The Danger of Civility - Christena Cleveland
Challenging ideas are typically better received when they are presented by a “respectable” speaker in a “civil” manner. But who gets to decide who is respectable and what is civil? And what crucial information do we miss when we insist on respectability and civility as prerequisites for discourse?
[soft beeping] [contemplative music]
You know it’s funny because I’m giving this first talk which is sort of a critique of the whole conversation that we’re gonna have over this weekend, so hopefully it’ll get your mind buzzing a little bit and thinking about why we should even, how we should even approach this conversation about disagreement and civility. I’m gonna start by showing you this picture, if it’ll go up, we’ll see it, ah, there we are, okay, so, who can tell me who that is? Luz is a pretty public figure, right, Rosa Parks, kind of one of the heroines of the civil rights movement. Does anyone know who that is, the second picture? Ooh, yeah, see, most people have no idea who this other woman is. Rosa Parks is the one who gets all the credit, however, Claudette Colvin is the name of the other woman, and she was actually a civil rights hero nine months before Rosa Parks was.
So Rosa Parks, towards the end of 1955, decided that she was tired of dealing with segregation on the bus. She was asked to give up her seat to a white man and she refused. And that kinda kickstarted the Birmingham bus boycott, which went on for 13 months, and was a big catalyst for the civil rights movement. Now Claudette Colvin, nine months earlier, did exactly the same thing. And she got arrested just like Rosa Parks did, she got booked, there are pictures of her at the police precinct, exact same scenario, she refused to give up her seat to a white man. Now the reason why Rosa Parks is the famous one and Claudette Colvin is not, is because there were members of the NAACP at that time knew something about white America. They knew that if they were gonna have a fighting chance, for truth to win, for people to actually listen to the reality of segregation and racism in our country they needed to make sure that the bearer of that truth was a shiny and sanitary and civil and upstanding as possible. They knew that white people were not gonna be able to hear truth from someone like Claudette Colvin. Now Claudette Colvin was feisty, and she was 15, and she was pregnant. And she was dark skinned.
And she’s not beautiful according to western standards of beauty. And so they said, “We are gonna choose Rosa Parks “to be the bearer of this truth “and then maybe white people will listen to us. “If she seems civil, if she seems respectable, “they’re not gonna be able to hear this truth “from Claudette Colvin because she’s uncivilized. “She’s not respectable.” And that was the decision that was made. You know the funny thing, is that Rosa Parks was actually not all that civil and respectable herself, she kinda looks like it, and the American imagination has kinda turned her into this, like, granama, sweet old lady, who’s like, not scary at all, and you know, she was just tired, and poor old lady, and actually she in her autobiography kinda debunked that myth. And she says, “Hey I’m not an old lady, I was never an old lady,” in fact she says, “People always say that I didn’t give up “my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. “I was not tired, physically, “or no more tired than I usually was “at the end of a working day. “I was not old, although some people “have an image of me as being old then, “I was only 42. “No, the only tired I was was tired of giving in.”
And so even in the memory of the American imagination has turned her into someone who’s a lot more sanitized, a lot more respectable, a lot less threatening, a lot less threatening than she actually was. Here’s the thing, if we wanna have real conversations, if we wanna be good at disagreeing, we need to have all viewpoints at the table. And more often than not that doesn’t happen, because the people that we deem as uncivilized, the people that we deem as unrespectable, they’re not respectable, don’t even get a chance to share their perspective. Because who get to decide what civility is? Who gets to decide what respectability is? In 1955, the NAACP leaders knew, white people got to decide that. They were like, “They’re the standard, “they set the standard, we need to conform “to that standard as much as possible “if we want to be heard.” Today, it still is white people who get to decide that standard. But also not just white people, I’d say it’s all people who have some sort of power in society, myself included.
