Six (possibly) civilising uses of incivility

Civilisation depends on some incivility, carefully applied. It depends also on civility, liberally applied

Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
10 January 2015

Fuck ‘em. There. Done it. I’ve been uncivil in print.

 It’s what Charlie Hebdo does every week. I’ve often laughed privately at their covers as they drop into my Facebook stream - I love their irrevernce towards the French presidency, for example (or this one responding to British Euroscepticism). But I’ve never much followed their example into public incivility, and I'm uncomfortable with a lot of their subjects.

Incivility is often just that - un-civilised. But not always. It does have its uses. I thought it would be useful to reconstruct the beliefs one would have to have to endorse a project of mocking satire. This is not about denying that anyone has a right to mock and satirise - it is about uncovering what a positive decision to get involved in mocking requires. I have doubts about all these justifications in some contexts. But certainly not in all. Where I have found examples of images - most from Charlie Hebdo covers - that demonstrate a particular use of mockery that I enjoy, I have included them.

  1. To bring the strong down a peg or two

"We don’t have many powers against the strong and the self-important, and we should use them all to create more equality. Mockery is a leveller."

True enough, sometimes. But how much do the powerful actually care about the mocking? Certainly more when they are democratically elected politicians than otherwise. But even then - how much does it change their behaviour?

2. Because you use it or lose it

"The right to mock has been hard-won. The powerful hate it and try to stop it. And they’ll always try to do so - rights are never given, they always need to be re-fought for. And if we stop being uncivil, it’ll get all the easier for the strong to stop criticism. This is a reason for being uncivil full stop. That means even if the subject does not deserve it. It’s not kind and it often offends. But it is the reason for Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons aimed at all “Intouchables”. Therefore we sometimes need to be uncivil on principle and in any case admire those brave enough to keep using the right to be so for the good of all."

Also true. But presumably one should still pick one's targets with care - is there a justification here for mocking the weak or vulnerable? When Charlie Hebdo had its "Intouchables" series, was it really right to mock the disabled as well?

3. As a trial by fire

"If you’re mocked and you can take it, you’re one of us, you’re a member of our political community. If you can’t take being mocked, you don’t believe in liberty or equality. Can you handle a trial by mockery? If yes, it will ultimately reflect well on you. This is essentially the argument that Tariq Ramadan makes in defence of freedom of expression: “ we are not going to convince our fellow human beings or fellow citizens that we are a religion of dignity and freedom and responsibility if we start by censorship. That’s not the way it has to be, neither in the West nor in Muslim-majority countries.” Democratic civilisation needs some incivility to create the trials by which you come to deserve membership of our political community."

True, there should be political communities of which we - the wide, human, we - are all members. And true also, entry to those political communities has to be conditional on certain behaviours and even values. But the tests and trials that we put in place that define that you are within rather than without will also define the values of the political community in question. Is mockery the right trial for these wider political communities that we need? Perhaps, but I hope not. To think so is to set the bar low in terms of what all of us living together must look like.

4. To develop thick skins

"If we’re all going to get along, with all our differences and particularities, we’d better not feel too sensitive about difference. Maybe that means getting insensitive to assaults on our own cherished defining characteristics."


This is the justification of mockery from the “get over it” school of liberalism. It is close to the "trial by fire" view. It’s not kind, and certainly not nice to be at the receiving end of it. It reminds me of the culture of baiting at school that was so effective - at least in the case of English boys' private schools - at defining membership of a tough and macho elite. Must these trials really be ones that create insensitivity? This is a dangerous tactic: the repeated exposure that might give you a thick skin could also simply serve to keep a wound festering.

5. To rally the troops against the enemy

"Mockery is a well-used tool in war: it is easier to fight an enemy who has been mocked. It might make the enemy angrier and more dangerous, but it rallies the troops and makes them more effective."

True. But what is the war we're in, should we be in it, and who is the enemy? The logic in war needs to be utterly instrumental: does the tactic move us towards victory or not. Mockery sometimes helps. But there is a possible dangerous reversal: "I mock, therefore I am at war" rather than "we're at war, let's mock". Mockery can create the enemy, not just weaken them.

6. In anger

"Much incivility comes out in anger and the alternative would be physical violence."

True. But that’s not a great defence: "better than even worse". The goal of civilisation must be to reduce the prevalence of those cases of civilising incivility.

… and then there are the uncivilised uses of incivility


There are many uncivilised uses of incivility. Mockery can be used by the strong against the weak. It can be used without sense or compassion. And trouble will always arise if a civilising use of incivility is interpreted as an uncivilised one by those who feel in its cross-fire. When Tony Barber got into trouble with the FT’s usually reasonably calm comment community with the statement that “too often editorial foolishness has prevailed at Charlie Hebdo”, he was presumably thinking that Charlie Hebdo’s editors had sometimes forgotten the civilising function of satire.

Incivility is a powerful and dangerous tool, as Charlie Hebdo clearly always understood.

Civilisation depends on some incivility, carefully applied. It depends also on civility, liberally applied.

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