This, some would say, is evidence of our political decline. More specifically, it shows a lack of civility. Those who chanted at Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in a restaurant last week are degrading our norms of politeness and pluralism and further entrenching toxic partisanship. According to Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass, asking White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave a restaurant violates “the spirit of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
To those hand-wringers, I would say — politely! — that they are mistaken. Sanders is not a Freedom Rider but a well-compensated public official complicit in a destructive policy. No, civility isn’t dead, but the normal rules of engagement are no longer the best fit for this quite abnormal time.
What is needed now, however, is some consideration of just how to be uncivil — thoughtfully. How do we decide who warrants social exclusion or some other direct action, and what should it look like? Is refusal of service better than a crowd chanting “shame”? Three principles to consider:
First: Who, exactly, are we being uncivil toward? Are their views likely to be changed or hardened by our behavior? Nielsen, for instance, knowingly chose to become the face of and to promulgate some of this administration’s most abhorrent policies, including family separation. She has many other options, and being a spokeswoman for this administration is not an identity thrust upon her without her consent. To overlook that reality is to not take her beliefs and her actions seriously, when in fact they are serious — in some cases, deadly so.
But this is not always the case. A low-level intern, still forming her political opinions, may be open to kinder persuasion. And a Border Patrol employee may — yes — just be doing his job as best he can. We should consider whether protest is tactically effective, rather than just emotionally satisfying. It can be hard to humanize our opponents; it’s still the best route when possible.
Second: What kind of incivility are we employing? At this point, Michelle Obama’s “When they go low, we go high” seems rather unrealistic given a president who is every day willing to sink to previously unexplored depths. But there are lines that should not be crossed, and spaces between complicity and abject offensiveness. When they go low, we don’t have to go quite as far down.
For instance: Violence is always bad. Children are off limits . Public officials should not call upon crowds to “push back” on individuals. But instead of asking her to leave, would it have been better for the staff of Lexington’s Red Hen restaurant to have told Sanders in clear terms how its staff disapproved of her actions and then served her anyway? (Perhaps she would have “self-deported.”) Different people will reach different conclusions, but potentially provocative actions are always worth careful consideration.
And then there is a final question, perhaps the most important: Why have you chosen the route of incivility in this moment? There is a difference between uncivil behavior due to momentary anger and uncivil behavior deployed in an attempt to create positive change. There is considered protest, and there is flash-point madness. More respect should be accorded to Nielsen’s and Sanders’s dinnertime protesters, who reflected upon specific policy decisions and organized around them, than to hecklers such as actor Robert De Niro,who let fly unconsidered vulgarities out of personal frustration — or worse.
“I’m not a huge fan of confrontation,” Red Hen proprietor Stephanie Wilkinson told The Post . “This feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals.” The act of making decisions remains the key. There are real debates to be had about the distinction between expressing moral convictions and embodying the open-mindedness that makes democracy possible.
Civility is one of the virtues, but it is not chief among them. Those calling for civility above all else would do well to interrogate why they are so intent upon it. Those bent on incivility should do the same.
And Sarah Huckabee Sanders? Well, she can always eat at home.