A cluster of concepts, “decency”, “civility” and “the lesser evil” are closely related, widely used and deserve a little analysis and condemnation.
They arise out of contemporary political circumstances. The world is faced with numerous political crises, some real, some exaggerated and some imaginary. In all these cases one has to take a stand, even if the stand one takes is not to take a stand. However, one of the political crises is the collapse of conventional ideological leadership and analysis. Politicians routinely adopt postures which contradict their professed principles and betray their promises. To enable this they couch their propaganda in seemingly apolitical terms — “civilisational” or “religious”. This encourages people to resort to moral concepts which as political as those cultural terms, but are unrecognised as such.
“Decency” implies doing the right and proper thing, the moral thing, or in political terms the “principled” thing. Given a specific predicament, “decency” provides a specific response. However, this response is necessarily guided by cultural assumptions, which are unspoken. “Decency” implies acting more or less without thinking — which is appropriate when instant decisions are needed, as when a house is burning down, but inappropriate in a political context when decisions have consequences a decade or more down the line.
“Civility” requires that whatever one does is conducted in a right and proper fashion, which does not embarrass or outrage others. This has its influence on decent action, because certain actions might embarrass or outrage others and these are therefore to be avoided, even if they are decent, because they are uncivil. However, “civility” is usually taken as applying only to those who are “decent”; those placed outside the pale of “decency” do not deserve “civility”. “Civility” may seem a minor issue because it relates largely to the way in which one talks about actions. Howevwer, in a democratic society talking about actions is a necessary precursor to taking them, so “civility” can be an effective way of controlling actions through discouraging debate.
“The lesser evil” applies where a clearly-defined set of options may be ranked according to their moral legitimacy, but where none of these options is strictly “decent”. One has to choose the least morally bad thing. This is the “decent” thing to do, although the consequences may be indecent in leading to a lot of suffering. Discussing this suffering might not be wholly consistent with “civility”, so too much attention to the “evil” nature of the “lesser evil” is to be discouraged on grounds of civility. Describing someone or someone’s favoured policy as a “lesser evil” still leaves it as “evil”. If one were to constantly pursue “the lesser evil”, however, this would ultimately to strip “evil” of its moral pejorative status and turn “the lesser evil” effectively into good — because no “good” option was present to be discussed.
All these words and phrases, and the context within which they function, are euphemisms of a type specific to the petit-bourgeois class which serve to protect it against the reality within which it is embedded. A shared acceptance of what constitutes “decency” and “civility” is class-based. The petit-bourgeoisie claims to have ethical standards which must be preserved through “decency”. However, the function of the petit-bourgeoisie is to serve the bourgeoisie, which is neither “decent” nor ethical, and either this unethical nature must be denied, or the petit-bourgeoisie must pretend to be separated from the bourgeoisie in its “decency”. Meanwhile, the proletariat, where it has avoided saturation with petit-bourgeoisie propaganda, tends to prefer grub to ethics. Hence strikes tend to turn violent and the language of the working class is often far from “civil” — language which tends to upset the petit-bourgeoisie almost as much as the actions which relate to it.
“Decency” and “civility” imply that there is only one scale on which to judge such things, which is the scale of the person employing the terms. Implicitly, certain cultures and civilizations have greater “decency” and “civility” than others. An obvious example is the horror which various Western commentators express for the practice of cutting off the heads of one’s captives, or of slicing off the clitorises of one’s womenfolk. “We” would certainly not do such things; only “they” do. People who are not “decent” are suggested to be deficient in terms of their culture. That culture can then be condemned (which permits those who own the terms to make further assumptions, and take further actions, against that culture, ending in the reductio ad absurdum of Islamophobia, as in the gatesofvienna website, the manifesto of Andres Breitvik, or the speeches of the Prime Minister of Australia.)
It is not difficult to argue against beheadings or clitoridectomies on a general basis. The problem is rather utilising the concept of “decency” here, for this behaviour is indeed indecent, but (as is widely pointed out) the Western activity of blowing its political opponents into tiny pieces with bombs is not conspicuously more “decent” than the act of beheading. However, one can turn a political opponent into an aerosol by pressing a button, whereas the videoed beheadings entail knives, axes and cleavers, and blood on the floor instead of on faraway sandy plains which are not foregrounded in the media. In other words, “decency” entails “civility” by suppressing consciousness of unpleasant things.
The West does not cut off women’s clitorises any more. but there are numerous ways in which women suffer suppression or control of the behaviour which they wish to undertake. This control is not usually physical, but it is nevertheless very visible — as, for instance, in the bizarre policies of the American extreme right which has pursued hostility to abortion on demand to the point of becoming increasingly hostile to contraception. The fact that this is possible shows that the fear of, and desire for the control of, female sexuality in the West is quite widespread. Moreover, although Western liberalism purports to allow absolute freedom for women, much of that freedom is in fact closely channeled in order to turn women into men with female genitalia, or alternatively, into sex objects for masculine entertainment.
