Your Obedient Servant, or, The Sham of Civility

One of the songs in Hamilton that always gets a chuckle out of me is “Your Obedient Servant,” which happens late in Act Two. Hamilton and Burr, once friends and now simmering enemies, exchange a series of increasingly heated letters back and forth that culminate in the two agreeing to a duel. Based on real letters, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s song has the two men getting more and more aggressive with each missive but closing out every letter with a return to civility – they sign as “your obedient servant,” and the music switches from a driving beat to chipper and polite strings. The disparity between the anger and the sign-offs gets me every time.

This is civility, and it’s bullshit. The two men, despite all their well-learned politesse, end up in a fatal shoot-out. They adhere to the rules of good taste, and yet one man still bleeds to death when it’s all said and done.

Civility is a big topic of conversation these days. Some want more of it in our politics. Some want less. Some think civility is the glue that will hold our fracturing society together. Others feel civility is subservience, a way of being silenced.

Again, I think civility is bullshit.

At the same time, I’ve come to believe that rudeness is also bullshit. There’s never a reason to be rude or mean or nasty. But there’s also no need to be ‘civil.’ The reality is that we need to be kind and compassionate.

I know, you’re saying ‘Be kind and compassionate to people who support folks who lock babies in cages, or worse, to the people who lock babies in cages? THAT is the bullshit!’ But I think it’s really important to recognize that being kind and being compassionate isn’t synonymous for ‘letting these fuckers get away with it.’ Because we should, for sure, not let these fuckers get away with it.

So what exactly am I arguing? I’m arguing that it’s important to resist and fight back without hate in our hearts. It’s that Rose Tico thing, that we don’t win by fighting what we hate, we win by saving what we love. She’s really just paraphrasing Nietzsche here, who famously said:

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

Civility is a mask. One of the things that took me a long time to understand is that nice and kind aren’t the same thing, and that nice actually isn’t very good at all. Nice is the person who smiles at the black stranger on their block and then calls the police. Nice is the person who doesn’t speak up when someone else is going on a racist rant. Nice is the person who hates your guts but pretends to be your friend, and then shit talks you behind your back. It’s a facade.

That’s what civility is. It’s a facade. And it’s not even a good one. Sure, it made us all more comfortable when the GOP was still being civil, just talking about their racist and misogynistic policies in coded language, rather than by being blatantly white supremacist and patriarchal as they are today, but the only difference is the language. They were still pursuing harmful policies when they were calling themselves ‘compassionate conservatives.’

If civility and niceness is a mask, kindness and compassion are actions. They’re things you DO. Kindness and compassion have bad raps as milky, weak things, but let me ask you this – if you saw a child about to eat poison and knocked the poison out of the kid’s hand, is that weak? No, it’s a forceful action, one that might very well upset the kid in the moment, but it was an act of kindness. It was compassionate, because you understand being scared in the moment is better for the child than being dead forever.

Being kind and compassionate does not mean rolling over. It means standing up with love in your heart and being willing to do whatever it takes to make things better. But the key here is ‘with love in your heart.’ Let’s take the Red Hen situation, which is what has gotten us all talking about civility, as an example.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, propaganda minister for the Trump regime, went to dinner at a restaurant called The Red Hen. The staff alerted the owner about their guest; many of the staff belong to marginalized groups that have been targeted by Trump and his cronies, and they were unhappy with her presence. So was the owner. The owner politely and privately asked Sanders to leave, and did not charge her for the food she had already eaten.

This is kindness in action. It would have been NICE to let Sanders finish the meal, but that would have been signing a death threat with ‘your obedient servant.’ The hate would have been happening, just hidden behind a mask. But by speaking politely to Sanders and treating her respectfully if firmly, the owner engaged in compassion. She made her staff feel better. But more than that she gave Sarah Huckabee Sanders the opportunity to truly understand the impact of her work. What Sanders does with this information is on her shoulders, but the owner of The Red Hen gave Sanders a beautiful opportunity to reflect on her own behavior and her own choices. It’s not quite slapping the poison out of the child’s hands, but it’s close! The owner didn’t try to make Sanders feel bad, she didn’t humiliate her in front of others, she didn’t make an example out of her. She wasn’t rude, but she also made an ethics call about whose money she wanted to take, and what kind of people she wanted to serve in her small restaurant.

I believe that kindness and compassion should be used not because it is better strategy to use them, but because it’s better for us as people. I’ve said this before, and I’m sure I’ll say this again and again, but when I was on Twitter my desire to battle people who I thought were wrong or bad or jerks or racists or sexists or whatever turned me into a full time asshole. I was fighting fire with fire, was my belief, but it turns out I was just burning every fucking thing down. Fighting with these people not only failed to sway them in any meaningful way, it made me angry and cranky and negative all the time. It sucked. I would have a rush of adrenaline at the start of a fight, but eventually it would go bad and I would feel awful and unpleasant and I would almost always make an ass out of myself in front of people I liked and respected. And when my life crashed down, when I experienced the consequences of my previous actions, all too many people who agreed with me in the past were happy to see me fall because I had become as ugly and unpleasant and mean as the people I thought I was ‘owning.’

It’s like dark magic. You can use the powers of dark magic for your best cause, but it’s still the bad kind of magic, and it’ll still corrupt you every single time. I read all the Dragonlance books, but I never internalized the story of Raistlin, I guess. Fighting monsters makes monsters of us. This isn’t new wisdom, but it’s wisdom we often reject.

And we reject it because we believe kindness and compassion have to be soft and that they make us quislings. But if we understand that being kind and compassionate are difficult, that they require effort and strength, and that they don’t ask us to lay down and let people walk all over us, we see how much more powerful we are when we battle with love in our hearts.

When we fight with love in our hearts we allow the space for other people to change their minds and join us. When we fight with love in our hearts we don’t inflict the kind of cruelty against which we are fighting, and thus don’t multiply the negativity in the world. When we fight with love in our hearts we keep ourselves whole and happy. When we fight with love in our hearts we heal instead of destroy.

Drop the civility, but not in the service of rudeness. Remember the five gatekeepers of speech:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Is it kind?
  3. Is it beneficial?
  4. Is it necessary?
  5. Is it the right time?

We can say hard, difficult things in a kind way, a way that allows them to be heard. We can say them at the right time, when the words will make a real impact. And we can say them with the intention of benefiting others, not simply of fulfilling our needs to clown someone or to get off a great one-liner.

It isn’t easy. I don’t claim to have this one down pat; too often I simply refrain from getting into a debate because I do not think I can do so with wise speech. But times are getting darker, and we are called to take more action, and we don’t have the luxury of sitting out certain arguments anymore. Kindness and compassion demand that we take action to alleviate the suffering of others. The challenge is to stride forward with the right attitude and fight not only for what we believe, but in the way we believe we should.