The Tyranny of Civility

The Tyranny of Civility

Some years ago, a student was celebrated across our media for clearing up rubbish bins that had been upturned by outsourced workers protesting to be insourced (in other words to be part of an employment relationship that honoured basic human dignity).

I explained this esteeming of the ‘genteel’ and ‘civil’ over actual justice as ‘drinking tea while Rome burns’ to my kids.

My first-born got this tattoed on her arm in the place I was hoping she would get ‘Mom’ tattooed. 

Perhaps my last-born will ‘do me nice’.

In something of the same vein, we are still being fooled into esteeming civility and ‘order’ over the chaos that often accompanies taking action to heal.

The media, buoyed by certain political groupings, have convinced us that today’s Shutdown is planned violence or criminal activity.

Chillingly, it resounds with the campaign that was embarked on nationally and internationally to recast the Marikana miners as criminals rather than protestors. There is a materiality to these kind of campaigns. And, that materiality may be actual bloodshed.

In all the noise and the attempts to convince us to recast would-be protestors as hooligans and criminals, we have lost their message. And, it may be a lifesaving message for every single one of us: we cannot possibly continue to hold to the idea that any of us have a sustainable future whilst the majority of us live with far less then they need and a very small number of us live in excess. 

If we dialled down the noise of these campaigns and actually listened, we would learn about how our energy grid is held hostage not only to the corruption that we think we can see but a far more insidious corruption of long term and evergreen contracts that prop up international corporations whilst we pay more and more for electricity. This, without even starting on how the global South is being pressured to accelerate a just energy transition even though we are not the biggest polluters whilst the global North continues to pollute our mother whilst running wars to boot.

If we had eyes to see and ears to hear we may not be so quick to cast those speaking up as criminals whilst we partake in muting and shutting down their voices to the detriment of us all whilst unknowingly propping up the biggest crime of all which is the giant pyramid scheme of capital. As more and more of the middle class joins the poor in debt and uncertainty, it is time to join the poor in voice.

Because ‘genteel’ society puts the Mandela’s and MLK’s of this world on T-shirts, we have often forgotten that true peacemakers are often cast as the terrorists of this world, the menaces, the ‘disturbers of the peace’. We celebrate a recast, tamed, palatable version of these disrupters.

In his letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr King wrote:

‘My citing the creating of tension as part of the work of non-violent resistance may sound rather shocking. But I must admit, I am not afraid of the word ‘tension’.

I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive non-violent tension which is necessary for growth.’

In Healing Resistance, Haga says that it is easier in the short term to sweep issues under the carpet and settle for a cheap yet ultimately unsustainable negative peace. It is an entirely different conversation to proactively work against violence and build toward a positive peace that includes justice for all. It requires us to lift the veil of injustice, he says and work to repair the harm.

We can create a negative peace by bombing countries or crushing protest. But that’s not peace. It never endures in the long-run.

Today’s protestors are lifting the veil on injustice. We can deny our own inbuilt sense of injustice and compassion by looking away in all kinds of circumstances. We can turn the television off when we see suffering. We can look to the ‘redemptive’ violence of the police and military as we attempt to quell our own fears. I completely get the fear that lingers from July 2021. I, too, lived the fear and uncertainty of that. 

But, I sincerely believe our fears are misplaced and that celebrating the crushing of voices today by police and military might has us siding with a system that is going to end us all. Unless we use our freedom of choice to choose differently.

Getting to a true peace for us all involves acknowledging the harm in the first place. Taking on violence is not easy and it will not be without loss. Haga says it is about undoing harm, performing an operation that can heal the wound. The bigger the harm, the messier the operation will be.

We should not be fooled about where the real violence is at. We should not cheer on the violence of the state as it attempts to crush ‘the surfacing of the conflict that already exists so that it can finally be addressed’, as Haga writes.

We could all partake in the work of healing today and it might be as simple as not adding our voices to a conversation that says ‘good, shoot them’ or ‘good, lock them up.’

Today a healing portal opens up and it matters what we do with our thoughts, words and deeds as the conflict surfaces for us to grapple with.

It’s time for us to reclaim the political space as a space for problem-solving and conflict resolution. 

Politicians should be peacemakers, skilled mediators. We, the people, get to take back this space from the rivalling gang turf wars that party politics have become. To do so requires that we bring our awareness to how our own thoughts, words and deeds affect the whole thing.

Today’s shutdown will disturb our ‘peace’ but we may learn that it is really disturbing our complacency, to use Haga’s term. Let’s not double down on our complacency by celebrating the violence of the state and its policing and military capacity.

Let’s celebrate the surfacing of this tension and the necessary conversations that go with it.

As Adrieene Maree Brown writes in Emergent Strategy:

‘Once there were kings and queens all over the earth. Someday we might speak of presidents and CEO’s in the past tense only. It is important that we fight for the future, get into the game, get dirty, get experimental. How do we create and proliferate a compelling vision of economies and ecologies that center humans and the natural world over the accumulation of material?’

Step one: to borrow yet another term from Haga, we resist the tyranny of civility.

Sheena Jonker

ADR Network SA and Access to Justice SA

20 March 2023