What this points to is not praise for head-chopping or condemnation for feminism, but rather, to a desperate need to look closely at the ideas and motives which lie behind behaviour which Westerners are encouraged to see as indecent, or indeed utterances which we are encouraged to see as uncivil. Chopping off heads is a terror tactic, exactly like any other tactic intended to instil terror, such as necklacing; it is a weapon of the weak intended to frighten the strong. Clitoridectomy is a male project to curb female sexuality, and also to stamp male control over culture; justifying it through Islamic culture (though there is nothing about it in the Quran) ensures that misogyny receives the sanction of the male Islamic clergy.
Condemn these things on the basis of received ideas is undesirable because anything can be condemned on the basis of such ideas — homosexuality, Christianity or whatever. It is much more sensible to ask whether the goals are generally desirable or the means effectual. For instance, even if the conquest of the Fertile Crescent by Wahhabis were desirable, cutting off the heads of infidels is unlikely to serve that goal, since it attracts violent assaults from powerful infidels elsewhere. (This is probably the reason why the head-chopping is happening, since the bosses of the head-choppers are probably Americans.). It is also arguably desirable that women be allowed to exercise their sexuality as freely as they wish to, and if they must be collectively curbed from doing so, cutting off bits of their bodies is a grotesque way of doing it which is surely culturally unsustainable. Thus it is possible to argue against these behaviours without making extreme cultural assumptions — it is possible to start a debate, one which the proponents of beheading and clitoridectomy would probably not wish to engage in because they couldn’t possibly win.
However, the concept of “decency” reduces its proponents to the same level as that of the proponents of beheading and clitoridectomy. It is a way of avoiding discussion, of rushing those who accept the concept into action without debate — except for the simple debate over “are these people just like us?” with the unspoken corollary that if they are not, they deserve to die. “Decency”, then, is a call for a crusade.
“Civility”, in its turn, is a device for refusing to question the need for a crusade. It is always proper, in a debate, to maintain some kind of standard of behaviour beyond which you should not go; it is not proper, in a game of chess, to pull out a pistol and shoot your opponent if you see your defeat looming a few moves hence, because nobody would play chess against you under such circumstances. But this kind of actual civility serves to further debate, not to suppress it. The use of “civility” amounts to changing the subject from substantive issues to non-substantive ones, and the question arising out of this is why substantive issues are not to be discussed.
A good example is the recent Salaita case in the United States, where a university professor was fired from his university for making extremely rude comments on Twitter about the Israeli attack on Gaza. The university argued that the professor was not meeting the requirements of “civility”, which would presumably require him to establish #IDFrjollywellnotcricket, or some such more courteous hashtag. By discussing whether Salaita was being sufficiently “decent” towards psychopathic racist murderers, the people criticising Salaita were changing the subject away from whether psychopathic racist murder should be condemned. (Most of the people supporting the campaign against Salaita are strongly in favour of psychopathic racist murder so long as it is conducted by Jews. On the other hand, the University’s motive seems to have been a desire to attract money to the campus by establishing itself as an anti-Palestinian and pro-Zionist entity. Many commentators have been uncivil and indecent enough to mention these facts.)
Locally, we have an obvious example in the behaviour of the EFF in Parliament when President Zuma addressed the National Assembly. The EFF were extremely uncivil to President Zuma, accusing him of defrauding the public and demanding that he pay back the proceeds of his fraud. The Parliamentary Speaker explained that it was unkind to make such abhorrently truthful remarks and demanded that they be withdrawn in the name of “civility”, whereupon the EFF became positively crude and vulgar and the police were called. “Civility”, here, was being used to protect a criminal from being exposed as such; the rules of Parliament were being employed so as to undermine the interests of the voting public.
What has such things to do with the “lesser evil”? The argument here seems intended as a last gatekeeper to capture those who are not entrapped by the former concepts. “Lesser evil” acknowledges that the system is rotten, for it says that the choices are all evil — in which case, by the laws of “decency”, we should bomb them, or at least withdraw all goodwill from them. However, one then says that it is our duty to select the evil which is least evil — first do no harm. This sounds reasonable. So, in America, one should always vote Democrat, despite the party’s evil, because if one does not, the still more evil Republicans will win. In Britain one should always vote Labour, despite the party’s evil, because if one does not, the still more evil Tories will win. In South Africa, one should always vote ANC, despite the party’s evil, because if one does not, the still more evil DA will get in.
You see through the concept of “decency” and realise that it is a scam to hide corruption; you see through the concept of “uncivility” which stops you from discussing corruption — but then you run up against your duty to act; you must restrict yourself to supporting the option which will do less harm than the other. The question is, why? Why support only that option? Why are you supporting that option when so many other people think that the Republicans or the Tories or the DA are actually the “lesser evil”, presumably on the basis of their own concepts of “decency”? Why be so carefully “civil” and refrain from condemning evil as evil, whether it be little or big?
This is the question which is not to be asked, and which concepts such as this discourage people from asking. And this is how we are taught to be subordinated. And this is what we ought to struggle against — indecently, uncivilly, and for the greater good.