A couple of recent episodes have triggered an important–and confounding–debate about the importance, including the strategic importance, of civility.
The incidents involved Sarah Sanders, the President’s spokesperson, who was asked to leave a restaurant unwilling to serve her, and patrons of two Mexican restaurants who heckled Steven Miller and Kirstjen Neilson, who were (inexplicably, given their official disdain for Mexicans) dining there.
Inhospitable and rude reactions are inconsistent with the way most of us were raised. Parental admonitions not to discuss religion or politics rested on concerns that passions might lead to impolite behaviors. The American devotion to free speech is based upon an underlying premise that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. Furthermore, civil debate and discourse are essential to genuine communication.
For all these reasons, nice people don’t call each other names, or accuse those with whom they may disagree of lying or evil intent. One of the most appalling features of an appalling President is precisely his flouting of that social convention–and the encouragement his boorishness provides to others to do likewise.
As Adam Gopnik points out, in an eloquent New Yorker comment, that deeply embedded preference for civility, for giving others the benefit of the doubt and a place at the table, runs into an equally potent concern based in history and human decency: the need to stand up to immoral and malevolent behavior.
Nice Germans looked away–they “didn’t notice” the disappearance of their Jewish neighbors. “Polite” Southerners who recoiled from lynchings and other racist injustices nevertheless failed to come forward to testify or protest.
When do moral imperatives outweigh the undeniable virtues of civility? And what about the more strategic argument–that naming and shaming the bigotry implicated in current anti-immigration attitudes and Trump support simply acts to harden deeply-rooted antagonisms, making it more difficult to persuade–or at least communicate with– those who may have more mixed motives or less hardened hatreds?
These aren’t easy questions, and they don’t have easy answers.
Recently, a Washington Post editorial criticized the restaurant that refused to serve Sanders. A friend of mine–ironically, one of the most civil and courteous people I know–responded on Facebook.
Those who share the politics of this flack, her father, and her boss refuse service to gays, harass women seeking to exercise their lawful right to abortion, and open carry weapons at rallies to intimidate their political opponents. The response of moderates on the left and right is, in essence, yes these people are ignorant and beneath contempt, but we must practice the noblesse oblige of modeling civility and not respond in kind. And we must refrain from criticizing the vapidity of their political base. I suppose that makes us feel superior, but I’m not sure I see what else it’s really getting us. Perhaps it’s true you can’t win a pissing match with skunks like Huckabee and Trump. The Republican right has vast stores of cruelty, meanness, hypocrisy, and irrationality that Democrats cannot and would never want to match. But increasingly I think that refusing to play hard ball with these liars, quislings, and religiofascists is merely its own form of condescension. The Republican Party is already batshit crazy, and politeness by its opponents hasn’t made it less so.
Jennifer Rubin, a columnist for the Post, highlighted an important distinction.
On CNN, Ana Navarro tartly observed, “You make choices in life. And there is a cost to being an accomplice to this cruel, deceitful administration.” So, are these reactions to Trump aides reassuring and appropriate acts of social ostracism that communicate to the cogs in a barbaric bureaucracy that they cannot escape the consequences of their actions? Alternatively, should we view these as a sign of our descent into incivility, evidence that we are so polarized we literally cannot stand to be in the same room as those with whom we disagree?
It depends on how you view the child-separation policy. If you think the decision to separate children from parents as a means of deterring other asylum seekers is simply one more policy choice, like tax cuts or negotiations with North Korea, then, yes, screaming at political opponents is inappropriate. Such conduct is contrary to the democratic notion that we do not personally destroy our political opponents but, rather, respect differences and learn to fight and perhaps compromise on another day. If, however, you think the child-separation policy is in a different class — a human rights crime, an inhumane policy for which the public was primed by efforts to dehumanize a group of people (“animals,” “infest,” etc.) — then it is both natural and appropriate for decent human beings to shame and shun the practitioners of such a policy.
There are obvious dangers here. Plenty of political partisans–left and right– label every policy with which they disagree “immoral.” There are legions of insulated and self-righteous “defenders” of this or that religious dogma or political ideology who are always primed for down-and-dirty battle. These zealots manage to be both uncivil and counter-productive.
Nevertheless, I think Rubin’s differentiation is key.
There is a point at which behaviors are so detrimental to democracy, so damaging to the social fabric and to human and humane behavior that failure to “name and shame” them is moral cowardice. Fair-minded people can debate–politely– where that point lies. We can–and should–feel genuine anguish when we believe we’ve reached it, when our desire to give others the benefit of the doubt can no longer justify responding to viciousness with silence or forced civility.
Individuals must locate that tipping point for themselves. For most of us, I hope, it will come only after we have given those with whom we disagree a great deal of latitude.
Being human, however, requires possession of a moral sense, and failure to speak out when that tipping point has been reached–failure to condemn actions that are an affront to human decency– is both a moral and human failure.
Some people have forfeited their right to a seat at the community table.