Politeness As A Tool Of Tyranny And The Tyranny Of Niceness

There appear to be many people in this world who think you are entitled to say anything at all without recrimination, if you say it politely. But that you can say nothing at all if you do not say it politely.

Anyone who knows me will be not surprised to find that I vehemently disagree with this. To me it is what people say rather than the way they say it that gives their utterances moral worth.

First lets get one thing straight. I am not in this essay arguing that personal, ad hominem, abuse is legitimate. To attack individuals for their appearance or their physical or mental impediments, is to descend to the level of the playground, is childishly obnoxious and I disapprove of it unconditionally. BUT to criticise (including to ridicule and disrespect) the publicly expressed ideas of someone or their actions, particularly in relation to those publicly expressed ideas, is in my view entirely legitimate, not to say essential for a functioning democracy.

I do not believe that I owe any respect to the views of a racist skinhead; I don’t think I need to show respect to the views of a racist skinhead, indeed, I refuse to show respect to the views of a racist skinhead. In fact I will go further and say that I will openly disrespect, abuse and ridicule the views of the racist skinhead wherever and whenever I can.

However, I also vehemently defend the right of that racist skinhead to publicly express his views…  and my right to publicly disrespect them.

There are many on the left who support the ‘no platform’ anti-fascist strategy that refuses to allow racist and fascists the right to speak publicly. I am categorically and unconditionally against the ‘no platform’ strategy. It is simply not acceptable for one group to say what views can and cannot be publicly expressed; that is fascism. BUT those who publicly express their views in an open society must in return, be willing to defend those views from criticism – including ridicule and abuse.

I firmly believe in the doctrine of, ‘No Dissent; No Democracy’; i.e. that in any situation (workplace, political, domestic), the extent of our own freedom is indicated by our willingness to hear and respond to views with which we disagree, and that the health of the democracy is demonstrated by the breadth of opinion accepted as legitimate in the mainstream.

Not only is it ‘okay’ for us to disagree, it is actually crucial that we do, and by attempting to limit how things thing can be said, you end up limiting what can be said.

One of my favourite films is Conspiracy (2001) starring Ken Branagh and Stanley Tucci, which is a real-time dramatisation of the 1942 Wannsee Conference that marked the official launch of ‘the final solution’ by the Nazis.

There are many reasons I love this film, it is the best thing Branagh has ever done for a start, but what I particularly love about it is how civilised and polite it all is. Everyone involved behaves impeccably. Indeed, the character of SS-Oberführer, Dr Gerhard Klopfer, played by Ian McNeice, is introduced to be ‘a bit vulgar’, and thus emphasise the civilised, politeness of everyone else.

And yet what these men are discussing, ‘oh, so politely’, is the industrialised murder of six million men, women and children for the crime of being born into a particular ethnic tribe. I don’t admire or respect these men for their civilised politeness; I despise them for it. In my book evil is no less evil for being expressed politely.

I spent a number of years as a lecturer in a university and whenever I engaged with the committee structure of the institution (Academic Board, School Board, etc), I was constantly amazed about how the dynamics of these bodies so resembled the passive-aggressive, civilised, politeness of the Wannsee Conference as portrayed in Conspiracy. Often what was being discussed was how many people should lose their jobs or how to force staff to do more work for less money, but you would have thought we were discussing some abstract theoretical issue. And this isn’t limited to Universities, as the film illustrates the bureaucratic, managerialist obsession with ‘due process’, the idea that if a just process has been followed then justice must always have been done, is all-pervasive, and underlies almost all of our interactions with power; be it commercial power or political power.

Almost all public and private institutions and corporations have a set of HR guidelines and principles that are universally ‘nice’. The corporation is on paper at least, against ‘bullying’, against racism, against sexism, in favour of equality of opportunity, in favour of  a fair days pay for for fair days work and indeed against all ‘nasty’ things and in favour of loads of ‘nice’ things. Yet anyone who has actually had to defend workers from the tyranny of corporate power knows that when push comes to shove these ‘policies’ are at best meaningless, at worst simply manipulative, disingenuous tools of corporate power used to hide the underlying psychopathy of the system from its victims.

For example when I became a trade union rep I was shocked to discover that when actually sacking people HR and managers did not ‘talk’ to the person being sacked but read out a pre-written script. There were legal reasons for this of course but the benefit for HR and managers was that it dehumanised the situation, thus allowing them to remain emotionally detached while they exercised this most brutal expression of corporate power. It was pointed out on my union training that my job was to re-humanise the situation and break through the passive-aggressive, civilised, politeness of the procedure and make HR and the managers re-engage with the suffering of the fellow human being they were depriving of a livelihood.

The Customer Service call-centre is another classic example. The poor operator has a script they must talk from and that we must respond to in the designated manner, or they will simply not engage with us, threatening to hang up if we become angry or ‘aggressive’. We are often calling these numbers because we have in effect been cheated by the corporation and yet we are expected to engage politely with the representative of the corporation and remain calm at all times and that if we do not remain polite and calm at all times then our behaviour is designated as morally unacceptable, while the duplicity and dissembling fraud of the corporation is regarded as a perfectly reasonable fact of life.

Related to all this is the public debate around the issue of ‘political correctness’ that has been going on for the last thirty years; the debate around what it is permissible to say and how it is permissible to say it.

This was originally instigated in the ’70’s by the left who wished, legitimately in my view, to outlaw discriminatory language. But once the genie of proscribing language was out of the bottle it was taken up by religious communities demanding that critical voices must not ‘disrespect’ their faith or their God. And the latest version has arisen with regard to online abuse in the political arena.

