The Problem With Politeness
Stop thanking me for being polite when I’m angry about injustice and focus on the injustice instead
So there is this “compliment” that well-meaning people lob at me when I write conscientiously about social ills that infuriate me. I write about something deeply painful, troubling and/or problematic in our society in my own fairly measured way that feels innate to me and is not in any way meant to say anything about the deservedness of my politeness as it relates to thing that is problematic or people supporting or engaging in problematic behaviors and without fail someone, sometimes many someones, will thank me for being, “so polite.”
Instead of sharing my outrage at the initial and underlying offense — at the racism, sexism, xenophobia, transphobia and other ills that permeate our society and deserve our immediate attention, certain readers focus primarily on how polite I am and how kind in my address. I get frustrated and angry because I never quite feel like people who get hung up on the way I present my message versus its content are with me in the cause — not really.
This type of veiled “compliment,” is tone policing on steroids and if you ever feel inclined to direct it at someone speaking out against injustice, know that most of us don’t ever take it as a compliment. The buried lede is that if “other people,” usually other Black women or Black people, were as polite as me then, you, we, society would listen to them more and believe them more. The implication itself springs forth new harm and new anger because this is one of the biggest lies we are told to excuse social problems: “you’d do better if you were, “nicer,” “kinder,” “more polite,” or “more respectable,”,” even when the arsenal of respectability has been outright denied to us.
I worry sometimes that my perceived eloquence has become an instrument against the causes I care passionately about — against the things that I and other like minded people burn up inside about in rage and anger and then somehow manage to turn into digestible sentences that somehow make people feel good about and on the right side these issues and the real and tangible harm they inflict on me and/or my child and/or my loved ones and/or my fellow unknown to me human beings.
When we are thanked for our politeness instead of assailed with plots to dismantle structural problems, we are livid about your failure to see the issue for what it is, for your failure to rage about the things human beings have been subjected to in our own country and on our own planet, and at your myopic focus on politeness and respectability.
If you aren’t more upset about the underlying offenses than you are about the tone of the speaker — so upset that you couldn't care less about the tone: we aren’t in this together — not really. At that point when someone thanks me for being polite, politeness fails me. I hardly ever say thank you. I might give such comments a cursory “like,” on Facebook, but I will not nor will I ever again thank anyone for indirectly implying that anyone who can’t say the same things as politely as I do isn’t making a valid point deserving of our immediate and collective attention.
Telling someone speaking out against injustice how polite they are is the new “you’re so articulate,” — this hanging implication that you don’t expect politeness from me on one hand, and worse, that unless someone in that position presents their argument in a way you deem respectable, that you won’t be moved by the underlying injustice. It’s meant to silence and discredit anyone who can’t muster something that has taken me years to master. Please stop. If George Floyd’s life meant as much to you as you said it did on social media in 2020, stop before you speak, and focus, because to paraphrase, I, we, the upset, don’t need people to celebrate my or our politeness, we need accomplices.
I am polite not because I think racism or other social ills or their actors deserve my politeness. I am not polite because I think we do or do not need more civility in public discourse. In the face of injustice, that’s irrelevant. What is often read as politeness in my writing is the result of a certain style of upbringing, and growing up in an area that many people of color and other marginalized people are denied access to in this country because of racism, classism, and xenophobia, and many years of education which many people of color and other marginalized people are also denied in this country because of racism, classism and xenophobia. On top of that, I have a legal education that honed in me the ability to present ideas in ways that are likely to transform other people’s thinking. This includes refraining from ad hominem, even when the rage I feel wants so badly to take a cheap shot, organizing ideas to reach a logical conclusion, and using fancy words and sentence structures taught to me at a fancy New England boarding school using Strunk and White, The Elements of Style— a copy of which literally sits behind me on my bookshelf as I write this.
