Charlottesville, Civility and Contested Democratic Space

By Walter Earl Fluker, Boston University

The domestic terrorism that took place on August 12 in Charlottesville, Virginia was not an isolated event in the chronicles of American history. It is part of a long and ghostly past of racism, ethnic cleansing and violence that we are too quick to repress and forget. Whenever we forget or repress this past, we become more and more like the proverbial ostrich that places its head in the sand in the face of imminent danger. When we do so, we leave more exposed than is hidden. In events like Charlottesville, we are witnessing a dangerous period in our history that I sometimes call “American post-post racialism” represented in the language of “America First” and “Let’s make America great again.”

Therefore, Charlottesville is about a deeper and more profound issue that threatens the very future of our republic and democracy. In the midst of the ideological divide of politics during this new season of “making America great again,” we have been revisited by an older and more insidious problem—it is a campaign to reconfigure time and space back to an era where certain non-white people knew their place in the racial and ethnic architecture of this nation. This challenge has a long and difficult history that we cannot adequately discuss here but I hope we can begin.

First, Charlottesville is a sign of “contested democratic space.” Democratic space rests upon certain assumptions, beliefs and values like individual autonomy, political freedom, representative leadership, accountable governance, and respect for human rights.

When these assumptions or values are tested in events like Charlottesville, we are forced to rethink what it means to be a part of a liberal democracy. For instance, is the right to peacefully assemble, to come together to collectively express, promote, pursue, and defend ideas and values the same as coming together to propagate violence and hatred?

Second, democratic space also depends on some form of civility. Civility is an overworked term often used without conceptual clarity; and in a variety of contexts, its use masks complex historical, sociological and methodological issues. In common usage, civility refers to a set of manners, certain etiquettes and social graces that are rooted in specific cultural locations of class, race, gender, sexual orientations and moral sensibilities. In this context, civility means that we must create and share space with others without violence. Sharing space with others with whom we have become accustomed is not hard, but to work to create space with those with whom we strongly disagree or who frighten us in their otherness is hard and dangerous. Democracy at its best is a squabble, a contentious exchange of ideas, opinions, values and practices within the context of civil relations. When we forget this important truth, we create conditions of alienation and violence. However we feel about building walls to keep others out, our greatest challenge is not keeping others out of our country, but developing new and better ways of seeing and responding to our own interrelatedness and interconnectedness.

Third, Charlottesville, like Ferguson, like Minneapolis, like St. Louis and so many places around the country, is a wake-up call! Poor white people in the rural areas of this nation deserve to be heard just as much as poor people locked in the confines of urban centers. But we must make this happen without giving sway to the irrational, nonproductive fallacy of racial privilege that breeds fear, misunderstanding and violence. We must not allow our concerns for gender diversity, sexual orientation and disability to be mocked and cast aside as foul, profane and un-American. We cannot allow the things that divide us to prevent us from seeking democratic space!

Fourth, creating democratic space means that we must allow opportunities for differences in perspectives and the ways in which we protest.  This is a statement about civility, but civility need not be limited to simple rules of etiquette and manners; civility can also be disruptive, subversive and transformative. Subversive civility allows us to “civilize political contestation” and “subvert complacent consensus” by providing those with different beliefs, values and orientations with space to disagree and become opponents without injuring, maiming or killing them (see Jeffrey C. Goldfarb’s excellent discussion in Civility and Subversion: The Intellectual in Democratic Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Finally, creating new spaces for others means that we can no longer see ourselves as solitary actors in a world populated by other peoples whose histories, industries, and life circumstances are intimately connected to our own. We have learned the tragic lesson that what happens in the White House affects what happens in your house; what happens downtown goes around town; what happens in Afghanistan affects what takes place in New York City; what happens to our natural environment affects the present and the future of our existence on this planet. Being the world’s only real superpower brings with it extraordinary capacity to create or destroy fragile relationships with nature, other nations and cultures. While national self-interest is the legitimate prerogative of any nation, we run the risk of forfeiting that right through aggression and dominance by military and economic cooptation. A more reasonable and potentially productive course of action is to listen deeply to the unpopular voices in our society that seek diverse ways of understanding and that allow us to connect in spaces of strategic interest. So much weighs on our willingness to find peaceful ways to violent situations. Right now as we prepare to commemorate the legacy of our nation’s greatest peacemaker, we have sent, and are planning to send even more, thousands of young men and women to fight against nations that most Americans cannot locate on a map of the world.

Questions for us might be:

  • How do you understand “democratic space” and its relationship to Charlottesville?
  • Is civility dysfunctional in situations like Charlottesville?
  • Is it possible to engage in peaceful assemblies without violence?
  • Can civility be used as a subversive and transformative tactic?
  • Do we need to rethink the language of civility?