Boundary-work and the demarcation of civil from uncivil protest in the United States: control, legitimacy, and political inequality


Beyond the reaches of scholarly debates about how to define and value civility properly, social actors across various institutional domains routinely demarcate civil from uncivil behavior. Yet this everyday classification process remains understudied and undertheorized, despite being widespread and having significant stakes for the individuals and groups involved. This article begins to fill this gap by developing the concept of civility contests—practical efforts to draw symbolic boundaries between civil and uncivil individuals, groups, or behaviors. Through a focus on the realm of political protest in the United States, this article demonstrates that civility contests involve a wide range of political actors (including institutionalized power holders, opposing movements, and the media) who engage in this boundary-work in order to justify the control or (de)legitimation of protest. It then highlights patterned disparities in the outcomes of these contests, demonstrating that the likelihood of being marked as uncivil and the extent to which this prompts negative social sanction is shaped by one’s social position. Overall, the article seeks to stimulate and guide future empirical research on civility contests and to deepen theoretical understandings of the relationship between symbolic and social boundaries and the role of symbolic boundary-work in the reproduction of political inequality.

In the context of rising concern about an “incivility crisis” (Carter 1998), members of the American public routinely distinguish civility from incivility and assign individuals, groups, and behaviors to these categories. The stakes of this everyday classification process are high—indeed, despite widespread disagreement about how to draw these distinctions, once someone is symbolically marked as “uncivil” this can have serious social consequences. This is the case within interpersonal relationships, workplaces, university campuses, and especially political life. Despite a large body of research on the nature and effects of incivility, however, this everyday process of demarcating civility from incivility remains understudied and undertheorized. This article begins to fill this gap, drawing on Gieryn’s (1983) concept of “boundary-work,” social movement scholarship on identity and framing “contests” (Bernstein 2008; Ryan 1991), and research on the relationship between “symbolic” and “social” boundaries within civic life (Lamont and Molnár 2002; Alexander 2006) to develop the concept of civility contests—practical efforts to demarcate civil from uncivil individuals, groups, or behaviors. Focusing on the realm of political protest in the United States, the article then demonstrates how a wide range of political actors engage in civility contests to justify the control or (de)legitimation of protest, and highlights patterned disparities in the outcomes of these contests. Overall, the article aims to stimulate and guide future empirical research on civility contests, as well as to deepen more general understandings of the role these kinds of symbolic contests can play in the (re)production of political inequality.

The analytical problem of civility

Context: An incivility crisis?

Since at least the 1960s, public officials and scholars have sounded the alarm bell about the decline of civility in American public life. Carter (1998) has gone so far as to declare an “incivility crisis.” Scholars have grown increasingly concerned about Americans’ ability to interact “civilly” with one another within institutions ranging from universities to workplaces (Pearson and Porath 2009; Sutton 2007; Weeks 2011), as well as in everyday life, especially in the context of rising social diversity and economic inequality (Anderson 2011; Smith et al. 2010). The lion’s share of scholarly attention, however, has gone toward the alleged decline of civility in American political life (Hall 2013; Jamieson 2000; Tannen 1999). This concern has intensified most recently in response to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and early presidency (Scott 2017), but this is only the most recent flare-up in a longstanding national conversation about the role of civility in American democratic life.

The widespread perception of a decline in political civility in the United States is understandably concerning. Scholars have long argued that a functioning democratic society rests upon participants’ willingness to follow certain ground rules in their interactions with one another in public (Hall 2013; Hefner 1998; Herbst 2010). This, Hall (2013, p. 4) argues in his recent defense of civility, “allows disagreement to take place without violence and regularizes conflict so that it can be productive.” It follows that when actors breach these behavioral norms, this makes basic democratic processes impossible. Moreover, in a society defined by its social and political diversity, it is argued that civility enables Americans to communicate and cooperate across their differences, at least in some public settings (Anderson 2011).

Yet critics have objected strongly to behavioral requirements for democratic participation, noting that demands for civility are simply a means through which those in power seek to maintain their position, while delegitimizing groups and voices that threaten to disrupt the status quo (Kennedy 1998; Sugrue 2018). As Ward (2017, p. 132) observes, this “civility talk” can be perceived as “an ideological fog intended to induce conformity to the terms of unjust social arrangements” (see also Bejan 2017). Excessive calls for civility thus risk, in Kennedy’s (1998) words, being “deeply at odds with what an invigorated liberalism requires: intellectual clarity; an insistence upon grappling with the substance of controversies; and a willingness to fight loudly, openly, militantly, even rudely for policies and values that will increase freedom, equality, and happiness in America and around the world” (see also Sanders 1997; Young 2001). Demands for civility are also empirically faulty, argues Sugrue (2018). Using the civil rights movement as a case in point, he argues that while this movement is often misremembered today as a beacon of civility, “in fact, civil rights leaders, while they did believe in the power of nonviolence, knew that their success depended on disruption and coercion as much — sometimes more — than on dialogue and persuasion.” Put simply, “the path to change is seldom polite” (Sugrue 2018).

A third path lies somewhere between prioritizing civility and dismissing its virtues altogether. For example, even proponents of “agonistic” politics—those who view democracy as best served through passionate disagreement and conflict rather than calm and reasoned conversation—acknowledge certain practical limits on conflict (Perrin 2014, pp. 90–91). In Mouffe’s (2005, p. 20) words, “Conflict, in order to be accepted as legitimate, needs to take a form that does not destroy the political association.” From this perspective, civility is best understood as what Ward (2017, p. 115) calls an ancillary virtue, “the part of justice that disposes citizens to confront unjust relationships in ways that leave open the possibility of relational repair.” Embracing this sentiment, Perrin (2014, p. 93) calls for what we might call a minimalist civility: “an agonistic yet civil clamor of disagreeing, emotional, passionate, and committed voices about the public.” Yet striking this elusive balance requires observers and participants in public life to be reflexive about the power imbalances and social biases underlying efforts to define and impose civility.

Variation in definitions of (in)civility

Despite previous efforts by civility critics to introduce this reflexivity into conversations about civility, concerns about an incivility crisis nonetheless undergird most empirical research on political incivility. Taking the problem of incivility as their starting point, researchers ask whether the incivility of contemporary politics has had a measurable impact on Americans’ trust in the political process (Mutz and Reeves 2005); on their likelihood to enter public service (Tannen 1999); and on a range of other political attitudes and behaviors (Brooks and Geer 2007). Others have stepped back from questions about effects, and turned instead to content, asking how much incivility is really present in the media we consume (Jamieson and Cappella 2008; Sobieraj and Berry 2011) and in the political rhetoric of politicians and movement leaders (Herbst 2010; Jamieson 2000). In each case, these researchers have devised careful measures of (in)civility, yet a review of this literature as a whole reveals widespread disagreement over how to demarcate civility from incivility analytically, as well as how to operationalize these distinctions.

For example, many scholars identify respect as a core element of civility (Carter 1998; Eulau 1973; Hall 2013; Herbst 2010). Incivility, then, involves comments that “suggested a lack of respect for and/or frustration with the opposition” (Mutz and Reeves 2005, p. 5), including “inserted gratuitous asides” and gestures such as raised voices, eye rolling, and head shaking (see also Brooks and Geer 2007). Excessive emotionality is also central to conceptualizations of incivility (Mutz 2007). In this vein, Mutz and Reeves (2005) and Brooks and Geer (2007) consider emotional display, verbal sparring, and insulting language as uncivil. Focusing on an extreme form of uncivil speech they call “outrage,” Sobieraj and Berry (2011) also call attention to the problematic nature of (negative) emotion. They find evidence of outrage in a range of behaviors including mockery, misrepresentative exaggeration, insulting language, and name-calling.

Another common way of demarcating civility from incivility is by reference to a more basic distinction between politeness and rudeness (Jamieson 1999; Herbst 2010; Mutz and Reeves 2005; Mutz 2007). In her review of the different ways of defining civility, Sapiro (1999) cites the Oxford English Dictionary definition, which defines civility as “Behaviour proper to the intercourse of civilized people; ordinary courtesy or politeness, as opposed to rudeness of behavior; decent respect, consideration” (p. 3). Meanwhile, other researchers have countered that restrained politeness is a high bar to set for democratic public life. Rudeness, they argue, is not necessarily uncivil (Stryker et al. 2016; Massarro and Stryker 2012). Rather, as Papacharissi (2004) argues, “civility is misunderstood when reduced to interpersonal politeness, because this definition ignores the democratic merit of robust and heated discussion” (260). She makes the case that behaviors should be considered civil as long as they communicate “respect for the collective traditions of democracy” (p. 260). Incivility, in turn, is understood as “the set of behaviors that threaten democracy, deny people their personal freedoms, and stereotype social groups” (p. 267). While definitions of incivility as disrespect, excessive emotionality, or rudeness focus primarily on the content and form of political speech, this approach broadens the focus to include more fully a range of political behaviors.

