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.