On Politicizing and Civility
Recently I was chatting with a friend of mine who works for the Boy Scouts, and the Scouts’ anti-gay policy came up. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the Boy Scouts have a rule forbidding gays. There was a lawsuit over it a few years ago. The courts ruled that as a private institution, the Scouts had the right to discriminate in that way. This ruling was unsurprising; in many cases an institution’s charter or mission has partisanship or discrimination built in. Churches are allowed to employ religious discrimination when hiring, for instance.
In any case, my friend said something like this:
We don’t have a problem with gays in the Scouts; we just don’t want them to come out and say “I’m gay and I work for the Scouts.”
In sum, he was suggesting that they have a de facto “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. He went on to add:
There’s nothing wrong with being gay in the Scouts, but they shouldn’t politicize it.
I held my tounge—it wasn’t appropriate for me to argue with him at that time—but I wanted to say the following.
Here’s the problem: the opposition to “politicizing” is a defense of the status quo. What you’re doing when you say they should keep quiet is forbidding them from doing anything to disrupt the existing social relations.
Bourdieu notes (as have other social theorists) that “civility” and “playing nice” and “getting along” almost always are preferred by dominant or hegemonic groups. The dominant groups with privilege can afford to be nice to one another, because the system is set up to serve their interests. They’ve got little to complain about.
By contrast, minority groups, dominated groups, or oppressed groups do not benefit by keeping quiet. When they are told by the dominant groups to be “civil” or “play nice,” this is tantamount to saying “don’t rock the boat” or “don’t complain about the fact that you’re dominated.” This is like a wife-beater telling his wife not to mention the beatings to anyone: “No one wants to hear you complain.”
Domination and privilege work better if they are invisible or go unnoticed. Once some individuals start complaining and drawing attention to unfair social relations, the dominant groups feel threatened—and rightly so, as they stand to lose their privileged status.
Saying that gay men in the Boy Scouts shouldn’t draw attention to the Scouts’ discriminatory policy protects the status quo, i.e., the privileged status of straight men.
Civility is not an end in itself. I recommend politicizing, being uncivil, not playing nice, not getting along with others.