Yet researchers must still make choices concerning what kinds of behaviors enhance or threaten democracy, a task that is complicated by the presence of competing visions of “democratic” action in American political culture (Braunstein 2017; Sanders 1997; Schudson 1998; Young 2001). For example, it may be uncontroversial to consider “uncivil” the destruction of property or violence, or even “speech that is intentionally threatening to political opponents’ physical well-being, or that encourages others to cause physical harm to them,” as Massaro and Stryker (2012, p. 409) do. But it is less clear how to evaluate a wide range of behaviors that may simply be considered disruptive or “extreme” (Fiorina 1999), including protest activities like storming into a public meeting, chanting loudly to prevent others from being heard, or blocking public streets. Do these activities convey “respect for the collective traditions of democracy,” or do they “threaten democracy” and “deny people their personal freedoms”?Footnote 1

Despite the care with which scholars develop operational definitions of these terms and their awareness of their problematic lack of consensus (Jamieson et al. 2017; Sapiro 1999), they nonetheless associate incivility with a wide range of behaviors—from eye-rolling to vulgar language; disruptive protest to destruction of property; and even violence. Meanwhile, members of the public, untethered from the obligations of scholarly precision, similarly label a wide range of behaviors as uncivil (Stryker et al. 2016). In this light, it is clear why public efforts to define and apply these terms are marked by intense disagreement.

Variation in perceptions of civility over time and across social contexts

Complicating matters further is the fact that civility norms have changed over time. It was not uncommon for early American politics to be “fractious, noisy, rude, obnoxious, and often physically dangerous” (Sapiro 1999, p. 12). Nineteenth-century politics, too, were marked by “mobs,” “riots” and “disorderly expressions of public opinions” that “ran roughshod over any refined notion of political protocol or decorum” (Ryan 1997, p. 129). Not only does this historical scholarship cast doubt on the argument that civility has declined over time (Elias 2000; Herbst 2010; Schudson 1998); it also illuminates the historically and socially contingent nature of what behaviors are considered inappropriate or undemocratic.

This contingency also results from the fact that, at any given point in time, civility norms and expectations are applied differently to different social actors. Linguistics scholars have demonstrated that attributions of incivility vary according to people’s relative social status (Sapiro 1999, p. 9). Citing a study by Culpeper (1996), Sapiro (1999, p. 9) elaborates:

People with different status levels can be perceived to be employing different levels of civility by engaging in identical acts; those with higher status have more license to interrupt others or invade their personal space, control eye contact, use informal means of address, ask questions, change topics, use space expansively, make noise, and so forth.

Conversely, those with lower social status are more likely to be perceived as uncivil, even when engaging in the same behavior as those with high social status. Whereas high status actors are given the benefit of the doubt in interactions with social others, lower status actors are perpetually on “thin ice,” wary of appearing “out of place” or “threatening” (Anderson 2011, p. 154). These perceptions also vary across different cultural and social contexts (Meier 1995)—for example, what may be considered acceptable “locker room talk” would not likely be considered appropriate at one’s workplace or at the family dinner table. In summary, some people can get away with being more “uncivil” than others; and people can be more “uncivil” in some places than in others.

While most of this existing research focuses on interpersonal interactions, there has recently been some effort to assess variation in perceptions of incivility in political life. Herbst (2010), for example, compares various perceptions of campaign rallies during the 2008 presidential race. She observes: “Then-Senator Barack Obama’s campaign rallies of 2008 … incorporated many of the same elements as [Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s] rallies: intense partisan emotion and immense size. But Palin’s crowds were characterized by the media as frightening, whether they were in fact dangerous or not” (2010, p. 38; emphasis added).Footnote 2 While this perception gap was likely rooted in part in the media’s framing of Palin supporters as ideological extremists, the British philosopher John Stuart Mill was more concerned about how perceptions of political incivility are shaped by power imbalances. As he observes in On Liberty, standards of civility are not applied to those in power to the same extent that they are applied to those who challenge the powerful.

With regard to what is commonly meant by intemperate conversation, namely invective, sarcasm, personality and the like, the denunciations of these weapons would deserve more sympathy if it were ever proposed to interdict them equally to both sides; but it is only desired to restrain the employment of them against the prevailing opinion. (p. 51, cited in Herbst 2010, p. 16)

Mill’s sentiment is echoed at the macro scale in critical scholarship on the Global North’s application of its “civility” standards to the Global South. As Baiocchi (2011, p. 244) points out, “civility stands in for the standards of the powerful in society.” Critiquing cultural sociologists for their lack of reflexivity about how their own normative biases obscure this fact, he argues, “In the myriad studies of citizenship in which citizenship’s others are summoned (whether it be the image of the apathetic, disengaged, or corrupt citizen), there is little reflection about the operation of power that constructs that other as undesirable, barbaric, or uncivilized” (p. 243). Together, these observations suggest that in political life attributions of civility and incivility are shaped by observers’ normative biases and relative power and social status.

From the civility concept to the civility contest

The demarcation of civility from incivility—whether among scholars or the general public – is a complex and contested social process with significant stakes for those involved. Yet this process remains understudied and undertheorized. What is needed is a framework that enables interested researchers to sidestep the civility concept and take this process itself as their object of analysis. To this end, this article proposes the concept of civility contests—practical efforts to draw symbolic boundaries between civil and uncivil individuals, groups, or behaviors. Attention to this everyday practice of demarcation reveals an entire field of struggle over the boundaries of appropriate political behavior and shows how this struggle is shaped by participants’ respective interests, social status, and power.

This proposal bears much in common with Gieryn’s (1983, p. 781) call to sidestep “apparently futile attempts by scholars to decide what is essential and unique about science” and instead to ask how the demarcation of science from non-science is accomplished in practical settings, for example among scientists themselves. The demarcation of these categories, Gieryn argued, is as much a “practical problem” for these social actors as it is an “analytical problem” for scholarly observers (Gieryn 1983, p. 792). He dubbed this practical style of demarcation “boundary-work,” “a sociological parallel to the familiar literary device of the ‘foil’” (1983, p. 791). He observed that boundary-work rarely essentializes categories; rather, individuals draw “flexible, historically changing and sometimes ambiguous” boundaries around these categories, depending on the context (Gieryn 1983, p. 781; see also Gieryn et al. 1985). This phenomenon is not unique to debates about science; indeed, scholars have increasingly emphasized how categories like nationhood, ethnicity, and race are not real in an objective sense, but are used in everyday life as “practical categories” (Brubaker 1996, 2004). This phenomenon is also visible in everyday efforts among cultural producers to demarcate positively from negatively valued qualities—like authenticity from inauthenticity—and to embody the former (e.g., Ocejo 2017). What is consistent across these varied cases is that individuals, groups, and behaviors are always defined in relation to some “other.” Through this lens, such categories are not defined by essential characteristics, but are inherently relational (Emirbayer 1997; Somers 1994).

The process of defining these kinds of categories involves intense competition between social groups. After all, at stake is “power over the classificatory schemes and systems which are the basis of the representations of [social] groups and therefore of their mobilization and demobilization” (Bourdieu 1984, p. 479). Particularly in the context of political life, power over “the meaning of the social world” (Bourdieu 1984, p. 479) can be a necessary condition for achieving other forms of power. Yet for Bourdieu (1984; Bourdieu et al. 1994), this is the catch—indeed, because “position in the classification struggle depends on position in the class structure” (1984, p. 484), these struggles become opportunities for high status groups to reproduce their existing power and privilege. That classification struggles typically lead to social reproduction, however, should not suggest that less privileged groups can never influence classification and thus challenge the existing social order “from below,” as social movement scholarship has demonstrated.

Conceptualizing demarcation processes as boundary contests attunes us to this potential for diverse social groups to influence the outcomes of these processes, and signals affinity with what social movement scholars call “framing contests” (Benford and Snow 2000; Ryan 1991) or “identity contests” (Bernstein 2008; Bernstein and Olsen 2009). Work on framing contests focuses on competition between frames and “counterframes,” efforts “to rebut, undermine, or neutralize a person’s or group’s myths, versions of reality, or interpretive framework” (Benford 1987, p. 75; cited in Benford and Snow 2000, p. 626). In the case of identity contests—in which “various contenders and bystanders … frame and reframe the identities of opponents or those they sympathize with” (Bernstein and Olsen 2009, p. 873)—at stake is not just a general version of reality but rival accounts of who a group is and whether they are good or bad actors. Because boundary-work can involve framing (insofar as it involves imposing one’s interpretation of the world on others) as well as identity-work (insofar as those drawing boundaries align themselves or others with one side of the boundary), boundary contests can overlap with framing and identity contests. Both concepts also highlight the contested nature of meaning-making in the political arena and the fact that this process is the product of “power relations and historical forces, not neutral negotiations among individual or collective actors of equal social resources and standing” (Morris and Braine 2001, p. 25). This does not mean the powerful always win, but that they enjoy a meaningful advantage. We should expect the same to be true of boundary contests.

