In Defense of Civility
Why protest and respect can go together
The hostile words and actions recently directed at Trump officials have provoked much debate. Perhaps the most famous example is the refusal of the Lexington, Virginia Red Hen restaurant to serve Sarah Huckabee Sanders – a refusal many on the Left argued was justified. Jessica Valenti, for example, has written “that when you do and defend terrible things, people don’t really want to be around you.” Gary Younge has said that “[w]hen it comes to matters of civility in political discourse, the Trump administration and its advocates are in no position to preach.” And Nancy Welch applauds such actions, finding hope both in the actions themselves and in the public statements made in support of them.
Others were offended. The Washington Post editorialized that the Trump team should be allowed to eat in peace. Michael Graham argued that “[t]he treatment of Sanders at the Red Hen restaurant is the very incarnation of the double standard many conservative Americans feel they’ve lived under.” And Karin Klein believes that “in the public spaces of life, there should still be room for us all to sit and have the comfort of a meal or a night’s shelter.”
Regardless of where you stand the issue of incivility doesn’t seem to be going away. On July 25, an individual defaced Donald Trump’s star on the Walk of Fame. Other recent reports catalogue numerous examples of the negative treatment Trump officials get in certain parts of society. The individuals supporting such actions say protest is both justified and necessary. Those opposing them believe everyone deserves to feel accepted by society.
Both these statements are true. And when it comes to uncivil actions, they are both being abused.
Understanding why this is the case requires studying the role protest has in democratic society (democracy here being understood as a political system that encourages participation in civic life from all citizens). Ideally, a protest is a public statement made about a pressing issue. It should be attention-grabbing and thought provoking. Protests can reveal injustices and demonstrate peoples’ feelings about them. Their goal is to challenge the thoughts and practices embedded within society. While not always done with compassion in mind, protests are acts of love. As Martin Luther King Jr. said in his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”, the question protestors should ask is “will we be extremists for hate or for love?”
Protests don’t always match this ideal vision, but many share common characteristics. First, protests often cross the boundaries of decency. The Civil Rights Movement offended numerous people. The Black Panthers took actions that led to calls for their prosecution. Communist movements in Europe didn’t respect the notion of property held by polite society. More recently, LGBT movements have been accused of predatory behavior, indoctrination, and destroying families, while #MeToo has been charged with totalitarianism. That protest will make people uncomfortable is one of its virtues, particularly because important change won’t happen without creating unhappiness within the status quo.
Second, protests have often blurred the lines between the professional and the social. It is not easy to get a hearing in the places where important decisions are made. The Trump administration recently banned a CNN journalist for asking “inappropriate” questions and removed another journalist from The Nation for holding up a “malicious” sign. If journalists aren’t given ready access to these stage-managed affairs, a protestor definitely won’t be. Thus protests often occur where the public and decision-makers meet: the social world. Pussy Riot’s most well-known protests took place at a church and a soccer field. Protests in Venezuela took place in the streets surrounding government buildings. Teachers protesting in Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, and West Virginia have used schools, fields, streets, and public areas of government buildings to draw attention to their cause.
While these characteristics mean that protests will often come across as uncivil, the point of the protest is not to offend. A truly democratic protest should encourage thought. Being provocative can serve that goal both by attracting attention to a given cause and by challenging norms, but a protest that just offends is a failure as far as democracy is concerned. To illustrate this point, consider how street art works. Shepherd Fairey’s “Obey” collage or “State Violence State Control” paintings, like Banksy’s images on inequality and injustice, can do more to challenge established patterns of thought than a simple “F**k Trump” bumper sticker. The former examples use images that are unsettling and offensive certainly, but they do so in a way that forces the viewer to reflect. Why is a businessman shown using part of a graph to be cruel to children? What experiences underlie the decision to show a police officer as a skeleton brutally stomping on a man? If the viewer is willing to follow the line of thought far enough, they may even question what responsibility they have for the situation being criticized. But none of this occurs without a thoughtful intervention.
Protests are more effective if they present a vision of care. Politics is a harsh realm, and grappling with the implications of one’s policies is difficult. And the demand to do so in public only encourages people to dig in their heels and insist they are right. Outside the spotlight, people worry about what will happen to them and those they love if society changes. Protests that only signal hostility will, not without cause, make some people wonder what position they will occupy if the protest succeeds. If protestors don’t demonstrate care for those worrying about the future, success will be harder to achieve. Notable protestors have said this. Gandhi believed evil people must be “weaned from error by patience and sympathy,” and even violent revolutionaries like Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh, and Nelson Mandela spoke highly of the role love and compassion played in their actions.
A protest should be asked two questions to check if it encourages democracy. First, does the protest challenge established norms in a way that attracts the attention of decision makers? Second, does it cause them to question their beliefs without ostracizing them from the community? Protests like those at the Red Hen achieve the first but fail at the second. The restaurant staff demonstrated their unhappiness in a way that made many take note, but the coverage of the incident does not indicate any reflection on the part of Sanders and her associates. This is for good reason: at no point during the exchange did anyone say why they were unhappy, or what they wanted Sanders to do differently. Almost all the insults directed at Trump aides follow this formula: displeasure is shown, but not compassion or a sense of community.
What would a democratic protest look like? It requires making intelligent, thoughtful comments to officials. They deserve to be challenged in ways that will make them uncomfortable but that still demonstrate love. Had Sanders been at my restaurant, I would have taken the opportunity to ask her pointed questions about her support for this administration and its policies. How does she reconcile being a mother with a policy that separates children from their parents? Does she see a contradiction between Jesus’s care for the poor and the GOP’s embrace of inequality? To the extent that my employees and I suffer at the hands of this administration’s policies, I would share our stories, listen to her responses, and urge her to rethink her priorities. But I would not make her leave. It sends the message that I don’t care about her current challenges or the ones I am asking her to undergo. To really drive this last point home, I might even offer her the food on the house and encourage her to return if she wants to talk further.
James Baldwin says love is what happens when we take our masks off and display ourselves to each other as we really are. If our goal is a loving society but our protest conveys hate, then we end up wearing another mask. The ideal of democratic protest is precisely the opposite. We should speak our minds, openly and with care. We can still challenge our opponents in ways that make them uncomfortable. We can still say what we find dangerous about their ideas. It is not misleading to say that many people worry about where this country is headed, that many are disturbed by the president’s seeming lack of knowledge about both the rules and norms of democratic governance. But saying this clearly shows respect, not distain, for I am trusting my fellow citizens to handle the truth of my beliefs. Similarly, challenging them encourages growth, first by helping them understand society’s diverse viewpoints and, second, by inviting them to consider how our differences can coexist. Yet I must remain open to the same, for democracy requires that everyone both shares and listens.
If Trump, his aides, and his supporters are going to let go of the principles they prize and leap towards others that are unfamiliar and disconcerting, it is up to us to show that we will be there with them, not watching them fall from afar.
Nathan Eckstrand is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Fort Hay State University who teaches at SIAS University in Zhengzhou, China. He graduated from Duquesne University in 2014 with a dissertation on the theory of revolution. His research interests are social and political philosophy, continental philosophy, race theory, gender theory, and systems theory. He has published in the Journal of Social Philosophy and Deleuze Studies, and he is an Associate Editor at the Blog of the APA.