The Problem with Being Polite

The Problem with Being Polite

As I reflect on many of the tensions we are all experiencing right now, it strikes me that the value of politeness is the thread that runs through it all. Especially for those of us who are Christians, politeness can often seem like the goal of it all.

I value being polite when possible and beneficial. There’s a moment when the great theologian Albus Dumbledore shows how to harness strength and resistance wisely, even in the face of enemies. In J.K. Rowling’s Half-Blood Prince, we find the following exchange:

“Good evening, Amycus,” said Dumbledore calmly, as though welcoming the man to a tea party. “And you’ve brought Alecto too. . . . Charming . . .” The woman gave an angry little titter. “Think your little jokes’ll help you on your deathbed then?” she jeered. “Jokes? No, no, these are manners,” replied Dumbledore.

Dumbledore can profoundly incorporate manners even in the midst of conflict. Yet one of JKR’s most fascinating characters—Dolores Umbridge—is known for being polite in all things… annoyingly polite. Yet she’s also one of the evilest and despised characters in the Harry Potter series. A look at how these two characters use manners captures the confusion we may have on this topic. Some politeness is good, yet it can also mask the presence of evil.

Perhaps a helpful way to explore the idea of politeness is to ask a strange question: Was Jesus polite? Consider a few examples:

  • He once overturned the tables at the Temple (Matthew 21:12, Mark 11:15). John’s version even adds a whip (John 2:14-15).
  • He called the well-respected religious leaders of His time a “brood of vipers.” In fact, Matthew records three examples of this (Matthew 3:7, 12:34, 23:33).
  • When His disciples point out that He was offending people by what He was saying, Jesus responds by calling the religious leaders “blind guides” (Matthew 15:12-14).
  • When Jesus is told that Herod—a political leader of the region—wants to kill Him, Jesus calls Herod a “fox” and defies him (Luke 13:31-33).

I think the simplest way to answer this question is to consider a basic reality of history: polite people don’t usually get crucified. Jesus was such a disruption that His own people partnered with the government to kill Him.

Maybe politeness wasn’t a big goal for Jesus. Yet perhaps you think there’s nothing to lose if we choose it as a target today. We must realize that politeness has dramatic consequences. Especially when pursued in the extreme.

If you (over)value politeness, you are more likely to protect what you have rather than risk your well-being for the potential benefits of another. Polite people are often the carriers of the status quo.

If you (over)value politeness, you are more likely to blame the division around us on anyone who speaks out about it rather than seeing the division already there, even if we pretend not to see it.

If you (over)value politeness, you will avoid calling out injustice around you. After all, it may anger someone and will likely bring you personally into conflict. As an absurd example of this, think of the numerous examples of people who have gone berserk when someone asked them to wear a mask (for the benefit of others).

If you (over)value politeness, you will have a hard time wrapping your head around the protests happening in our culture. Protesting—even when done peacefully—is not polite. A protest is inherently a challenge to the status quo.

If you (over)value politeness, you can avoid personally engaging with any antiracism activity by focusing on the fact that you personally are not doing anything—that you can think of—to be impolite to a person of color. This is usually paired with an acknowledgment of the people of color in your life and your fond feelings toward them. “I’ve got black friends!”

(Over)valuing politeness is why the name “Karen” has recently become culturally synonymous with someone getting offended for all the wrong reasons. It’s cool to be offended now and to point out how rude someone is if they don’t adhere to your standards of politeness.

My friend Corey has been teaching me some of the implications of this concept. I shared his perspectives in the Dear Church series and his explanation of the regional variations of racism was new to me. He uses the phrase “civil racist” to show how we can be polite and still be racist.

The civil racist in the Pacific Northwest wants to be seen publicly one way but embraces the inequalities and injustices so their privileges can stay intact. The racist of the south feeds on fear and actively searches for like-minded people. Both regions have collectively mastered the art of systematic manipulation to keep black people “in check.” 

Corey Seymour

You may think that if we let go our focus on being polite then we must then take up a new focus on being rude. This is an example of something called “narrow-framing” and is a bad way to view our options. It focuses on the extremes and negates other choices that we have in front of us.

I’d like to suggest that a better target than politeness would be the fruit of the Spirit. The Apostle Paul said that “the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Dolores Umbridge may be polite, but she has none of these. Paul would also clarify elsewhere that “The greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).

Was Jesus polite? Technically no. But He was the best example of the fruit of the Spirit lived out. And Jesus Himself is the embodiment of love. A love that doesn’t fit on greeting cards or Hallmark movies. A love that gets messy in its pursuit of others. A love that often offends our sensibilities.

Martin Luther King Jr. explained love in this way:

The White liberal must see that the Negro needs not only love, but justice. It is not enough to say, “We love Negroes, we have many Negro friends.” They must demand justice for Negroes. Love that does not satisfy justice is no love at all. It is merely a sentimental affection, little more than what one would love for a pet. Love at its best is justice concretized. Love is unconditional. It is not conditional upon one’s staying in his place or watering down his demands in order to be considered respectable.

Politeness will add to your respectability, but it may also hinder your ability to love others. I believe it’s time to give up what has become for many of us an idol of politeness. We need less polite people and more people willing to embody love toward those around them.

We need less polite people and more people willing to embody love toward those around them. Share on X

Photo by JuniperPhoton on Unsplash

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Jeremy Jernigan

Speaker | Author | Founder of Communion Wine Co.