Civility contests are one form of boundary contest, involving competition over the demarcation of civility from incivility and how these labels should be assigned to individuals, groups, or behaviors.Footnote 3 Civility contests are not limited to the rhetorical content of boundary-work, but also involve players “deploying” civility performatively (e.g., through “emotional displays” or ritual), akin to the varied ways in which activists deploy identities (Bernstein and Olsen 2009, p. 871; Bernstein 2008). Civility contests may involve political actors explicitly referring to themselves or others as “civil” or “uncivil” (or variants of these terms, like “civilized”/“uncivilized”), or drawing more broadly on what Alexander (2006) calls civil/democratic and anticivil/counterdemocratic “codes” to police the boundaries of appropriate political behavior. This might include the labeling of themselves or others as rational/irrational, reasonable/hysterical, calm/excitable, self-controlled/passionate, sane/mad, truthful/deceitful (Alexander 2006, pp. 57–59; Alexander and Smith 1993) or citizen/enemy (Alexander 1992), among other proxies for the civil/uncivil distinction; or looser references to the different meanings of incivility reviewed above: disrespect, excessive emotionality, rudeness, or antidemocratic behavior (including disruption and violence). But civility contests might also involve instances in which actors engage in performances or rituals in order to enact their superior civility (Braunstein 2015) or more subtly associate themselves with others who are considered civil exemplars (Alexander 2006). These exemplars will vary depending on the political context but, in the United States, association with respected historical figures like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln imbues actors with an aura of civility,Footnote 4 while comparisons to national enemies—like Hitler, Stalin, or terrorists—carry the taint of incivility.

The boundaries drawn between civility and incivility in the course of these contests are “symbolic boundaries,” “conceptual distinctions made by social actors to categorize objects, people, practices and even time and space” (Lamont and Molnár 2002, p. 168). The actors and behaviors associated with one side or the other of these boundaries are infused as a result with either positive or negative symbolic value—they are deemed sacred or profane, democratic or antidemocratic, citizens or enemies, in Alexander’s (1992, 2006) terms. While these distinctions are symbolic, however, this does not mean they are not real. Not only do they shape intersubjective definitions of reality (Lamont and Molnár 2002, p. 169); they can also have significant effects on “social boundaries,” “objectified forms of social differences manifested in unequal access to and unequal distribution of resources (material and nonmaterial) and social opportunities” (Lamont and Molnár 2002, p. 168).

In the case of civility contests then, at stake is not simply the symbolic “pollution” that comes from being deemed uncivil (Alexander 2006), but also the fact that this can lead, either directly or indirectly, to the “silencing or subjugating” of these groups (Jamieson et al. 2017, p. 211). This is often the intention of boundary-work. Indeed, Gieryn (1983, pp. 791–792) found that professionals are most likely to engage in boundary-work when they seek to expand their authority into new domains (by burnishing their own image in relation to rivals); expel rivals from access to previously shared authority or resources; and protect their authority and autonomy from encroachment by rivals. Extending this logic to civility contests, one can observe how participants’ interests in maintaining or claiming power and legitimacy similarly drives their boundary-work.

First, institutional power holders distinguish between civil and uncivil political behaviors in order to control protest (Chafe 1981; Jamieson et al. 2017; Strachan and Wolf 2012). Social movement scholars use repression as an umbrella term that includes various forms of control, including the silencing and suppression of dissent, as well as the channeling of dissent toward “respectable” or “appropriate” forms of action that do not threaten the status quo (Earl 2003; see also Calhoun 2012; Della Porta and Reiter 1998; Ferree 2004; Zald and McCarthy 1979). Civility contests are thus one of many ways in which the state uses classification systems (e.g., enshrined in law or bureaucratic processes) to impose “common principles of vision and division” on society (Bourdieu et al. 1994, p.7). Although, as discussed, multiple actors engage in this classificatory work, the state is the “site par excellence of the concentration and exercise of symbolic power” (Bourdieu et al. 1994, p. 9) and thus in a particularly strong position to engage in this kind of hierarchical or top-down boundary-work.

Second, “opposing movements” (Fetner 2008) demarcate civil from uncivil behavior in order to enhance their respective legitimacy while delegitimizing opponents (Alexander 2006; Jamieson et al. 2017). Generally, we know that being “portrayed in a negative light” can threaten a movement’s viability, by leading to the loss of “credibility, crucial material resources, and access to powerholders” (Bernstein and Olsen 2009, p. 879; citing Haines 2006). But movements not only enter civility contests from a defensive position; indeed, many use incivility as a strategic “tool” (Herbst 2010, p. 6) to capture the public’s attention or to provoke civility contests intentionally and thus challenge official and unofficial boundaries around appropriate political behavior. Attention to this kind of horizontal or bottom-up boundary-work is not only consistent with recent efforts to de-center the state (Armstrong and Bernstein 2008), but also highlights civility contests’ potential to generate new meanings and political possibilities.

The media plays a role in both aspects of civility contests, buttressing the claims of different actors in different moments. Whether they are supporting institutionalized power holders or movements, however, the media play a role in framing actors and behaviors as uncivil, amplifying instances of incivility while downplaying civility and circulating accusations of incivility (Gitlin 2003). While movements may seek to attract media to their side of civility contests, journalists’ desire to be perceived as “objective” (Schudson 2001) combined with a commercial interest in “controversies” (Patterson 2017) tends to encourage coverage of civility contests themselves.

The former kind of hierarchical boundary-work has typically been the focus of research on the state’s (and other institutions’) use of formal classification processes, while the latter kind of horizontal boundary-work has tended to be the focus of research on the “unofficial, informal, ‘everyday’ classification and categorization practices of ordinary people” (Brubaker 2004, p. 66). Understanding civility contests, however, requires bringing both kinds of boundary-work into view and recognizing that they are often interrelated. As Alexander (2006, p. 61) observes, once someone is “constructed under the anticivil, counterdemocratic code” they not only lose public legitimacy but also “must be silenced, displaced, or repressed.”

Alexander (2006) frames the process through which symbolic pollution translates into delegitimation and repression as nearly automatic and universal, yet there are reasons to question whether being marked as uncivil actually leads to negative social effects for all groups and in all instances. Indeed, evidence reviewed above suggests that some people seem to “get away with” incivility much more readily than others, and that incivility is considered more acceptable in some settings than others (Culpepper 1996; Meier 1995; Sapiro 1999). Similar disparities have been observed by social movement scholars. Oliver (2017) calls upon researchers to especially take seriously those disparities that emerge from differences in the racial/ethnic composition of social movements. While she does not focus specifically on civility contests, Oliver (2017, p. 395) highlights patterned differences in the likelihood that “movements by members of dominant racial/ethnic majorities” (henceforth ethnic majority movements) and “movements by members of subordinate racial/ethnic minorities” (henceforth ethnic minority movements) will be repressed and the effects of that repression. She observes that ethnic majority movements are significantly less likely to face repression and only tend to do so if “their tactics are violent and they have been ideologically marginalized” (Oliver 2017, p. 410). But even violence is no guarantee of repression for ethnic majority movements—as Gamson (1975) finds, “ethnic majorities are more likely to be able to gain advantages from violent tactics without being violently repressed” (Oliver 2017, p. 403). Meanwhile, ethnic minority movements are significantly more likely to face repression even when their tactics are nonviolent (Oliver 2017; see also Davenport et al. 2011; Earl et al. 2003; Rafail, Soule, and McCarthy 2012).

Moreover, ethnic minority movements are “much more likely to be viewed as radical and extremist” in the first place (Oliver 2017, p. 410). This may be because they are more likely than ethnic majority movements to engage in disruptive protest (Oliver 2017, p. 402), stemming from the fact that they “may more often need to resort to disruptive strategies to force a complacent majority to pay attention” (Oliver 2017, pp. 409–410). But this could also be because “privileged people are often uncomfortable when disadvantaged people are assertive, claim authority, or insist on their own way of doing things” (Oliver 2017, p. 407), even when their style of claim-making is similar to the style used by ethnic majority groups. More generally, this kind of double-standard is found across a range of contexts—for example, in perceptions of criminality (Heitzeg 2015) and competence (Foschi 2000)—revealing the extent to which evaluation invariably reflects broader social biases and inequalities.