In recent weeks some professional politicians in the UK have been outraged that because they voted to bomb Syria they have suffered online ‘abuse’ from some members of the general public. These MP’s appear to morally equate voting for the death of women and children with being rude in an online comment, suggesting that the online abusers are morally bankrupt but they are morally justified. But make no mistake to vote to bomb anywhere is to vote to kill non-combatants of all kinds including women and children, and no amount of politely expressed, civilised, bourgeois angst, can hide the simple fact that these professional politicians knowingly voted to kill women and children who would have otherwise lived. In which case I would ask why they did not receive more abuse? Yet to some this abuse is an awful moral crime because the MP’s spoke politely and acted according to the rules of Parliament and thus are morally distanced from the consequences of the vote. But surely we should be more concerned with the real-world consequences of the votes rather than whether some arbitrary rules were followed in Parliament?

All of this is indicative of a kind of all-pervasive passive-aggressive ‘niceness’ that threatens to undermine all public discourse.

By ‘passive-aggressive’, I mean the discursive mechanism that allows people to get what they want against the objections of others, under the guise of still being ‘nice’. They want their way, but they also want to maintain the moral high ground. So passive aggression entails implied threats, rather than overt threats, requests rather than orders, disingenuous appeals to pragmatic reason rather than assertions of values and most importantly accusations of ‘bullying’ against those who openly disagree with the passive aggressives. There those ‘passive aggressives’ who seek to outlaw ‘aggression’ all together. They passively aggressively hunt ‘aggressions’ and even ‘microaggressions’ in order to passively aggressively stamp them out. Ultimately ‘passive aggression’ is profoundly, duplicitously and hypocritically manipulative.

[Again ‘microaggressions’ was a term first devised in the ’70’s to, legitimately in my view, describe the everyday racism and sexism experienced by oppressed groups especially in the USA. Today it is being applied all over the place by the Niceness Nazis determined to create a world in which ‘everyone must play nicely’, and note my use of the word ‘must’, because to the Niceness Nazis there is no choice in this – it is their way or the highway.]

In Corporate HR there is a maxim that a person is being bullied if they feel they are being bullied. This approach equates all confrontation and aggression with ‘bullying’. According to this world-view to ‘aggressively’ confront the behaviour or publicly expressed views of anyone is by definition to ‘bully’ them. Presumably this would also apply to my racist skinhead earlier who could claim I was ‘bullying’ him for ridiculing his views. It already does apply in many Universities where to directly criticise student work, even politely, is to make the student uncomfortable and thus to be open to accusations of bullying.

This is important because ‘bullying’ has a significant moral component and accusations of ‘bullying’ can lead to people losing their jobs. Yet how could a person defend themselves from an accusation of ‘bullying’, if the only evidence required to ‘convict’ them were the ‘feelings’ of the victim as reported by the victim? This is as they say “political correctness gone mad”, in that it clearly comes from a well-meaning motive, to prevent/stop bullying in the workplace, but has sacrificed any concept of natural justice in order to do so.

‘Positive Thinking’ is another way of asserting this ‘nice’ worldview. We must not only ‘think’ positively, we must also only express our selves ‘positively’. To criticise, to analyse, to even think about things is to be ‘negative’. The ‘positive thinkers’ often refuse to engage with those who they think express themselves ‘negatively’. “I will not engage with this forum if people are going to be negative” they might say. On one pro-Corbyn facebook forum of which I am a member, one person actually included a list of words she did not want to see used on the forum, (which included words like ‘Blairite’!) and said if she saw them used she wouldn’t play anymore. Which sort of defines the kind of ‘passive aggression’ I am talking about.

The ‘Niceness Nazis’ however do not say that we have to show all ideas mutual respect. On the contrary they specifically wish to outlaw certain views and certain modes of expression, even certain words. ‘Aggression’, even ‘microaggression’, of any kind is not to be tolerated, and according to this world-view, sarcasm, irony and direct disagreement are all regarded as ‘aggressive’. So in the new ‘Nice Reich’, some ‘nasty’ views (sexism, racism etc), will simply not be allowed to be publicly expressed and only ‘nice’ people will be allowed to express themselves – as long as they do so ‘politely’. The ‘nasty’ people will (as they have recently), loose their jobs for making certain types of jokes, or will be publicly shamed for making ‘aggressive’ sarcastic comments on twitter or wherever.

Thus we can see that these ‘everyone must play nicely’, Niceness Nazis, are often guilty of exactly the aggressions and micro-aggressions they seek to outlaw and can only justify this on the grounds that they are right and everyone else is wrong and therefore it is justified for them to be politely tyrannical. What all of these ever-so polite and ever-so positive and ever-so nice, people are actually very politely and positively saying, is that their value system is self-evidently superior to other competing value systems and that their values should be the only values that are allowed to be publicly expressed. And you can’t get more ‘aggressive’ than that, however politely you say it!


About I Am Not A Number

I Am Not A Number is written by Chris Jury. For 30 years Chris Jury was a TV actor, director and writer best known for playing Eric Catchpole in over 60 episodes of the BBC’s antique classic, Lovejoy, and for directing over 50 episodes of Eastenders. In 2008 he was appointed as the Senior Lecturer in Recorded Media in the School Of Music & Performing Arts at Bath Spa University. He currently presents, Agitpop, a pop & politics radio discussion programme on North Cotswold Community Radio http://www.agitpopradio.org.uk He is currently the Communications Officer for UCU at Bath Spa University and a UCU SW Regional Rep at SWTUC.
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