Repudiation Of Partisan Inference

No I'm Not On Sara Huckabee Sander's Side

I felt it was worth another post just to clarify that my [last post] (https://rejectingrationality.org/blog/gay-cakes-and-conservative-hens/) doesn’t indicate that I’m joining up with Sara Huckabee Sanders and Trump in this recent civility fight. Their behavior in calling out incivility and trying to use it as a political weapon (and lying about it) is worse than anything the Red Hen did to her and these are small potatoes relative to the normal harms they inflict.

I just tend to see them as beyond the moral pale and there is no use to excoriate them once again. And just because they are bad actors isn’t any reason for us to lose sight of the fact that denying people service is a big deal even when it’s merely based on partisan affiliation and we need a good justification to do it. Nowhere near as good a justification as separating families at the border or enacting a Muslim ban and the like but we don’t have to sink.

Gay Cakes And Conservative Hens

No, It's Not Ok Because It's Partisan Identity

So in all the discussion about denying Sara Huckabee Sanders service at the Red Hen I’ve seen several places argue that it wasn’t a big deal to deny her service because they were very polite about the incident. While it’s surely better to be asked to leave politely this fails to grasp what’s upsetting about it and is completely inconsistent with our attitude about the harm in Masterpiece Cakeshop where the customers were denied service because they were gay1. Whether or not you think it’s warranted any honest analysis should admit that it is still likely very upsetting and, should it spread, has the potential to be a very big deal.

Don’t get me wrong. The long history of discrimination against homosexuals and their status as a vulnerable minority in much of the country makes it much worse to deny someone service based on sexual orientation. Also, I firmly believe it should be legal to deny someone service because of their partisan affiliation2. However, just because it’s less bad doesn’t mean it isn’t still plenty unpleasant. Note that I also think Sara Huckabee Sanders is a pretty awful person and spokespeople are surely different than random Trump supporters but I’ve seen many people defend such partisan denials of service generally not just for high ranking officials and that is what I feel deserves comment.

Humans are acutely sensitive to exclusion. It’s bad enough not to be invited to a party or know that you aren’t attractive or cool enough to be waived into a club. It’s much worse to be overtly told you don’t belong and asked to leave. This is especially true when you are asked to leave a place of public accommodation such as a restaurant and doubly true when one is there with family (especially children who might not understand).

Of course there isn’t the same history of discrimination as with race, sexual orientation or religion but surely the immediate emotional response of feeling hurt, confused and angry will share a fair bit in common. If you are skeptical imagine a Bedouin who has lived his entire life out of the reach of modern technology or history on his first visit to the United States who is politely asked to leave a restaurant because of his race or his religion. Do you doubt the very real pain and humiliation that will cause — even though that diner’s lack of contextual knowledge means that our fraught racial and religious history can’t play a causal factor?

At this point I’m sure that many liberals are marshaling reasons why it’s not at all similar. Partisan affiliation is a belief not an immutable characteristic, they aren’t a minority almost half the country is on their side, it doesn’t have the same potential to normalize harmful discrimination.

But religion is every bit as much a belief people choose (in both cases many people simply believe what their peers do) and people do identify very strongly with their partisan affiliation. Whether or not it is objectively different in some sense being excluded for partisan affiliation feels like being excluded for who you are to many people.

It’s certainly true that Trump supporters are hardly a minority in America but they are very much a minority in many areas (including large parts of DC). It’s also true that there are large swaths of the country where there is strong, vocal support for homosexual equality but we don’t feel that merely knowing that this would never happen in San Francisco obviates the harm to the couple denied service in Masterpiece Cakeshop. Nor would this intuition change if 40 of the 50 states were strong and vocal defenders of homosexual equality. Besides, you don’t really think the question turns on the fact that Trump supporters are 40 some percent of the population rather than 15% (the percentage of African-Americans in the US) and you’d surely never accept the response in the racial case.

Moreover, in terms of normalizing harmful discrimination, it is surely far more likely that (as many people openly suggested following the incident) people wearing MAGA hats will be denied service in a wide range of establishments in blue parts of the country sometime in the near future than homosexuals will face similar widespread denial of service (if for no other reason than the stronger norm against such discrimination). Note that if you want to argue this isn’t truly harmful discrimination you need to challenge one of the points above about this being a very painful and unpleasant experience.

Again, it’s not as bad as discrimination based on sexual orientation but we’re being hypocrites if we don’t recognize that it’s still a pretty intense and humiliating experience which we should avoid inflicting on people unless we have a very good reason.


  1. Ok, technically because they planned to use the cake at a gay wedding. 
  2. I’m unsure about legal protections based on gender identity since that turns on tough questions about how fast norms are changing versus the long term harms from such legislation but this uncertainty doesn’t stem from any doubt about the degree of pain imparted by such denials of service but merely from concern about the long term costs of such legislation and the hopeful belief that such denials of service will quickly become the kind of silly extremism (like refusing to sell to people with bare knees in the US) that is so rare as to no longer be seen as a threat. 