Finally, even if ethnic minority and majority movements both face repression, repression of ethnic majority groups is “more likely to generate antiregime backlash” (Oliver 2017, p. 403), while there tends to be high levels of public support for the repression of ethnic minorities (Oliver 2008). Moreover, the impacts of repression differ for ethnic majority and minority groups. For example, should protesters be jailed as a result of their activism, the resulting “mark of a criminal record” is more likely to impede future employment prospects for black men than white men (Pager 2003). And because ethnic minorities in the United States tend to have lower socioeconomic statuses than ethnic majorities, even equally-distributed financial sanctions have unequal consequences for different social groups. For example, if protesters receive fines rather than jail time, protesters with more economic resources will be able to pay these without significant sacrifice; while protesters with insufficient economic resources could become more deeply tied up in the criminal justice system simply because of nonpayment (Harris et al. 2010).

This body of research points to the likelihood that groups possessing more social status, economic resources, and political power will be less likely to be symbolically marked as uncivil, and that even if they are deemed uncivil, they will be less likely to suffer negative social consequences as a result. If this is the case, it would be consistent with the more general finding that, “at the causal level, symbolic boundaries can be thought of as a necessary but insufficient condition for the existence of social boundaries” (Lamont and Molnár 2002, p. 169; see also Lamont 1992). More specifically in this case, it would suggest that the relationship between symbolic and social boundaries is shaped by one’s social position.

Civility contests in action

The sections that follow include a brief discussion of the historical backdrop against which civility contests in the United States play out, followed by examples of civility contests in action drawn from existing research on American social movements, media coverage of recent events, and my own ethnographic fieldwork with a local Tea Party group and progressive faith-based community organizing coalition.Footnote 5 Examples focus primarily on actors that operate at the edge of acceptable or appropriate political participation. This includes ethnic minority movements whose members are socially and politically marginal as well both as ethnic minority and majority movements whose political demands or behaviors push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable. It is at these edges that boundary-work becomes most visible and its effects can be most consequential. The examples presented are not representative of all social movement activity or civility contests. Rather, the fact that such diverse examples could be found illustrates the widespread nature of civility contests in American political life and highlights variation in their form and outcomes.

Historical backdrop of civility contests

Longstanding debates over the boundaries of appropriate political behavior have forged the symbolic template against which contemporary political protest is evaluated and judged. Symbolic boundaries between civility and incivility have been at the center of this evaluation process, and these categories have been infused with multiple meanings through their association with various historical actors and events during the course of American history. Understanding contemporary civility contests requires at least a brief review of this historical background.

The increasing emphasis on civility in political life has been one outcome of a broader historical process through which society itself was civilized. Norbert Elias’s (2000) classic sociological account of this “civilizing process” documents the ways in which societies became markedly more focused on self-control. This involved the development of an elaborate set of manners, habits, and rituals designed to tame the violent and animalistic extremes of human behavior. This “civilizing” effort also included the increasing control of human emotion (Kasson 1990). At the micro level, behaving in a “civilized” manner became a means of distinguishing oneself from lower status members of one’s society. At the macro level, societies whose populations developed these habits also came to be considered “civilized” and were distinguished from “backwards” and “uncivilized” societies.

As “civilization” diffused—among the upper and middle classes, then downward and outward to the rest of the public—these modes of behavior also came to take on political significance as reflective of one’s subjecthood and even national identity. They thus not only had the effect of reinforcing distinctions between social classes but also became a powerful mechanism through which the state could exercise social control and closure. Indeed, by attaching national belonging and citizenship to ideals of bourgeois civility, states reinforced behaviors that did not disrupt the status quo or threaten its authority, while also shifting the disciplinary burden onto subjects themselves (Bennett et al. 2005; Elias 2000; Mennell 2006).

Civility also became associated with new democratic experiments—including the American democratic project. Even though these experiments were typically born out of violent revolution, they then faced the challenge of self-governance. Set against perennial anxiety about devolution into chaos and “mob rule,” it was believed that democratic subjects must exercise civility for a system of self-governance to function (Alexander 2006; Schudson 1998). The idealized civil citizen in a democratic context looked different from those living in a rigid class structure and under monarchical rule; yet civility reigned in both contexts. This was not without controversy—as Kasson (1990) shows, a wide range of Americans during the nineteenth century were critical of the growing emphasis on etiquette. From an elitist perspective, democracy could never truly be “civil” (in the sense of “refined”); from a democratic perspective, it should not try to be. Indeed, these latter critics “heard within hymns to civility the less noble strains of snobbery and class interests” (Kasson 1990, p. 58).

Still, civility came to be associated with the conditions under which free individuals should interact with one another as fellow citizens within a “civil” society (Carter 1998; Hall 2013). Democratically inflected discourses of civility were concerned with balancing the ideals of liberty and solidarity, by emphasizing qualities like self-control and rationality (Alexander 2006). Although the actual meaning and behaviors associated with civility are historically and contextually contingent, these general ideas about civility are still built into the classificatory schema we use to define and demarcate the boundaries of democratic public life.

The power of this classification system has been demonstrated throughout United States history, as interactions between citizens and the state have etched the inner and outer limits of appropriate political action. For example, over time “town meetings” have come to represent the inner limit of appropriate political voice and action—what Bryan (2004) calls “real democracy.” These meetings, which were central to Colonial Era governance and still serve as an official form of local government in some New England states today, have never been as inclusive or as deliberative as Americans like to remember them (Mansbridge 1980; Perrin 2014; Schudson 1998, p. 18). Yet the mythologized vision of town meetings as spaces of civil conversation and reasoned debate among equal citizens imbues the deliberations and decisions that are produced in these settings with a high degree of democratic legitimacy (Burke 1993; Herbst 2010). This form of political action thus serves as a common foil against which the civility of other forms of political disagreement and protest are evaluated.

If town meetings exemplify civility in American political life, then violent resistance to government authority is its inverse—representing the outer limit that civil citizens must not cross. State authorities set down an important early marker to this effect in 1794, when a growing mass of citizens mobilized in response to an unpopular excise tax on whiskey, engaging in both nonviolent protest and acts of violence against tax collectors and their property. President George Washington responded forcefully, personally leading 13,000 militiamen to put down the insurgency (which dispersed before he arrived), and trying 20 rebels for high treason. This episode, which came to be called the Whiskey Rebellion, may not in hindsight have been as threatening as Washington’s response suggested (Schudson 1998, p. 59), but it sent a clear message to citizens of this young nation: this kind of behavior was considered out of bounds.

Washington’s reaction was not uncontroversial, however, and set off a debate that continues to this day about the conditions under which citizens ought to be allowed to organize into political societies and raise questions about the legitimacy of the government’s actions. At the time, even those who defended the right of political association circumscribed the terms under which this activity should be allowed. Responding to Washington’s critique of “self-created societies” following the 1794 rebellion, the Democratic Society of Pennsylvania argued that “so long as [political societies] conduct their deliberations with prudence and moderation, they merit attention” (Schudson 1998, p. 62). This view is generally consistent with the language put forth in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution—adopted only three years earlier—which guarantees “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Note the terms, “peaceably” and “with prudence and moderation”—these were civility clauses.

Even as American civil society blossomed into the dense and bustling organizational field that Alexis de Tocqueville observed decades later, these parameters informed the kinds of political behaviors that were viewed as appropriate. Although de Tocqueville (1969) argued that voluntary associations were necessary in the United States in order to bridge the vast divide between individuals and the state, he also, according to Schudson (1998, pp. 101–102), viewed their association with “political” life as potentially polluting, and their legitimacy as contingent upon their civil nature.

It is this contingency that is on display as we watch civility contests unfold in political life. Despite persistent disagreement about both the importance and meaning of civility, political actors nonetheless police the boundaries of appropriate political behavior by drawing symbolic boundaries between civility and incivility. As the following examples of civility contests demonstrate: 1) this boundary-work is deployed hierarchically by institutionalized powerholders as a basis for controlling (silencing, suppressing, and channeling) political protest; 2) this boundary-work is deployed horizontally by opposing movements to enhance their respective legitimacy while delegitimizing rivals; and 3) this boundary-work plays out on an uneven playing field, evidenced by social disparities in the outcomes of civility contests.

Hierarchical boundary-work and control

Institutionalized power holders routinely demarcate civil from uncivil protest as justification for either silencing and suppressing protest activity, or channeling this activity into more “civil” forms of political participation that do not challenge their authority or the status quo. The case of the civil rights movement supplies the clearest and most abundant examples of this form of boundary-work in action. Despite this movement’s use of nonviolent tactics and deliberate efforts to present themselves as “civil,” political elites and law enforcement officials routinely justified repressive actions by accusing protesters of incivility (Alexander 2006; Chafe 1981).

