Civility and Social Protest

Does it show lack of civility to stage a social protest? That depends on your political views and the protesters' social status, says sociologist Ruth Braunstein.

NFL player Colin Kaepernick, foreground center, kneels during the playing of the National Anthem to rally support for social justice. When the response to a protest is not to engage on the actual issue but to instead talk about whether the protesters protested appropriately, it’s a way of changing the subject, says sociologist Ruth Braunstein. (Getty Images)

NFL player Colin Kaepernick, foreground center, kneels during the playing of the National Anthem to rally support for social justice. When the response to a protest is not to engage on the actual issue but to instead talk about whether the protesters protested appropriately, it’s a way of changing the subject, says sociologist Ruth Braunstein. (Getty Images)

Ruth Braunstein is an assistant professor of sociology whose research explores the practices, narratives, and ideals of activists across the political spectrum. Her first book, Prophets and Patriots: Faith in Democracy Across the Political Divide, a comparative ethnographic study of progressive faith-based community organizing and Tea Party activism, was published by the University of California Press in 2017. Her recent article “Boundary-work and the demarcation of civil from uncivil protest in the United States: control, legitimacy, and political inequality” was published in the journal Theory and Society. The research was supported by the UConn Humanities Institute’s Humility and Conviction in Public Life Project. She discussed the issues surrounding civil and uncivil behavior in political protests with UConn Today.

Q. What was the impetus to focus on what you call civility contests?

A. During my previous research project, where I was doing field work with grassroots activists on both the right and the left, I was participating in both a local Tea Party group during the height of their activity and also a local faith-based community organizing coalition, much more progressive and social justice-oriented. At the time, the Tea Party’s actions at the health care town hall meetings got a lot of press coverage, talking about the fact they had emerged as this angry mob. The local group I was studying at the time takes this seriously, and a big part of how they present themselves is intended to offset this narrative. For example, they talk a lot about how they go to lengths to clean up after rallies. Around the same time, the Occupy Movement emerges and people make the same kind of comments about leaving the parks in a mess, accusing them of incivility. Setting aside their different messages, it is not entirely clear to me one is being more objectively uncivil than the other, in terms of the form of their protests. So I started thinking about this question more; there’s an extent to which all protesters are going to seem uncivil to someone, depending on how narrowly you’re going to define civility. In itself, protest is uncivil if you consider only calm and reasoned dialogue around a table to be the gold standard of how to behave civilly in a democratic society. The very idea of protesting in the streets is disruptive. Even if you’re doing it peacefully, it could be considered uncivil by someone. And yet, protesters believe this disruption is necessary to get their point across, especially if they’ve done those other things – dialogue, negotiations, the quieter, calmer action – and it didn’t get them anywhere. It led me to ask: how is protest in general viewed, and who counts as civil across a wider variety of cases?

Q. As you summarize the literature on the history of protest in the United States, including the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 followed shortly by the initial 10 amendments to the Constitution, it becomes clear that trying to define civility is not a new issue, because it often comes down to politics.

A. When you just look at the political context, you see that what we would consider an appropriate way to behave politically is something we’ve been thinking about since before we were a nation. It’s of particular concern to a country that emerged out of violent revolution and then had to figure out how to govern itself in a manner that was more peaceful and sustainable. Over time, we develop a set of markers of what we consider the gold standards of civil behavior, like the town hall meeting. This is the place where many believe “real” democracy happens, where people communicate face to face, don’t get angry, and give reasons for their arguments and resolve disagreements peacefully. Then you have the other end of the spectrum, which is violent uprising against the government, which is clearly considered out of bounds. But everything in between is up for debate.

Q. You point out that there are variations in the perception of civility over time and across social contexts, noting in particular the 1960s social movements that defined such views at the time.

If two people are called uncivil, those with lower status, less power, and fewer resources will often suffer greater social consequences as a result of that labeling. — Ruth Braunstein

A. In political life, people are making these distinctions between what counts as civil and what is uncivil behavior all of the time. And when people disagree about where these distinctions should be drawn, this is what I am calling a civility contest. These contests are quite common, which isn’t surprising, since we know this is a question that is really in the eyes of the beholder; the lines get drawn in very different places by different people, depending on the situation and depending on the people involved. In these kinds of situations, we know social biases are going to creep in, and the evidence suggests that’s true in this case as well. For example, people are more likely to evaluate protesters as uncivil if the protesters are members of relatively marginalized groups, of lower social status, with less political power, or with less economic resources. Those groups are less likely to get the benefit of the doubt in terms of how the public perceives them. But this is not to say that some high status groups won’t be considered uncivil, too. The Tea Party is an example of that. The Tea Partiers were mostly drawn from relatively privileged groups in society, most of them were white, highly educated, middle-class, had some degree of political power outside that movement, with access to other political channels, and they were still called uncivil. But being labeled uncivil may not have had the same negative social costs for them; so I also talk about the distinction between being labeled uncivil and the social implications of being labeled uncivil. We can see disparities in these social implications; if two people are called uncivil, those with lower status, less power, and fewer resources will often suffer greater social consequences as a result of that labeling than people with more status, resources, and power.

