Civility and its discontents

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House Press Secretary, probably made the right call in leaving the Red Hen restaurant during the appetizer course. When the owner of a restaurant tells you that the staff doesn’t want to feed you–regardless of their reasons–you probably don’t want to sample their offerings.

The chef called owner Stephanie Wilkinson at home when the Sanders party entered the restaurant. Upon arriving, she asked the staff how they felt about serving these guests. The staff said they were offended by Sanders’s vigorous defense of the Trump administration’s policies on gays and on immigrants. Wilkinson asked Sanders to leave and comped the cheese plate on the table.

Department of Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was deeper into her dinner at a Mexican restaurant in DC when demonstrators showed up to chant “Shame, Shame.”

At least some in the #Resistance are adopting a zero tolerance approach to high level officials: people who defend the separation of families don’t get to dine in peace publicly; violations of basic morality are not the same as differences on matters of policy.

We know why activists who disrupt the private lives of public figures take a lot of flack. Democracies are supposed to tolerate differences of opinion, and Sanders and Nielsen, for example, were just doing their jobs. We understand why supporters of Trump’s policies attacked the disruption of civility, and aren’t really surprised that even Trump critics have joined in condemning this kind of dinner theater (See Rep. Elijah Cummings, e.g.). There are better ways, they say, to make your political points–although critics rarely suggest alternatives beyond voting.

636654372411132914-red-hen1.jpgThe dinner disruptions reflect activists’ search for ways to confront the moral horrors they see visibly, and it’s not pretty. In general, we don’t want businesses to deny service to people because of their political views–or, for that matter, their race, religion, or sexual orientation. And we hope that diners at the next table can enjoy their burritos with polite conversation. At the same time, it’s hard to see these petty offenses as remotely comparable to seizing the children of migrants  who seek sanctuary.

Effective protest polarizes. It’s usually unpopular.

Image result for anti-abortion protest planned parenthoodCritics pull out sanitized versions of Gandhi or Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, demanding that activists find ways to express themselves that are easier to ignore. We forget that the canonized activist heroes of the past were all far less popular than, say, the philanthropist football player Colin Kaepernick is today. The Freedom Riders who traveled on interstate buses were far more disruptive than last week’s restaurant protesters. The same is true of the anti-abortion protesters who scream at women walking into Planned Parenthood clinics. The hero is willing to risk being a pariah.

Although civility could be a consistent value, it’s more frequently an excuse to castigate and dismiss political opponents, and it’s easy to catch more than a whiff of hypocrisy; politicians often defend the principled disruption of those they agree with.

Disrupting a dinner is then less a question of ethics than of efficacy, and it’s a tough question. Those who protested Sarah Sanders and Kirstjen Nielsen want to focus on the horror and inhumanity of the Trump administration’s policies on immigration, not table manners. Their decidedly uncivil protests succeeded to the extent they drew attention to those policies. If, however, Trump supporters can avoid defending holding children hostage by attacking the manners of their opponents, it’s time to try something else.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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2 Responses to Civility and its discontents

  1. Kathy Repoli says:

    When they go low, we should go high, but … it’s really hard when the Supreme Court upholds the right of a Colorado baker to refuse service to a gay couple because he disagrees with homosexuality, and then the supporters of that decision take umbrage when a restaurant wants to refuse service to a liar. Are the restaurant employees less entitled to their distaste of liars and propagators of immoral actions than the baker who considers homosexuality immoral? I think we have a long road of incivility ahead of us and it will get worse before it gets better.

  2. You would think it would be hard for Donald Trump to present a powerful and principled defense of civility.

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