For example, in 1961 the Georgia Democratic Party chairman James Gray described civil rights activists as “a cell of professional agitators” that “smacks more of Lenin and Stalin than of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln.” Demanding an end to the demonstrations in his state, he said, “What we need is tolerance, not tantrum” (Alexander 2006, p. 297). A year later, Alabama Governor George Wallace echoed this sentiment when he committed to his state legislature, “We shall fight agitators, meddlers and enemies of constitutional government” (p. 298). Later, in a quote to the Birmingham Post-Herald, Wallace said he was “‘tired of lawlessness in Birmingham’ and promised that ‘whatever it takes will be done to break it up’” (p. 298).

The southern media played a role as well, “construct[ing] the demonstrations and their leaders in terms of anticivil qualities that seemed to legitimate, indeed virtually to necessitate, their repression” (Alexander 2006, p. 325). During the Nashville sit-ins, for example, local newspapers quoted a black minister and organizer telling students “they should join the demonstrations even if it meant breaking the law” (paraphrased by Alexander 2006, p. 325). One paper referred to this as an “incitation to anarchy” and pronounced, “there is no place in Nashville for [such] flannel-mouthed agitators” (p. 325). The minister was expelled from Vanderbilt University, where he was getting a graduate degree.

Echoing these earlier moments, discussions of the Black Lives Matter protests that began in 2013 have become mired in questions about whether protesters’ alleged incivility justifies the intensive policing to which they have been subject. Situating this movement in a longer history of protest and riots by (mostly black) citizens concerned about the fraught relationship between ethnic minority communities and governing authorities, Cobb (2015) argues that the routine suppression of these protests sends the message that their anger invalidates their right to express publicly their concerns and to demand their rights as citizens. This, he argues, is evidence of a form of “contingent citizenship.” The symbolic marking of these protesters as uncivil is a key mechanism underlying this contingency.

While less commonly recognized, similar boundary-work—by political elites, law enforcement, and the media—has also been used to justify the silencing and suppression of ethnic majority movements. Consider, for example, the case of the Tea Party movement’s protests during the healthcare “town hall meetings” that were held across the country ahead of the August 2009 congressional recess. Tea Party activists flocked to the town halls en masse to express concerns about President Obama’s healthcare reform proposal. Set against the idealized vision of town meetings as spaces for civil deliberation among equal citizens, discussed above, the press reported heavily on the “boiling anger and rising incivility” that was instead on display at these meetings (Isenstadt 2009). Many Tea Partiers employed tactics laid out in a memo written by Tea Party activist Bob MacGuffie. The now infamous memo, “Rocking the Town Halls,” called upon Tea Partiers to “rock-the-boat early in the Rep’s presentation,” noting, “The goal is to rattle him.” Reporting on this memo, the media highlighted his calls for disruption: “spread out in the hall,” “yell out and challenge the Rep’s statements early,” and “stand up and shout out and sit right back down” (Fang 2009).

This fit with the media’s general portrayal of the town halls as “chaotic, menacing, and violent” (Herbst 2010, p. 92). But Herbst (2010) quotes other sections of the memo, including the advice, “Don’t carry on and make a scene—just short intermittent shout outs” and “Keep body language neutral and look positive to improve chances of being selected. When called on, ask a specific prepared question…” (p. 87). Moreover, she underscores that the memo drew on “time-honored activist methods (he even cites left-wing activist Saul Alinsky…) for gaining power in public settings” (p. 87), and that these tactics “have worked for the left and the right in American politics and far beyond” (p. 88). Still, the protests drew critical responses from elected officials, who quickly branded the activists as unruly radicals with whom they could not have a rational discussion. One congressman referenced the protesters’ incivility as justification for cancelling his town hall meeting: “There is no point in meeting with my constituents and [to] listen to them and have them listen to you if what is basically an unruly mob prevents you from having an intelligent conversation” (Isenstadt 2009). Moreover, media reports tended to overlook “peaceful, productive” town halls (Herbst 2010, p. 91), focusing instead on the actors who could most clearly be coded in uncivil terms—those carrying outrageous or offensive signs and those pushing, shoving, and yelling. They then made the story about the incivility itself.

Consider also when New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg cleared Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zuccotti Park in 2011. As with the Tea Party movement, Occupy’s participants were predominantly white (Milkman et al. 2012).Footnote 6 Yet their radical challenge to economic and political inequality and disruptive tactics nonetheless represented a threat to the established order. In the Mayor’s official statement, he referenced individuals who came to the park “not to protest, but rather to break laws, and in some cases, to harm others.” He concluded, “The majority of protesters have been peaceful and responsible. But an unfortunate minority have not been—and as the number of protesters has grown, this has created an intolerable situation” (Bloomberg 2011).

Other examples include feminist activists being labeled “feminazis”—a label that associates them with the anticivil qualities of the Nazis, and thus outside the bounds of acceptability.Footnote 7 This, Ferree (2004) argues, constitutes a form of “soft repression” that has made it difficult for the women’s movement to voice its demands and has tainted the “feminist” identity for future generations. This is only the most recent means through which accusations of incivility have been used to deny women standing as public actors (Fraser 1992; Landes 1988; Ryan 1992).Footnote 8 Earlier in the history of the women’s movement, it was not women’s association with democratic enemies that made them civically suspect, but their association with the anticivil private sphere of domestic life. As passive dependents within the home, that was itself viewed as an anticivil space organized around personal loyalty rather than impersonal obligations, women were cast as unfit for the public sphere of politics (Alexander 2006). For varying reasons, but routinely on the basis of incivility (or insufficient civility), other marginalized social groups have faced similar hurdles (Cuddihy 1974; Warner 2000).

Meanwhile, attributions of incivility do more than justify the silencing and suppressing of dissent; it also channels protesters toward more “respectable” and “appropriate” behaviors that do not threaten the prevailing social or economic order. Though more subtle, channeling also represents a powerful form of social control (Earl 2003). For example, as New York City officials braced for large protests by Black Lives Matter activists in 2014, Mayor Bill De Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called upon protesters to remain “peaceful” and warned of the reputational and legal risks of violence (Newman 2014). In so doing, these actors sought to preemptively channel protesters’ anger into “civil” forms of expression.

It is a testament to how common this kind of boundary-work is that protesters are highly attuned to these dynamics, and often respond defiantly to such attempts to channel their behavior. Consider the example of John Adams, who was a revolutionary before he was a president.Footnote 9 With the British clamping down on those who wished to circulate radical ideas about independence, he instructed printers in revolutionary-era Massachusetts, “[Do not] suffer yourselves to be wheedled out of your liberty by any pretenses of politeness, delicacy, or decency. These, as they are often used, are but three names for hypocrisy, chicanery, and cowardice” (Lepore 2010, p. 39).

While some activists, following Adams, refuse to alter their behavior in the face of such “pretenses,” others tailor their behaviors to avoid such accusations in the first place. Debates within movements over whether to use highly disruptive or violent tactics, for example, not only involve concern about the morality and efficacy of these tactics (Nepstad 2015), but also about whether they will attract repression or alienate potential supporters because they are viewed as uncivil and thus “over the line” or “beyond the pale.” One could interpret some civil rights activists’ commitment to nonviolence, and their resistance to the more radical tactics proposed by the Black Power movement, in these terms (Alexander 2006; Haines 1988). This dynamic has also shaped the approach taken by some antiwar protesters. Wishing to distance themselves from the media’s portrayal of the New Left’s violence and radicalism, antiwar moderates associated with the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) “worked to present a reasoning, reasonable, moderate face to both government and press” (Gitlin 2003, p. 117; see also Lofland 1993). That this effort was unsuccessful matters less than the fact that the organization’s choices were clearly shaped by the anticipation of future civility contests.

Today, participants in some progressive faith-based community organizing coalitions respond similarly. Despite tracing their roots to Saul Alinsky—the confrontational organizer whose writings inspired the Tea Party’s town hall strategy—some members of these coalitions today are careful to describe their activities as “agitating, but respectful” (Field notes, October 12, 2015). To reinforce this publicly, they refer to public officials as “partners” rather than “targets,” and tend to stage confrontations with public officials in places of worship, which impose on participants behavioral expectations commonly associated with civility (respect for guests, prohibitions on profanity and interruption, etc.). Choices like these highlight their civility, and (they believe) make it more likely public officials will agree to work with them (Braunstein 2017). Going even further, some civic organizations manage perceptions of their civility by claiming not to be “political” (Bennett et al. 2013) or by maintaining their “neutrality” on polarizing issues (Adler 2017). Meanwhile, anxiety about incivility leads many Americans to avoid contentious political discussions altogether (Eliasoph 1998; Moon 2004).

