Politeness as a Weapon

Whether they’re silencing women or leavers, white evangelicals will do anything to protect their reputation and the patriarchy.

“Why are men?” I ask this question no less than fifty times a day on Twitter. But what I’m really asking is: Why are men always demanding politeness from women, and then get defensive when we refuse to comply? In my case it’s usually in threads by ex-evangelical or progressive Christian women. The other phrase I’m usually muttering to myself all day? “The audacity of white men on the internet.” Occasionally I encounter the angry white woman too, popping in to keep other women in line, but I already covered that pretty extensively in my last post. So where do white men get the audacity? To demand politeness from women? To scold us for using “fuck” as a noun? To slide into my DM’s with a phone number asking me to call them? (yes, that actually happens) Well, in my corner of the internet, the answer is complicated.

Politeness. Civility. Niceties. Good manners. These are not always used in good faith.  Language, as a whole, is defined by the society that uses it. In a patriarchal society like the one we live in, the most powerful demographic in the hierarchy is going to define its use. In the United States and much of the western world that demographic is straight white men. How many anecdotes about women using curse words have you heard? Things like “she curses like a sailor” or “do you kiss your mama with that mouth?” Yet when men use four letter words in their everyday vernacular, no one bats an eye. This is because when white men can retain this privilege for themselves, it gives them power over the voices of women and people of color. They’ve given themselves a reason to ignore women and people of color, and that reason is the equivalent of “because I said so.” I didn’t come to understand this on my own, it took listening to women of color to understand how powerful our voices can be. In her powerful essay Why I Say Fuck, author & activist Mona Eltahawy says this about civility as a weapon:

“The obsession with civility in the United States is bipartisan and white, and often directed at women, especially Black women and women of colour. The less power a woman has, the less freedom she is given to curse. The more a woman is caught in the intersections of oppressions–race, class, gender, other forms of oppression–the more her language is policed, fenced, and suffocated. I’m an expert at upsetting white men with my proudly profane mouth. When the rules are made by white men for white men, a proudly foul mouth on anyone who is not a white man is a weapon.” 

Eltahawy, M. (2020) Essay: Why I Say Fuck, feministgiant.com

From an early age we teach our kids to say things like “please” & “thank you,” or “excuse me” if they need to interrupt a grown up to ask a question. But at some point along the way, in our heteronormative culture, girls are expected to just always be quiet and polite. And if they express their opinion too loudly, an adult- or another girl or boy- is usually there to tell them they’re being bossy. They’re told they are too much, too loud, overdramatic. And the boys? Oh well, boys will boys. When girls grow up to be women, they’re still expected to be polite and calm even if they’re angry. Even if they’ve endured a traumatic event. Even if the person they’re engaging with is not being calm and polite. They are expected to make sure everyone else in the room feels comfortable, regardless of their own feelings or emotions.

Growing up in evangelical subculture this characteristic is lauded as righteous. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”[1] Taken a step further, this behavior is often encouraged in girls and young women so that they will make a pleasing (subservient) companion to their husbands one day. This isn’t that hard considering children in evangelical and fundamentalist homes are taught from birth to obey their parents no matter what, and that failing to obey is not only dishonoring them, but also displeasing to god. “O-B-E-Y obey your mom and dad, O-B-E-Y makes them very glad…” was a song sung in Sunday schools all across the nation, and probably still is. I’ve heard stories of evangelical parents who have been known to literally wash out their child’s mouth with a bar of soap to teach them a lesson when they’ve said a “bad word” or back-talked or sassed their parents. Thankfully I don’t have personal experience with the act itself, but the threat was tossed around quite a bit, the question “do I need to wash your mouth out with soap?” was very familiar to me.

In evangelical subculture this goes beyond women and children, though. White evangelical men, especially pastors, police everyone’s language. They don’t usually discriminate when it’s someone who disagrees with them. In fact, it’s one of their favorite excuses to ignore any person, ever. And in most cases, they don’t even have to work that hard at it because the white women in their communities’ police each other’s language and help keep the kids in line (bar of soap at the ready).

One of the most prolific ways in which we see this happening now is the way white evangelicals use anger, or language coming from a place of anger, as an excuse to ignore people who were abused within their own churches and organizations. You can’t even scroll for 5 minutes on Twitter or Facebook before seeing some white Christian (usually straight white men) telling a woman to watch her tone, or to stop complaining, or asking her to rephrase her statement. And why do they do this? Because they’ve been taught that their privilege allows them the comfort of dictating how they are spoken to. It has nothing to do with the point the woman is trying to get across, and everything to do with ensuring she knows who’s in charge. And every time a woman gives in to their request and changes course to accommodate those demands, she is reenforcing this concept. The concept that women are not allowed to freely express themselves but must always put other people’s feelings first.

Let me be crystal clear here: survivors of abuse are never obligated to be nice or polite to their abusers. They are not obligated to be nice or polite to representatives of the systems or organizations that abused them. Enforcing politeness when there is a power differential is only furthering the abuse and re-traumatizing the victim. It places the burden of maintaining the abuser’s comfort squarely on the victim. The problem with white evangelicals, is that they almost never believe survivors of religious trauma and spiritual abuse. They push the responsibility back onto survivors by telling them they’re just bitter, sinful or attention-seeking. Often times survivors are told they were never “real Christians” in the first place, because they want people to believe that’s the only reason someone would walk away from the church. They refuse to accept the reality of survivors’ lived experiences. Mostly because they believe that those who critique the church are only doing so to slander the gospel, and in doing so, are also fulfilling scripture.

You read correctly, their entitlement comes straight from scripture. And not some obscure Old Testament verse taken out of context, but from the words of Jesus himself: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”[2] It’s as if they have built-in liable protection, armed and ready to take on anyone who dares contradict their narrative of church culture, and by extension, the gospel. Combine this with how patriarchy has ensured straight white men maintain their power over language and civility, and the notion that Christianity is generally benign, and you can see how ex-evangelicals are up against a virtual brick wall when trying to be heard.

To those of us who lived within white evangelicalism, and then left, it’s pretty obvious where these straight white men get the audacity to demand certain behavior from women. But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating or abusive. All of this is yet one more illustration of how patriarchy and white supremacy reaches its tentacles into every tiny facet of life, to ensure the most powerful keep their power in every way possible. From their place on the pay scale, to their monopoly on four letter words and righteous anger, to policing our communities- straight white men will control the narrative, but only for as long as we let them.


[1] Matthew 5:9, NIV

[2] Mathew 5:11-12, NIV

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