Politeness: The Obfuscation of Disrespect

Source: Davide Taviani, Flickr

In the midst of the furore over ‘hate speech’ and ‘hate crime’, we have forgotten the reasons why some ideologies are considered hateful.

In the workplace, we find ourselves adopting a strategy of politeness. Since we are effectively forced to interact with each other, we strive to avoid stepping on toes so that each can get on with their work. It should be no surprise, then, that the solution to diversity within a ‘liberal’ capitalist society should be to enforce politeness in all areas of life.

Politeness is a form of tolerance explicitly conceived to avoid conflict in a situation in which we’d all rather ignore each other. Society would fall apart if we demanded that our philosophy and political discussions operated on the basis of ‘politeness’. Imagine if the leaders of our political parties refused to debate on the grounds that they could ‘agree to disagree’?

In circumstances in which our opinions matter, the correct approach is respectfulness, not politeness. To be polite is to withhold your opinions for the sake of your opponent’s feelings. To respectfully disagree is to articulate your positions clearly and firmly without resorting to personal attacks. 

To respect someone is to believe they have the fortitude to discuss ideas and beliefs without needing special protections. The only way we can determine whether people need special protections is, after all, to discuss it frankly.

Those who advocate politeness in the public sphere have forgotten the reasons why we consider some views to be abhorrent in the first place – or perhaps they never believed it in the first place.

Views which dehumanise segments of the population are not wrong *because* they hurt people’s feelings. It is possible for a group to be marginalised and also hold incredibly false beliefs, the contradiction of which may be hurtful. Sexism, racism, homophobia and the like are wrong because they are incorrect – and the negative social consequences follow from that incorrectness.

The focus on how prejudices might affect people’s feelings is a way of avoiding actual restorative justice. Rather than address the economic and political inequalities which permeate our society, we instead simply strive to protect people from views which might result from that. The implication is that prejudice leads to an unequal society, rather than an unequal society which leads to prejudice. 

The centre and centre-left take a patronising approach to politics, in which we should ease the suffering of those who for one reason or another find themselves on the margins of society. The hard left, meanwhile, views such people as pawns in their plans to overthrow the existing order. Neither group demonstrates actual respect for such people, through treating them like human beings allowed to have their own experiences and opinions. 

As long as the left focuses on culture – on feelings – rather than material circumstances, it plays into the hands of the establishment who are interested in maintaining economic and social power. What matters is the actual power relationships, not the words that are used to dress up and disguise them. This is in stark contrast to the claims of queer theory, which insists that the way we describe things changes the material reality of them. In this way, queer theory too plays into the hands of the establishment who are more than happy to adopt euphemisms if it means they can carry with business as usual. Corporations declare themselves supporters of pride and abusive men call themselves feminists.

Racism and sexism are not merely ‘offensive’, they are factually wrong. If we avoided everything which caused offence we would never say anything, and least of all be able to change anything for the better.

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About Dan Fisher 39 Articles
Editor-in-Chief of Uncommon Ground Media