Although many activists are effectively channeled toward “civil” behavior, others opt to engage in behavior that will be viewed as uncivil, including violent, disruptive, and upsetting behavior. These tactics are often chosen intentionally, not only to attract attention but also to reject the power of civility norms and promote an alternative vision of what kinds of political means are appropriate or necessary to achieve democratic ends. Consider ACT UP, a group that employed disruptive and intentionally upsetting tactics to call attention to government inaction in the face of the AIDS epidemic (Gould 2009). Their reasons for defiance were complex, but among them was a desire to be seen and heard and to make their grief public after being made to feel invisible. The public’s response to their actions was “often scathing”— New York City Mayor Ed Koch reportedly compared the group to “fascists” and a U.S. News and World Report columnist dismissed their protests as “uncivil disobedience” (p. 284). While this negative attention risked distracting from the movement’s political message (p. 285) and justified a strong response from law enforcement at ACT UP actions, the movement nonetheless cultivated a sense of pride in their choice to reject a “politics of respectability” in favor of “angry direct-action activism” (p. 245). Upon their release from prison, ACT UP activists expressed this pride by pinning one another with buttons that read, “I was arrested fighting AIDS” (p. 246).

Horizontal boundary-work and legitimacy

Opposing movements demarcate civil from uncivil protest to enhance their respective legitimacy while delegitimizing rivals. This aspect of civility contests becomes visible by revisiting two of the cases from the previous section—the Tea Party and civil rights movements. While the previous section shows how institutional power holders used accusations of incivility as justification for controlling these movements, this section shows how they both flipped this script by accusing their opponents of incivility while emphasizing their own civility.

Two years after the country took notice of the Tea Party’s “boiling anger and rising incivility” (Isenstadt 2009) at healthcare town hall meetings around the country, Tea Partiers deployed very similar language in relation to a new movement on the scene: Occupy. This was not the first time they had engaged in civility contests with rival groups—ethnographic research shows Tea Party activists regularly engaged in this form of boundary-work against rival groups locally and nationally (Braunstein 2015). But Occupy’s prominence made it a particularly clear target. Moreover, the media’s insistence on comparing the two movements provided Tea Partiers with ample opportunities to highlight their differences.

When asked for their opinion about Occupy, national Tea Party leaders accused Occupiers of violent impulses and illegal behavior. In October 2011, Glenn Beck’s characterization of the Occupiers was stark, “Capitalists, if you think that you can play footsies with these people, you’re wrong. They will come for you and drag you into the streets and kill you” (On the Media 2011). In contrast, they held up their own activities as models of civility:

Tea party rallies have always been safe and clean. Unlike in New York, we can find no reports of tea partiers being arrested, individually or en masse, at the thousands of tea parties across the country with millions of attendees that have taken place for years now. They are not lawbreakers, they don’t hate the police, they don’t even litter. A quick glance at the TV reveals the sharp contrast posed by the Wall Street occupiers (Tea Party Patriots 2011).

And this rhetoric was not limited to national spokespeople of this movement. An ethnographic account of a local Tea Party rally shows this boundary-work was common (Braunstein 2015, p. 368).

At a local Tea Party rally I attended during the height of the Occupy protests, one man drew a contrast between the rally we were attending and Occupy:

“All these people, I may not know their name. I may not know where they’re from. I may not have ever met them before. But they’re my friends. Along with everybody else. Plus, they have bathrooms here, [so] we don’t have to defecate in the park. [A woman sitting with us laughs]. We don’t have to get into it with the police with all those arrests. You know, we believe in laws, and we believe in God, most of us believe in God, and believe in the laws of the Constitution and stuff like that” (Interview, October 15, 2011).

At the same rally, an older man offered a similar impression of the Occupy protesters (Interview, October 15, 2011): “They’re just throwing garbage in the streets. They’re defecating in the streets. There’s prostitution going on down there. It’s just, it’s run amok.” He dwelled on reports that the protesters were destroying the park they occupied, an act he contrasted to Tea Partiers’ practice of cleaning up trash from event sites before they leave: “Walking around this place, you don’t see paper, you don’t see garbage around, thrown around. But when you see those people, there’s garbage, filth, thrown all over the sidewalks.” “There’s a difference in class of the people,” he said. “You don’t see that from Tea Partiers.”

Around this same time, the Tea Party’s disparagement of Occupy’s civility drew the media’s attention, as on an episode of WNYC’s “On the Media,” featuring Politico reporter Ken Vogel (On the Media 2011). Responding to the host Brooke Gladstone’s question, “So what exactly are these Tea Party organizations doing to delegitimize the occupation?” Vogel replied:

Ken Vogel: The other thing that the Tea Party activists and their organizers are doing is seeking to actually collect evidence of bad behavior, offensive signs, violent rhetoric coming from some of the Occupy protests, and disseminating them on conservative blogs and conservative social media, with the hope that this evidence will eventually percolate through to the mainstream media and sort of turn public opinion against these protesters.

Brooke Gladstone: That sounds kind of familiar.

Ken Vogel: It sounds extremely familiar to exactly the type of perhaps less concerted campaign, but a campaign nonetheless, by liberal activists, and Tea Partiers would say the mainstream media, to shape public perceptions of the Tea Party in its early days. You heard some of the exact same criticisms of disorganization and confusion of message. You heard some of the same criticism about violent rhetoric. You saw almost identical photos of signs that were deemed to be outside of the mainstream of the public debate that were taken at Tea Party protests, as you now see Tea Partiers circulating from the Occupy protests.

As these journalists aptly observe, these movements were engaged in a civility contest aimed at legitimizing their own actions and delegitimizing their opponents. Moreover, as seen above, both movements were also simultaneously being accused of incivility by authorities.

While perhaps newsworthy, this dynamic was far from new. Indeed, leaders of the civil rights movement engaged in a similar form of boundary-work to distinguish themselves and their actions from those of the white supremacists and segregationists who opposed their efforts. In his first speech as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA), Martin Luther King, Jr. framed protesters in civil terms—as citizens, not enemies: “We are here in a general sense, because first and foremost—we are American citizens” (Alexander 2006, p. 310). Later, King reinforced this symbolic association between civil rights protesters, American citizenship, and moral goodness in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

One day the South will recognize its real heroes…. One day the South will know that when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

In this passage, King not only defines civil rights protesters as true American “heroes” and symbolically associates them with the country’s moral foundations and the Founding Fathers; he also insists that the very act of protest is intrinsically American, and thus civil. This is a theme to which he repeatedly returned. Indeed, in his speech to protesters in Montgomery, he reminded them, “We are not here advocating violence…. The only weapon that we have in our hands this evening is the weapon of protest” (Alexander 2006, p. 311). He also noted that their actions would not be permitted in a “communistic nation” or a “totalitarian regime,” but that “the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right” (pp. 311–312). This not only urged the protesters to appreciate their right to protest, but also subtly reminded outside audiences of the fundamental civility, and by extension the legitimacy, of their actions.

Meanwhile, King and other civil rights leaders drew on these same civility norms to cast their opponents as undemocratic. During his MIA speech, King distanced civil rights activists from their “uncivil” opponents:

There will be no crosses burned at any bus stops in Montgomery,” King affirms, referring to the intimidating tactics of the racist Ku Klux Klan. “There will be no white persons pulled out of their homes and taken out on some distant road and murdered,” he predicts. He promises that “there will be nobody among us who will stand up and defy the Constitution of this nation.” (Alexander 2006, p. 312)

Similarly, in King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he justifies civil rights activists’ “legitimate and unavoidable impatience” by highlighting the incivility they have been forced to endure their entire lives at the hands of “vicious mobs [who] lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim”; and “hate filled policemen [who] curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters.” In summary, civil rights leaders—exemplified here by King—engaged in civility contests in their efforts to claim legitimacy while delegitimizing their opponents.

Beyond these two cases, studies of opposing movements offer other examples of civility contests in action. For example, as discussed above, the radical movement ACT UP provoked a civility contest with authorities, and in so doing they also drew a response from an opposing movement. During the 1990s, Christian Right activists circulated a videotape called The Gay Agenda featuring images of protests by ACT UP and Queer Nation (a similarly radical group) alongside images of the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade (Fetner 2008, p. 92). The film “cuts smoothly from angry protesters shouting to people in leather and spikes spanking each other” (p. 92), encoding the protests as uncivil both because of protesters’ raw anger and through association with public sexualized behaviors that conservative Christian viewers of the film would clearly view as deviant. Consistent with research on “negative radical flank effects” (Haines 1988, p. 3), the allegedly uncivil actions of these radical groups also provoked a backlash against the broader lesbian and gay movement, rooted in the video’s claim that “the real agenda of the lesbian and gay movement is to remove social restrictions on promiscuity, violence, and deviance” (Fetner 2008, p. 93).

Social disparities and civility contests

Whether civility contests involve hierarchical efforts to control protest or horizontal competitions for legitimacy, this boundary-work does not play out on a level playing field. While more systematic research on these disparities is needed, the examples below are suggestive of at least two ways social disparities are introduced into civility contests: through participants’ 1) differential capacity to avoid being marked as uncivil; and 2) differential capacity to circumvent the negative social effects of being marked as uncivil.