So I would say it’s white people, it’s men, it’s educated people, college educated people, it’s people who are middle class or higher, it’s people who are able bodied, it’s people who are mentally able, it’s people who are American, are English speakers, all sorts of people, and I don’t identify as white, but I identify as a lot of those things. And when I was, when I first moved to Minneapolis about five years ago, I bought a condo and moved into a low income, predominantly black neighborhood. And in that neighborhood, even though I look like a lot of my neighbors, I certainly have more power than them in society. And in a lot of ways, I get to be part of a group of people who gets to decide what is civilized and what is not amongst my neighbors. And I found even in my own heart, I have a tendency, and I’ve seen this in all sorts of powerful people, I have a tendency to shut people down if they wanna speak truth to me in a way that makes me uncomfortable, and I usually say “It’s because you’re not being civil. “Why do you have to be so angry about it? “Why do you have to have an attitude when you say it? “Or why can’t you present that information to me “in a way that makes sense to my educated sensibilities?” And one of my neighbors ended up moving in with me, she’s not living with me right now, but she lived with me recently for about a year and a half, and this is someone who, talk about being on the underside of the boot of society, right?
I mean, she lives below the poverty level, she has lot of mental health issues and so she’s all caught up in the bureaucracy of that. Oftentimes people don’t value her opinion because she has a hard time literally speaking at times. She rides the bus in the middle of winter, all the time, no matter what, it’s like what she’s facing in life is hard. And there are things that she experiences that I never, ever, ever, even have to dream of experiencing. And when she was living with me, sometimes after a long day of dealing with all the red tape of the Medicare system, or the food stamps system, or something like that, she would come in the house and just, like, rip into me and just talk about how unjust this world is and how hard it is to be her, and how disrespected she feels by people out in the public, who look at the way that she looks and think, this person’s barely human. And she unloaded all that on me. And my first instinct was, you’re just another angry person. My first instinct was, you should just like, I don’t have to deal with this. You should just be thankful I’m even in this neighborhood. I mean, that’s my heart, right? That’s the reality of my heart. As a powerful person saying, “I wanna censor that, I don’t wanna hear your truth. “I don’t wanna hear your truth unless you can “say it to me in a way that makes me feel comfortable, “that makes me feel safe and secure “and happy about the world. “I believe in a world that’s fair and just, “it’s mostly like that to me. “So I don’t want you to burst my bubble, “and you better not do it in a really angry way “with all this profanity and what not.” And there were so many times when we were living together that I basically just walked away from the conversation, cause that’s what I can do as a powerful person. I can walk away.
Or I can write people off in my heart, and even if I’m not physically walking away, I’ve emotionally walked away and now, we’re not even at a point where we can disagree because their perspective isn’t even valuable to me. And it wasn’t until several months of us living together that I realized, wait a second, I have so many blind spots as someone who has privilege and power in our society and there’s so much reality about this world that I will never, ever, hear about if I don’t listen to my neighbor. And if I have to censor her, if I have to say, “You know, you have to say things to me “in a way that makes sense to me, “that affirms the goodness in my heart,” then I’m gonna miss out on all this truth. And I wonder too, where as we’re in the midst of this interesting black lives matter movement, whether there are many of us who are missing out on the truth, on the reality, because we want people to say things in a civilized way.
This is a picture of a bunch of young black men last summer in Ferguson, getting ready to launch a Molotov cocktail bomb that they had created. And there was a lot of outrage over this picture, and a lotta people were like, “What is up with all these angry, black men? “Why can’t they just have a civilized conversation “with us about this? “Why can’t they just write a blog post? “Or why can’t they come to a conference like this “and use Powerpoint and tell us what their experience is?” People basically were just saying these guys are savages, therefore their perspective, their truth, is not valuable and we don’t have to listen to it. If you wanna tell me something, you better come in the package of Rosa Parks, and then maybe I’ll listen to you after 12 years of the civil rights movement, but I’m not gonna listen to you initially. And I wonder, I wonder if people like me, and I wonder if people like you, and I wonder if people like Franklin Graham, looked at this and said, “What are they trying to tell me? “What is the reality of being a black man in this society? “What does that feel like? “How can I learn?” One of my colleagues in social psychology did this wonderful study where he looked to see what is the reality of being a black man in society? And the way he did it was very clever, and people didn’t even know he was basically testing this, but what he did was, he showed people pictures of, well his hypothesis, let me step back, his hypothesis was that people automatically look at black men and assume that they are dangerous and people automatically look at white men and assume that they’re safe.