Q. We see in the criminal justice system how people of color are tagged, as opposed to others receiving more leniency in the court system or not being subject to arrest.

A. Exactly, and those two things intersect directly. We see that accusations of incivility are not just made by members of the public and political opponents, but also by power holders, leaders of our towns, cities, and states. They use those labels of incivility as justification for cracking down on protesters, bringing police and arresting protesters, clearing occupations. This is how civility contests are related to the involvement of law enforcement in the policing of protest, and you see those same biases creeping in. You can easily see the unequal social impact of this just by looking at protester arrests, for example. If two groups of protesters are being arrested on the pretense they are being too uncivil, too disruptive, and one group of protesters is coming from a high resource community with enough money to be able to pay bail, pay lawyers, they will get out of jail relatively quickly and in many cases that will be a small mark on their record, if it even remains a part of their permanent record. But if you have another group of protesters that is from a low economic resource community, has less political power and already suffers from these biases in the criminal justice system, being arrested for protesting could be a life-altering event in their lives, with negative consequences in the short and long term. There’s a big literature on the policing of protest that sheds light on this as well.

Q. You define how political actors can be seen – the institutional power holders, which may be government, the opposing movements, and the media, which we’re seeing a lot of now. When you look at the media, what do you see?

A. It’s hard to put a fine point on the role media is playing, in part because they have a couple of different interests. On one hand, they might play up the more dramatic and disruptive nature of protest, in which case they may play a role in making protest seem more uncivil than it is, if they only go to the people holding the most outlandish signs and they don’t talk to the hundred other people who are out there protesting peacefully without that kind of outlandish message. They can heighten this appearance of incivility. They are also drawn to larger and more disruptive protest events in the first place, which, again, might lead to the impression that protest is more uncivil than it is. The vast majority of protest events are relatively small, peaceful, and uneventful, but that doesn’t get covered very much in the press, so they’re playing this role that is amplifying uncivility. I found it interesting that they’re also playing a role in covering what I’m calling the civility contest itself. Covering a controversy is of huge interest to the media today; it’s a way of saying they’re giving equal hearings to both sides of an issue. This satisfies the need to appear objective in their coverage, and this gets criticized in some ways as a “both sides-ism,” because both sides get credit whether they are credible or not. But it also satisfies that need to say, there’s a controversy and it’s news and we want to cover it.

Q. You make reference in the paper to the NFL player Colin Kaepernick and how the reason for his actions – kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem to rally support for social justice – became secondary to widespread criticism of him as unpatriotic by President Trump and others.

When the response to [a] protest is not to engage on the actual issue but to instead talk about whether [the protesters] protested appropriately, it’s a way of changing the subject. — Ruth Braunstein

A. It’s part of the point I’m trying to convey. When protesters go out they’re doing it because they have a set of demands, concerns, a message they want to get across, and they struggle to get it across in any other way. When the response to that protest is not to engage on the actual issue but to instead talk about whether they protested appropriately, it’s a way of changing the subject. It means that instead of spending the 15 minutes you get with a journalist talking about your issue – as in the NFL protest on racial injustice – you’re spending that time talking about whether the protest itself, the form they used to talk about that issue, is appropriate. It is a powerful strategy that can be used by both opponents and by people in power who might feel threatened, to change the subject, take the air out of a protest situation, and make it so nobody is paying attention to the reason you’re actually out there and instead think about whether you were acting appropriately. This is a common strategy and can be effective. It’s also done with more frequency around issues that are really threatening to the status quo or to people in power; for example, protests today focusing on racial injustice appear more likely to be pulled into these kinds of civility contests. When one can shift the focus from what you’re saying to how you’re saying it, that can be a way of blunting a protest’s impact.

Q. You delineate between the boundaries of civility and having social effects. How are these boundaries determined?

A. There is a lot of work in sociology about what kinds of symbolic boundaries – these distinctions we make between people – have power in our society, and then asking, do those symbolic boundaries map onto what we would call social boundaries or inequalities. One example of this is citizenship. There is a formal social and legal category of American citizenship that has specific social and legal parameters. We can say there are people in it or outside of it. There are also physical boundaries associated with nationhood – the actual border – and whether you’re inside of it or outside of it is relatively clear. But we also draw more fuzzy symbolic distinctions between whether someone is considered a “real” American or not, and there is a lot of disagreement about this. These debates may seem separate from those about legal citizenship, but it turns out that we make decisions about the social and legal boundaries based on these symbolic boundaries. In a very different context, part of what the paper is trying to trace is how do the symbolic distinctions that we’re drawing between civility and incivility map on to different kinds of social inequalities, meaning access to political voice in the political realm; whose voice counts, whose voice is heard, and whose voice is more likely to be silenced through official or unofficial means. I present evidence there is a very clear relationship between symbolic boundaries and political inequalities in this case, and that the groups most marginalized in our society are more likely to be viewed and labeled as uncivil, and also as a result to face the most significant social consequences of having diminished political voice and access in our politics. It’s really a call for more people to do research on this and establish that, in more cases with different methods.