“Fetishizing civility has a way of elevating style over substance”

Fetishizing civility has a way of elevating style over substance. Richard Spencer, the white nationalist, has found a place in our political discourse precisely because his bland demeanor and khaki collection perplex those not accustomed to seeing a racist resemble a frat boy at a formal rather than a Klansman in a hood. He adopts a civilized tone to advance opinions once considered beyond the bounds of civilized debate, advocating ‘‘peaceful ethnic cleansing,’’ as if that were an actual thing.

One temptation of making accusations of violence is that it seems capable of cutting through all the political noise, making an issue feel visceral and urgent. But with everyone redefining violence based on their existing political sympathies, it just as easily works to mislead and confuse — conflating structural inequality with political name-­calling, or equating the impact of artistic expression with the effects of a policy vote. What’s often lost in the mainstream discussion of symbolic violence is that this is a power struggle as much as a rhetorical one. It’s not just a fight over how we speak, but over who is speaking and what we will allow them to say — from those who express extreme positions in polite tones all the way over to those who express reasonable positions in impolite ones. A fight over politics is mixed up with a battle over tone, squabbles over whose rhetoric is out of line and who started it. It makes the political discourse louder, but not any clearer.

Amanda Hess, “Battle Cry”, The New York Times Magazine (20 August 2017), 11.