If you gave every Black and/or otherwise marginalized kid in America the education I have received, and integrated society fully, then you would perceive them to be as polite as I am, but instead this country has done the opposite. It has segregated Black and other oppressed children, frequently condemned them to hostile school environments, and then berated and dismissed them for not knowing how to address non-oppressed or less oppressed people, “politely.” The hegemony works as seamlessly as the Matrix. What insistence on politeness and tone does is insist that we use the master’s tools as our unique method of dismantling the master’s house — something they have never, will never and can never do, even if I argue here that they can be useful.
Be assured, I’m not nice or kind because I think being nice to oppressive actors will fix oppression. So you don’t need to congratulate me for it or thank me for it nor should you ever feel safe from my aspersion if you are such an actor because of it.
You see, as much as I hold distaste for its necessity, I know that my politeness is still a tool. I know it can persuade, move, prod. I use it the same way one might use spell check in Microsoft Word or a fork. It’s not because I’m particularly polite, nice, respectful, respectable or understanding of the lack of education or sheer inbred hatred that causes people to inflict oppression and internalize oppressive beliefs as compared to other people voicing frustrations in less eloquent ways. I don’t offer you my politeness for your comfort. I offer it because I know that tone matters most to the people with the most power and who are the least affected by social oppression, and that sometimes in order to gain and maintain your attention, I have to play by your rules. To be more direct, recognize game when you see it and stop thanking me for it, because apart from being deeply upsetting, it’s silly.
I hear now the chorus of “kindness warriors,” shouting, “but kindness matters! There’s nothing wrong with being polite!” Of course not. In times where peace and justice reign, kindness can go a long way at maintaining stability and promoting positive human interaction and connectedness. In fact, I’ve written before in defense of political correctness. However, when justice does not win the day, we should prioritize the perspective that offers true dignity to our fellow human beings and ourselves over the the one that flat out excuses social ills in the name of maintaining peace and politeness.
Peace is a beautiful, powerful and desirable thing, but peace isn’t more important than justice. Using politeness as a prerequisite to being heard as the unique vehicle for obtaining or maintaining peace without addressing underlying ills is antithetical to establishing and maintaining justice. If you are someone who believes in the revolutionary foundation of the United States, you should instinctively recognize this as true. And that is why so many have chanted without any concern for its perceived politeness, “no justice, no peace.”
That’s why we can be nice, kind and polite to each other about which cupcakes to sell at the PTO bake sale, but may not always be about, for example, whether social workers should ride along or manage first interactions when calls related mental illness are received by emergency lines. There are times when other people will be justifiably angry and inarticulate and sometimes offensive around issues that deeply impact or upset them. And we must learn to be ok with that anger and not be defensive about it. Someone can rage impolitely about emergency response and we can still make headway towards better treatment for the mentally ill and create and be a safe space for expected feelings of anger and frustration around these deeply troubling issues. I’m with you even if you aren’t polite if you are upset about injustice. Let’s be with one another, even if we aren’t polite if we are upset about injustice. And please don’t worry if I’m polite when I’m the one who is writing (or raging), maintain your focus and your worry on the injustice.
And just like me, whether people battling social ills express it the way that I do or not, people who are angry because of how Elijah McClain died or when rapists get off with little or no punishment, or when children die trying to get across our borders or indigenous people are denied rights to their land and autonomy and were resultantly disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, or trans women are murdered, or people within our borders starve, or whatever their social issue is, do not owe you or the society that inflicts these ills politeness or kindness in order to be heard especially because sometimes those things are too hard to muster under the weight of oppression. Don’t insist on it. Justified anger isn’t usually polite.
We don’t owe you couching our concerns inside praise and respectability. Politeness as the exclusive tool for dismantling social ills has gotten us nearly nowhere and sometimes less than nowhere and if you don’t believe me, google the venerable Colin Kaepernick.
If you focus too much on politeness, sometimes you miss the message entirely. And that’s why, you should never be surprised that when politeness fails to dismantle systematic problems, as it so often has, and when society’s failures to redress past harm inflicts new ones, as everyone’s favorite polite and nonviolent social justice activist, who was still murdered in cold blood in spite of it, once said, “a riot is the language of the unheard.”