Differential capacity to avoid being marked as uncivil

The most striking recent example involves heated debates during 2017 and 2018 over the decision by a handful of black professional football players to kneel rather than stand during the national anthem as an act of protest against racial injustice. The act of “taking a knee” symbolically aligned them with prayerful civil rights protesters (Rhodan 2017), and was also intended to express respect for the military (McEvers 2017). Yet their actions immediately provoked an uproar, particularly among whites and Republicans (Casteel 2017). The controversy was stoked by President Trump, who repeatedly criticized the protests as “not acceptable” and “disrespectful,” and went so far as to suggest that players who kneeled “shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there. Maybe they shouldn’t be in the country” (Gleeson 2018). The fact that large numbers of Americans interpreted this peaceful protest by a handful of black men as shocking, threatening, and beyond the pale reveals clearly how attributions of incivility are informed by entrenched social biases, especially when these biases are stoked by those in power.

But the biased nature of these perceptions was especially visible because Trump had, only a few months earlier, following a clash in Charlottesville, Virginia between neo-Nazi and white nationalist defenders of Confederate statues and an interracial group of counter-protesters, insisted that there were “some very fine people on both sides.” He held this line despite the fact that one of the right-wing protesters was charged with deliberately driving his car into the crowd of counter-protesters, injuring many and killing one woman. Even this extreme act of violence did not, in Trump’s eyes, invalidate the broader group of protesters (who were “there to innocently protest and very legally protest”) or their cause (which he framed as a patriotic defense of American history and culture) (Staff 2017). To the extent that he addressed the violence at all, he argued that both sides were to blame for the confrontation. The juxtaposition of these civility contests reveals clearly, to paraphrase Hayes (2018), incivility is not defined by a specific offense; incivility is defined by who commits it.

This pattern is also evidenced by attention to those groups who by virtue of their social position enjoy a kind of “privileged legitimacy” (Smith 1996, p. 20) in society. This not only frees them from social constraints faced by less privileged groups but may also inoculate them and their allies from negative symbolic marking, even when they are engaged in behaviors that would be negatively marked when undertaken by less privileged groups. One clear case in point is religious leaders in societies like the United States, where religious groups are viewed as the “carriers of the moral” in society (Williams and Demerath 1991, p. 419). Recent research finds that religious leaders involved in protest do tend to avoid repression, yet argues this is because they encourage less “threatening” behavior rather than because of their “privileged legitimacy” (Beyerlein et al. 2015). We also know, however, that authorities routinely make judgments about protest activity that straddles the fine line between “civil” and “uncivil”; it is possible that in such marginal cases authorities may classify protests involving religious leaders as more civil than those involving less privileged groups. This possibility would be consistent with Loveman’s (1998, p. 494) finding that the Catholic Church in Chile provided a “moral shield” for high-risk human rights activism during periods of otherwise high repression “through its domestic influence as a source of legitimacy and its international symbolic, moral, and political weight.” All religious groups, however, do not enjoy this same level of privileged legitimacy (Yukich 2017) or inoculation from repression (Beyerlein et al. 2015). Indeed, demarcations between “good” and “bad” (or “evil” (Baker 2013)) religion have been used to justify “the surveillance, incarceration, and suppression” (Cressler 2014) and delegitimization (Johnson 2009) of certain religio-political groups, particularly those involving racial and religious minorities (Johnson 2009). Far from having privileged legitimacy, these “bad” religious groups enter civility contests already symbolically polluted.

Differential capacity to circumvent negative social effects of being marked as uncivil

One of the primary reasons that people get involved in social movements is because they lack the individual power or other sources of collective power needed to affect the changes they seek. This is especially true of ethnic minority movements. It is less true for ethnic majority movements, whose members possess relatively high amounts of electoral and political power, institutional power, and coercive power, as well as economic resources (Oliver 2017, p. 402). One crucial implication of this is that ethnic minority movements have significantly more at stake in civility contests than ethnic majority movements, because if their movement is repressed or delegitimized as a result of being marked as uncivil, participants likely lack alternative sources of political voice or power. Most participants in ethnic majority movements, on the other hand, have a range of alternative avenues through which to express their political voice even if their movements are symbolically polluted.

The Tea Party movement serves as a case in point. The privileged social position of this movement’s participants—most of whom were white and middle-class—did not prevent them from being symbolically marked as uncivil, and participants believed this tainted the movement’s political voice and legitimacy. But individual participants in the movement could take their Tea Party “hat” off in settings where they believed it undermined their political goals. As one Tea Party activist who owned a small local business explained to me:

If I walk into a room and say, “Hi, I’m with the Tea Party”… I think the national media has pretty much destroyed that name. It’s not really a good name right now.… I’d argue if you could do polling of the name, I would think that some things that come up to people’s mind are extreme, racist and words like that. I would say probably not positive. (Interview, September 19, 2011)

As a result, he explains that when he contacts local politicians, “If I call up and say I’m a Tea Party guy they’re not going to talk to me at all.” He is insistent upon this point, but at the same time insists it has not limited his individual ability to advocate for the policy changes he views as essential to run his business. He explains that he simply introduces himself to politicians as a member of a local business association in which he has also become involved. He believes this affiliation “offers legitimacy” to him and his message, even though he points out it is “almost an identical message” to the one the Tea Party promotes. Still he explains, “I like using that as a vehicle for an access to government. Because I can show up in [the state capital] and say I’m a member [of the business association]; I’m not a crazy nut job just showing up in the office of an assemblyman—I’m here with these guys.” What he does not mention is that his legitimacy is also likely bolstered by his identity as a white man and his self-presentation as a clean-cut, hard-working, small business owner. For this man and most other members of the Tea Party, the symbolic marking of their movement as uncivil did not silence them. His social identity and ability to switch “hats” between identifying with a contentious social movement and an elite advocacy organization depending on the context speaks generally to the privilege with which he and other members of ethnic majority movements move through the political world.

In contrast, members of ethnic minority movements are not only less capable of circumventing the effects of symbolic pollution; they are also more likely to suffer from negative social sanctions as a result of being marked as uncivil. For example, Davenport et al. (2011) find that, when controlling for “threatening” characteristics of protests (e.g., extremely confrontational tactics, violent tactics, destruction of property, etc.), black protesters are more likely than white protesters to attract a police presence and to be arrested or subjected to force or violence once police arrive. This research adds useful comparative perspective to historical case studies demonstrating how attributions of incivility have been used to justify the repression of black protesters (e.g., Chafe 1981) and offers a model for future research on social disparities in the outcomes of civility contests.

Discussion and conclusion

This article has identified a pervasive phenomenon, civility contests, and demonstrated how attention to these contests in the context of American political protest illuminates the complex process through which practical distinctions between civility and incivility are used to police the boundaries of appropriate political behavior. By taking civility contests as an object of study, researchers not only gain critical distance from definitional debates about the meaning of civility; they are also able to ask significantly more precise questions about the practical ways in which civility norms have an impact on political life. These include: What actors tend to be involved in this demarcation process, and what are their respective stakes in this process? Whose definitions of civility and incivility tend to prevail in these contests, and how is this symbolic power linked to participants’ respective social status, economic resources, and political power? What are the social implications of being marked as uncivil and do these social implications vary depending on the social positions of the individuals or groups involved?

Research scattered across various disciplines and subfields, reviewed above, offers insight into how a wide range of actors wield civility norms to draw symbolic and social boundaries in political life. The concept of the civility contest offers a framework through which to name, organize, and systematize these observations, while also extending them to a wider variety of cases. The majority of the writing about this phenomenon to date has emphasized the ways in which attributions of incivility are racialized, classed, and gendered, and deployed by the powerful to control subordinated social groups. While this work has been essential to our understanding of the role civility norms play in reproducing inequalities, it does not tell the whole story. As demonstrated above, civility contests are pervasive in political life, and a wide range of groups, including relatively privileged social groups, are also routinely accused of incivility. Acknowledging this is not meant to suggest that power and privilege are irrelevant to this process, nor should it be read as a case of the “bothsidesism” that infects political discourse today.Footnote 10 Rather, conceptualizing this demarcation process as a contest—which by definition involves two (or more) sides—draws our attention both to these struggles over the boundaries of appropriate political behavior and the uneven playing field on which they play out.

Participants in these contests include authorities and the media, as well as social movements representing ethnic minority and majority groups in society. During civility contests, all these groups may be subjected to accusations of incivility, while simultaneously seeking to display their superior civility. Claiming that only one group of these participants (e.g., ethnic minority movements) faces such accusations obscures the complexity of boundary contests. Documenting the role of all relevant parties in these contests enables us to more precisely evaluate disparities in how they play out for each and helps us discern their differential effects on varied protesters’ capacity to be heard. As we have seen, symbolic attributions of incivility can have real social effects insofar as they are used to justify the control and delegitimization of political actors. To the extent that these negative symbolic and social effects are disproportionately born by groups who are already disadvantaged and marginalized, these contests contribute to the reproduction of existing patterns of social and political inequality, even as they may also be used by some movements in an effort to expand the boundaries of appropriate political behavior.

