashi Chakravarty is an Assistant Professor of English at George Mason University. She researches and teaches on early modern race studies, queer studies, and slavery and servitude in early modern England and the Atlantic world, and she is currently completing a book manuscript titled Fictions of Consent: Slavery, Servitude, and Free Service in Early Modern England.

The contributors to this special issue were participants in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Colloquium on “Gender, Race, and Early Modern Studies.” Organized and facilitated by Kimberly Anne Coles and Ayanna Thompson, the year-long colloquium met monthly to study a range of early modern cultural artifacts and texts. While exploring the Folger’s extensive collections, the participants also pursued innovative methods for bringing gender and race into dialogue with each other. Patricia Akhimie asked participants specifically to consider how questions of gender and race might be analyzed “in relation both to early modern texts and our own personal and contemporary experiences.” The contributions in this issue represent our efforts to do just that.

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