Good citizen / Bad citizen: Civility discourse as symbolic boundary-work
Widespread concern about the decline of civility in American political life has been met with calls for more civility in public debates and in institutional settings from universities to workplaces. Yet there is very little consensus about what behaviors and qualities count as “uncivil,” whether there has in fact been an uptick in these behaviors over time, and whether such behaviors are indeed problematic. While studies abound that seek to settle these complex questions by improving measurements of incivility and its effects, most overlook a more fundamental tension at the heart of this inquiry. Namely, when efforts to police the boundaries between civil and uncivil behavior trump concerns about full inclusion of a variety of voices and styles of expression, this can delimit rather than expand the potential for meaningful public discourse. After all, public debates about divisive issues are often contentious, and can provoke strong and emotional responses from individuals and groups that have a stake in the outcome. Some of these responses are bound to be viewed as uncivil, and this invariably prompts a shift from a debate about substance to one about form. Rather than asking whether these behaviors are, in fact, objectively uncivil, this project makes a case for examining these attributions of incivility themselves. More specifically, this project proposes shifting our lens from civility to civility discourse—the drawing of distinctions between civility and incivility. Through a review of theoretical and empirical work on political incivility, an original experiment, ethnographic fieldwork, and a series of case studies, it asks whose behaviors are most likely to be viewed as uncivil, and by whom; and what the effects are of these judgments, on both political actors and the political system as a whole. In so doing, it aims to shed light on the subtle and often unintended ways in which this civility discourse can result in the marginalization, exclusion or expulsion of certain kinds of political actors (and certain kinds of political action) from public debates.