The Tyranny of Politeness

We have been told since toddlerhood that politeness is a virtue. And so it is. The word comes from the Latin polire, to smooth or polish. By showing respect for others, politeness smooths the abrasive edges of social interaction, making decent and necessary compromises possible.

Could it ever be a vice?

The ancients wisely said, in medio stat virtus, virtue stands in the middle (between too much and too little). Take courage, for example. Too little courage we call cowardice, too much we call foolhardiness. Both are vices.

And so it is with politeness. Genteel, deferential politeness in situations that call for outrage, is no virtue. Too little undermines civility, and it too is a vice. Trump flaunted that vice when he mocked women, the disabled, and non-white people.

Most citizens, however, are too damned polite. Despots require and usually get an excess of politeness. But in the face of gross evil and injustice too much politeness is servile, ignoble, and base.

Gandhi was not “polite” when he offended his occupiers with non-violent marches and boycotts as well as by violating the canons of proper British dress. The prophets of Israel, who would make modern pundits seem timid and bland, were epics of impoliteness. The kings, said Jeremiah, are “stupid brutes.” (Jer 10;21). Isaiah was even more impolite, calling Israel’s leaders “blind…dumb dogs who cannot bark…lovers of sleep… greedy dogs that can never have enough…who understand nothing.” (Isa. 56:10-11) Impolite, indeed!

And Jesus was no better. He called the powerful religious and political leaders of his day “roaring lions….wolves of the plain, hypocrites, blind guides,…blind fools… snakes, vipers…who spill innocent blood.” (Mat. 23). He said they were best compared to painted sepulchers, beautified on the outside but inside filled with the stench of death.

One must wonder what in the world Jesus’ mother taught him about politeness! But in fact, she taught him that subservient politeness in the face of evil is but the mask of cowardice. In the one little speech allotted to her in the Gospel of Luke, she was downright ungracious, insisting on the need to dethrone the arrogant power-holders and send them packing, while filling the hungry with good things. (Luke 1:47-55) She was wholeheartedly into the dirtiest word in the Neoliberal lexicon: redistribution of wealth. Mary stands tall as a classical example of an uppity and nasty woman! Jesus never had a chance to grow up as a sycophant.

And now in our day, another impolite and bloodied prophet, John Lewis, has rattled the timbers of political propriety. He denounced the new president as lacking legitimacy. Even liberals who rushed to his defense missed his point, confusing legal and moral legitimacy. Legal legitimacy is always subordinate to the judgement of moral legitimacy. Slavery, after all, was legally legitimate: American law blessed it and our courts defended it. But it was the prophets of moral legitimacy, angry heroes of noble and courageous impoliteness who one day brought the slavers to their knees.

The Democratic Party, with some noble notable exceptions, takes politeness to the milquetoast level. They whimper when they should scream. They fail to follow Franklin Delano Roosevelt who accused organized money interests of being no better than organized crime. He said they “unanimously hate me” for saying that but, he proclaimed, “I welcome their hatred!”

Republican governors rejected federal money for Medicaid expansion. The result? Harvard and CUNY researchers say the death toll from 25-state ‘opt-out’ may be as high as 17,100 annually; hundreds of thousands more will be harmed by depression, untreated diabetes, and skipping mammograms and pap smears. Who were the victims of these Republicans? Fast food workers, nursing aides, restaurant servers, child-care workers, and the hospitals that serve the poor, especially the black and hispanic poor.

There are names for all that state-sponsored wickedness and the canons of true politeness do not ban their use. When you use policy (rather than a gun) to kill innocent people, it’s called murder. When you ruin people by stripping them and their children of basic health care, that constitutes morally criminal assault.

And make no mistake, when you boycott the inauguration (and promise resistance to) a presidency pre-announced as a compound of bigotry, misogyny, and the shredding of safety nets, public education and environmental protection, they will hate you. They will hate you with a bitter passion. But, following FDR’s lead, you should “welcome their hatred.”

It should be noted that the appropriate response to Trump’s fusillades is not pettiness and mockery of Trump and his entourage; there’s no need to adopt what we decry. But politeness is a vicious quality when it suppresses righteous anger, when it offends truth by muted acquiescence to lies, when it disrespects your adversaries by sparing them corrective and bold critique.

Such cowering politeness is nothing more than the “respectable” face of complicity in evil. It is the social soil in which tyranny takes root and flourishes. And there is a name for that cowering politeness: it’s called corruption.