Photograph by Allan Warren
James Baldwin, impolite but right?
You hipsters have a penchant — pronounced in the original French way — for preserving and often restoring dying arts. I’m hoping reviving the art of polite, civil, mannerly conversation, even on the tough topics, is within the zeitgeist — pronounced in the German way — of the modern hipster. It seems a good fit to me. Incivility and general brashness of speech were countercultural and cool in 1960s power rock songs and 1970s Scorcese movies, but pretty played out at this point, pretty mainstream, don’t you think? If you’ve taught us anything, Maestro, it’s that hipsters dread the mainstream. As such, do you think the hipster community might be the early adopters in a societal swing back toward politeness, civility, and manners?
— Dior Berenson, Mount Helix
You’re not the first to raise concerns over a perceived decline in social mores. Stuffy, Downton Abbey-era aristocrats considered it the absolute height of scandal when people started dressing down in ordinary tuxedos for their dinners. Every generation before or since has lamented, after some fashion or another, the moral decay of society. Pronouncements of the end of civil discourse are today’s expression of a generalized sense of the world going straight to hell in the proverbial handbasket... which may prove an accurate assessment.
There was a famous debate between (legendary hipster) James Baldwin and (equally legendary square) William F. Buckley at the University of Cambridge in 1965. One might view this as the apex of civil discourse: two intellectual giants of diametrically opposed viewpoints arguing the most divisive issue of the twentieth century (segregation) with what appears to be at least a modicum of respect for each other. Anyone who hasn’t watched it on YouTube should do so immediately.
If this is what you mean by civility, then the world might benefit from an injection of it.
But exhortations to civility can be a powerful tool of oppression when, as may sometimes be the case, what passes for “civility” is little more than the norms of the people in power. Nietzsche rather famously theorized there is no place in society for politeness, civility, and manners except between people who are both de jure and de facto “equal” to each other. Where there is social inequality, the natural state of human interaction is more appropriately framed as a zero-sum contest over a finite amount of power.
It’s easy for people who don’t want to face a hard truth (truth hurts, as they say) to accuse anybody challenging the status quo of incivility and indecorousness, just because the message is unpopular or unwanted. The brash speech of the counterculture and the irreverent cheek of the hipster reflect this principle, because they are more than a form of rebelliousness for its own sake. They are a potent means of speaking truth to power.
James Baldwin broke the rules of decorum at that famous debate by appealing sometimes not to logic and reason, but to passion and emotion. He channeled the anger and rage of generations, and he called out the inequality of the status quo with sharp words and no attempt at politeness. Buckley, a bastion of civility, chastised him for it, but Baldwin won the debate handily. Sometimes, the impolite find themselves on the right side of history, and we would never want a desire for mere politeness to get in the way of that.