While the examples presented above demonstrate the ubiquity of civility contests and highlight variation in their form and outcomes, this article makes no claim to exhaustiveness. Rather, it is intended as a means of stimulating and guiding future research on the role and inner-workings of civility contests in American political life and beyond. With regard to political protest, for example, future research should look at the role these contests have played in a wider array of social movements, today and historically. While this article has heeded Oliver’s (2017) call for social movement researchers to take seriously differences between ethnic minority and majority movements, future research should compare the experiences of different ethnic minority movements, or compare what Oliver (2017, p. 403) calls “group-focused majority movements” (e.g., white nationalists) with “issue-focused majority movements” (e.g., the peace or environmentalist movements). Moving beyond the ethnic minority/majority dichotomy, researchers should look closely at the role of radicalism in the outcomes of civility contests. Are movements that espouse radical views more likely than moderate movements to be branded as uncivil and experience negative social effects as a result, as Calhoun’s (2012) work would suggest? And although this article focuses on political groups that are operating at the margins of political life, one might ask whether relatively moderate, professionalized, or institutionalized movements ever become engaged in civility contests and under what conditions. Finally, although it is difficult to study complex social processes like civility contests quantitatively, survey-based experiments could offer insight into how different members of the public respond to civility contests; and systematic analysis of media coverage of protest could reveal surprising patterns in how civility contests play out (and how they are covered by media). These kinds of studies would be especially valuable insofar as they offer the comparative leverage necessary to make more systematic claims about the disparate effects of civility contests.

Moreover, although this article develops the concept of the civility contest by examining how these play out in the context of political protest in the United States, debates about civility take place outside of the United States and across multiple other institutional domains, including workplaces, universities, and everyday life. Future research should examine civility contests playing out in these other settings—for example, among administrators, faculty, and students within universities, or between management and employees within companies. As in the context of political protest, this research should consider whether these contests contribute to reproducing inequalities or expanding the boundaries of appropriate behavior in these different institutional spaces.

Theoretically, this article contributes to ongoing conversations about boundary-work and the relationship between symbolic and social boundaries. As Lamont and Molnár (2002) demonstrated, the concept of “boundaries” has proven a powerful tool for understanding a variety of empirical phenomena and puzzles within the social sciences. In particular Gieryn’s (1983) concept of boundary-work has enabled a range of different scholars to study the practical process of demarcation. By conceptualizing the demarcation of civility from incivility as a form of boundary-work, this article contributes to that large body of work, and to the broader project of demonstrating that it is possible to study the practical use of contested categories—like science, race, civility or authenticity—without (re)essentializing these categories in the process.

This article also furthers conversations among cultural sociologists about the relationship between symbolic and social boundaries, which in Lamont and Molnár’s (2002, p. 169) words, “most often remains implicit.” Reviewing what we do know about this relationship, they summarize that while symbolic boundaries are “often used to enforce, maintain, normalize, or rationalize social boundaries,” they can also be used to “contest and reframe the meaning of social boundaries” (p. 186). This article highlights the ways in which civility contests result in the control or delegitimation of protesters, but also includes examples of civility contests being used to challenge the existing boundaries of acceptable political behavior. In this sense, the data presented here support the general conclusion that symbolic boundary-work can be used both to reproduce and to challenge existing social inequalities. That said, as Bourdieu (1984) would have predicted, the former appears more common in this case.

Lamont and Molnár (2002, p. 169; referencing Lamont 1992) also caution, however, that symbolic boundaries are “a necessary but insufficient condition for the existence of social boundaries.” The analysis of civility contests confirms this point, suggesting that the relationship between symbolic and social boundaries is neither automatic nor universal. As demonstrated above, being symbolically marked as uncivil can have dramatically different social consequences for different social groups. Not only are groups with higher levels of social status, economic resources, or political power more likely to avoid being marked as uncivil in the first place; they are also more capable of circumventing the negative social effects of being marked as uncivil. This pattern suggests that the relationship between symbolic and social boundaries, at least in this context, is shaped by one’s social position. This could partially explain why civility contests more often lead to the reproduction of inequality than to the challenging of the existing social order.

This also suggests that these kinds of symbolic contests may play a greater role than acknowledged in the reproduction of political inequality. Growing inequalities of political voice between groups in American society have been attributed to differences in individuals’ motivations, resources, and networks, or structural and institutional barriers to participation, like the role of money in politics (Schlozman et al. 2012). But the ways in which actors draw symbolic boundaries around legitimate, worthy, or good citizens also make it more difficult for some social groups to engage in political debate and protest than others. Civility contests also appear to short-circuit substantive debates about some issues (e.g., race) more than others (Taylor 2017). Whether civility contests make it more difficult for some voices or some issues to get a public hearing, they are clearly a significant, yet previously unappreciated, driver of political inequality.


  1. 1.

    Related debates about civility and the normative and empirical boundaries of “civil society” (Sapiro 1999; see also Baiocchi 2011; Cohen and Arato 1994; Edwards 2009) are beyond the scope of this article.

  2. 2.

    Several recent studies have also developed perceptions of civility scales (Brooks and Geer 2007; Fridkin and Kenney 2008; Massaro and Stryker 2012; Mutz and Reeves 2005). Unfortunately, because these are presented as a means of demonstrating the validity of researcher-devised civility measures, interpretations of the scales have emphasized the degree of consensus among respondents about what behaviors count as uncivil. Missing is any discussion of whether this general “consensus” veils meaningful variation in respondents’ perceptions of civility (e.g., based on the identity of the observer or the actor whose behaviors were being judged).

  3. 3.

    Similarly, in Gieryn’s (1999) later work, he referred to “science wars” as “credibility contests” in which boundary-work plays a central role.

  4. 4.

    George Washington famously copied by hand a list of 110 “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation,” based on a book compiled by French Jesuits (Herbst 2010, p. 14).

  5. 5.

    More details about this research can be found in Braunstein (2017).

  6. 6.

    Oliver distinguishes between different kinds of “ethnic majority movements” based in part on their orientation toward ethnic minority groups (e.g., “hostile antiminority movements” versus “ally” movements) (2017, p. 395, see also pp. 402–404).

  7. 7.

    Oliver categorizes the women’s movement as a “subgroup-focused majority movement.” Although members of this movement may not identify collectively as part of the dominant ethnic majority, they nonetheless benefit from the privileges that accompany this social position.

  8. 8.

    This should not suggest women have been fully excluded from political life on this basis, and indeed, in other moments they have leveraged perceptions of their superior civility and “respectability” to gain political standing for themselves and the broader movements in which they participated (Clemens 1997; Higginbotham 1994).

  9. 9.

    Adams demonstrates the ways in which one’s position in relation to political and institutional power shapes one’s position within a civility contest. While as a revolutionary he rejected the legitimacy of civility norms, as president he signed the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which used incivility as a justification for expanding the president’s power to imprison or deport noncitizens who were “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” or who were critical of the government. These laws were broadly viewed as an effort to “silence and weaken” Adams’ political rivals (Library of Congress n.d.).

  10. 10.

    Krugman (2016) defines “bothsidesism” as “the almost pathological determination to portray politicians and their programs [on both sides of political debates] as being equally good or equally bad, no matter how ludicrous that pretense becomes.” This tendency is attributed to both the media’s habit of pursuing “objectivity” by taking “both sides” of any debate seriously (even when there is near consensus on one side of the issue), and politicians’ habit of deflecting blame by pointing fingers at the “other side.”


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I would like to thank participants in the Politics of Social Change Workshop at the University of Connecticut (especially Andrew Deener and Erica Dollhopf), the Workshop in Cultural Sociology at Yale University, and the Public Discourse Project Seminar at the University of Connecticut’s Humanities Institute for their feedback on previous versions of this article, as well as Craig Calhoun and the editors of “Participation and its Discontents,” a blog in collaboration with the ASA Political Sociology section (Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Pablo Lapegna, Philip Lewin, and David Smilde), for their comments on an early version of this argument. I also gratefully acknowledge support for this project from the UConn Humanities Institute’s Humility and Conviction in Public Life Project.

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Correspondence to Ruth Braunstein.

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Braunstein, R. Boundary-work and the demarcation of civil from uncivil protest in the United States: control, legitimacy, and political inequality. Theor Soc 47, 603–633 (2018).

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  • American politics
  • Boundary-work
  • Civility
  • Democracy
  • Political inequality
  • Social movements