That is just that in the air that we breathe, we pick up these non-conscious biases. It doesn’t make, it’s not cause you’re a bad person, it’s just because of media, because of what maybe family members have told you, maybe because of personal experiences, people have a bias against black men, so he set out to show that the average person has this bias, doesn’t matter how Christian you are, doesn’t matter what race you are, people hold this bias. Now what he did, was he showed people a subliminal image of a black man. Now a subliminal image is when the image is shown, it’s presented to you, but it’s presented so quickly that you don’t consciously know that you saw it. So if it’s something under 300 milliseconds, most people can’t see it, but your mind registers it, even though you can’t say that you saw it, then as soon as he showed the subliminal image of a black man, he showed, very quickly, but not subliminally, a picture of either a gun or a tool, and this was very quick, so people knew they’d seen something, but it was like, snap judgment, you just have to guess, was it a gun or a tool, okay?
So he did all these different pairings, she paired black man, gun, black man, tool, white man, gun, white man, tool. And so people had to guess, do you see a gun or a tool? And he’s looking to see do people associate, subconsciously, race, with whether it’s a gun or a tool? And what he found was that, I should go back, what he found was that people tend to make mistakes. And the mistakes are predictable. So if they saw a black man and then shown a tool, they were more likely to misidentify it as a gun. When they were shown a picture of a white man, with a gun, they were more likely to misidentify that gun as a tool. People think that black men are dangerous, that’s the default, if you have to make a snap judgment that’s the judgment you’re probably going to make. But meanwhile white men are like industrious, and, I don’t know, safe, right? They’re just off to work, right? This is a bias that exists in our society. Now my brother, who’s a Yale M. Div student, when I told him about this study, he gave me this very painful, painful laugh. And he said, “Why would anyone waste time “even running that study? “Any black man can tell you that we’re feared. “That we are hunted in society.” In just this year alone, New Haven, Connecticut, my brother, black guy, about 6’2″, goes to Yale Divinity School, training to be a pastor, gentlest person you’ll ever meet, I’m more dangerous than he is, I promise you. [audience laughs] He has been stopped four times this academic year alone, walking the two blocks from the Divinity School to his apartment, stopped by the police and searched. Four times this year. And every time he has to act calm, even though he’s seething on the inside, because he knows that if I don’t respond exactly the way that they want me, I will be in trouble.
And even if I do respond exactly the way they want me to I still might be in trouble. That is the reality. So when we look at this picture, let me go back, sorry, I should’ve done this differently, [laughs] and we ask ourselves, what are these guys trying to tell us? If we have to look at this, if we require that, they speak in a way that makes us feel safe, that seems respectable, then we’re gonna miss the whole reality. And now I’m gonna go back, but I love this quote from MLK, because when he was arguing, disagreeing with the white pastors in Birmingham who were upset that black people in the movement weren’t sticking to the non-violent tactics, they were like, “Oh we love those non-violent tactics, “more of that, less of the riots,” he said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” He says “When you live in society and no one “ever wants to hear you, the only way you’re “gonna respond is a riot.”
I guess my exhortation to us is can we hear the riot? Those of us who are powerful, we can unpack this tomorrow morning in my breakout sessions, what does it mean to be powerful? Who are the powerful people? What does that mean for us? But that’s my question, and the last thing I wanna say is, I was thinking about this earlier, I said, “Especially as Christians we love it “when truth is presented in a really sanitary way, “we love it when truth is presented in a respectable way.” But the more I was thinking about it, the more I realized, that truth is holy. Truth is holy regardless of the medium or the way that it’s communicated and can we grab onto that holiness? [calm music]