What is "civility?" The media daily bemoans its absence from our public discourse. How uncivil! How rude! On the other hand, people are allowed to libel certain public figures with impunity and no complaints.
This morning, Chris Matthews got tired of the pearl-clutching and accused RNC chairman Reince Preibus, who was bemoaning the "incivility" of the Obama campaign, of leading a party that's playing the race card at every hand. (Video below.) He did this because the Republicans have been playing the race card at every hand.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates notes in disgust, a number of other panelists on the TV show were trying to interrupt Matthews, to "calm him down" (or in fact, to shut him down), although he had a pretty good point and Preibus had no defense. In fact, it was all the more important for the other talking heads to defend Preibus because he could not defend himself. Because let's remember what civility is.
"Civility" here means politeness among perceived equals.
Calling an equal out for mistreatment of people who are imagined as social inferiors is taboo as "uncivil." The rule is that you don't give offense to people of your own class, which includes not being "rude" about how they treat people "below" your class.
It works like this: "How can you make such a terrible fuss and ruin everyone's evening over the way your hostess treats her maids? What do you care about her maids? You owe your hosts some proper courtesy!"
Or: "Why would you throw away such a good friendship over one little remark to a beggar?"
Or: "Isn't it a shame that these abolitionists are trying to turn white people against each other, just for the sake of a few Negroes. We should do everything we can to promote harmony between the states."
This is why calling someone a racist is currently taken as the ultimate social transgression among prosperous, educated Americans, where actually being a racist is often politely ignored. Except, of course, when the person being accused of racism is black. Then they need to be publicly punished in the name of good manners.
This form of "civility" is not about how you treat people you consider below you. The little people are not entitled to it. It is a respect given only to one's equals.