Civility Without Concession

We Can Be Civil Without Letting Trump Tell Us What That Means

I’m really disappointed by the responses from the left to the recent kerfufle about Sara Huckabee Sanders being denied service in a red hen restaurant. These responses all seem to have the following structure:

  • If we let those in power define what is civil and uncivil we allow them to silence protest.
  • Historical protests like the civil rights movement we now revere were often seen as uncivil.
  • Trump and his supporters are deeply uncivil and have no respect for these norms.
  • Therefore we should accept or even cheer incivility towards Trump voters.

But this makes two big logical errors.

  1. Just because we shouldn’t let Trump and those in power dictate a self-serving standard of civility doesn’t mean that the concept itself is flawed or that it’s an inappropriate ideal to aspire towards. It just means we should apply the concept correctly not let those in power dictate a self-serving conception of civility.
  2. It conflates the desirability of showing civility and respect with the appropriateness of criticizing people for not doing so. There are plenty of things, e.g., chewing with your mouth open, that it’s both inappropriate to do as well as to call others out for doing.

Now a valid takeaway from this argument is that overly mechanistic rules of civility (e.g. never mention a politician’s personal life) shouldn’t be followed blindly but that’s not the same as the conclusion that it should be seen as appropriate or even desirable to simply abandon civility all together.

Just Don’t Be A Dick

The right answer here is pretty simple. All we need to do is treat people, even those whose political views we see as harmful, as if they are human beings who we, ceterus parabus, don’t want to suffer.

This doesn’t mean we place their feelings ahead of the welfare of the country. If the next democratic president finds the best way to respond to Trump’s personal attacks is in kind then they shouldn’t let their concern about hurting Trump’s feelings stand in the way (though I suspect the voters who aren’t already deep in Trump’s camp are more likely to be swayed by statesman like restraint). If the same congressmen and staffers who are working to undermine a woman’s right to choose are having abortions themselves we shouldn’t let the personal impact stop us from exposing such facts.

What it means is that we shouldn’t be mean to them or refuse them service just because it makes us feel good or because they somehow deserve it. Refusing to serve Ms. Sanders doesn’t score any political points, it risks losing them. Even those on the left skeptical that such behavior will galvanize Trump supporters admit it’s a possible risk while identifying no corresponding benefit.

The right definition of civility doesn’t require rolling over and showing your belly it merely demands we refrain from needless petty antagonism and rudeness.

However, just because that’s what we aspire to doesn’t mean we should excoriate those on the left who fall short. That risks giving the misleading impression that their behavior is somehow worse than that of the administration. It isn’t. Ms. Sanders behaves plenty badly herself and any discussion of the restaurant’s choice not to serve her should keep that firmly in focus. However, just because she behaves even worse doesn’t mean we can’t urge our own side to take the high road and avoid unnecessary rudeness and incivility.

Real World Applications

Now this still leaves open two big questions.

  1. When are we simply being rude and mean to satisfy our emotional desires as opposed to engaging in a necessary form of protest which unfortunately might hurt some Trump supporters.
  2. At what point does the harm from violating norms about civility outweigh the short term tactical gains from some kind of protests that might be seen as uncivil.

While these are hard questions in the abstract in practice I think they are actually pretty damn easy.

Regarding 1, I think deep down we know the answer in 99% of cases if we just take a step back and think about it. Just imagine the person you are about to be rude to or insult is an old friend from High School who fell in with a bad crowd in college. Would you still do it? Or better yet imagine the person you’re attacking is actually a liberal from a parallel universe who just switched places with their double in this universe. Just put yourself in a position where you see the harm you’re doing to the Trump supporter as a negative (like it would be for anyone else) and ask if the benefit outweighs the harm. If your too emotionally involved to step back like this your probably also too compromised to know if you’re actually helping or making the situation worse so you probably shouldn’t do it anyway.

Point 2 is a serious concern when it comes to civil rights movements demanding recognition for groups that society has seen as unworthy. In such cases there is a real tradeoff between the moral potency and enthusiasm offered by making it clear that the equality or moral worth of your group isn’t up for debate and engaging in civil dialog with norms that call that into question. For instance, advocates of LGBT rights had (have) to choose between being seen as being deliberately provocative and uncivil by forcing their sexuality into the public square in ways that were seen as inappropriate and putting it in people’s faces even though the analogous heterosexual conduct wasn’t. One choice risked jeopardizing the support of moderates while the other risked undermining the momentum and moral force of the movement,

However, in the Trump context it’s Trump supporters who are pushing aside existing cultural norms while it’s the left who are desperately trying to defend (what was previously) the mainstream. When Trump’s trying to break up families at the border, eliminate Obamacare or undermine Roe. v. Wade we don’t gain anything by pushing positions which make mainstream Americans feel insulted or uncomfortable. Now isn’t the time to suggest, however true it might be, that normal everyday behaviors make one a racist or transphobic. It’s time to talk about how taking children from their parents is wrong and unamerican and that the rich don’t deserve more tax cuts and in this context there’s just no real payoff to insulting or alienating the moderates we need to persuade to stop Trump.