Sarah Sanders’s recent expulsion from the Red Hen in Lexington, VA has prompted a rather extremist debate about the nature of civility. One side clamors that this signals the end of decency amongst civilized but politically opposed people; the other says civility be damned, we’re living in less-than-civil times. But I’m here to tell you what you already know — civility, like most other human endeavors, is a question of degrees.
For purposes of clarity on this particular issue, let’s separate civility into three loose groups. The first is general interpersonal civility, the kind we expect to have when waiting in line together, debating the greatest athletes or ice cream flavors of our time, and saying “thank you” after we’ve been served food or drink. This dynamic governs much of our daily lives with each other and is as much about maintaining a sense of order and calm as we move about in the chaos of life, since we have to inhabit a shared physical space.
Next, I propose there is political civility, the sort of civility John Rawls, one of our more robust American philosophers, might consider a free exchange of political ideas and discourse without any of the nastiness; though Rawls would contend this is contingent on the participants agreeing to a reasonable set of social principles like equal protection of the law. This is the sort of civility we would expect when debating our good friends about the Fed’s choices during the economic crash, a conversation where the participants are exchanging points and counterpoints without coming to blows. Or at least, as is the case with my in-laws, most political subjects are avoided because discussion would quickly destroy any sense of civility (political and otherwise) to no purpose.
Finally, I would posit there is the civility owed to public/political figures. The kind that governs the relationship between us commoners and those in power. Our society already recognizes this particular dynamic as being different — one need look no further than defamation or privacy case law (especially for those in government) to know that they have reduced legal protection in both areas. And this makes sense — we should be able to openly and maybe aggressively criticize the people making decisions about our futures.
In Sarah Sanders’s case, her defenders (including people such as Bernie Sanders, the Washington Post, and former Obama chief strategist David Axelrod) would have this incident placed in the first (maybe second) categories. In other words, kicking her out of a restaurant because of her politics is uncivil in the way we think slamming a door in front of someone is uncivil or calling their thoughts on interest rates stupid. Their great fear is that this is opening the gates for everyone in any civil situation to cast aside all decency and an Armageddon of Republican/Democrat-exclusive social venues will ensue.
But let’s first consider whether there is ever an appropriate time to be uncivil. Let’s say Hitler himself walked into your coffee shop. You recognize him instantly, and before he can even order a latte, you tell him to turn around and “Get the f*ck out.” Now, as ridiculous as the scenario is, would anyone reasonably assert that you are being unduly uncivil? I doubt it. In fact, some might applaud you for not having physically attacked him. Most of us can agree that given Hitler’s horrifying actions as a political leader and human being, he is not owed an ounce of civility, in any context.
Let’s make it harder. Suppose then-President Barack Obama walks into your ice-cream shop. Suppose as well that you were well-informed as to the number of mothers and children being deported during his time in office and you find this unacceptable. Despite having liked him as a candidate and maybe even voted for him, you say, “Mr. President, I’m sorry, but due to the way your administration is treating migrant women and children fleeing violence in Central and South America, I cannot have you in my establishment.” While this may violate that sense of interpersonal civility (the man just wants some ice-cream), citizen to citizen, is this truly a violation of political civility to openly criticize your elected official for actions he’s taking? Contrast that example with refusing to serve him because he’s a Democrat or from Hawaii, or because he picked Joe Biden as Vice President. In the first example, the intent and context for your actions is to address, in a very direct, action-based way, your anger at his administration’s treatment of human beings; the latter ones suggest an abandonment of political decency and a disability to “agree to disagree.”
In Sanders’s case, shifting the Red Hen owner’s intent, even slightly, can dramatically shift how we view her choice. If she would have started yelling at Sanders or using profanity or blowing her up on social media, these could more readily be regarded as violating interpersonal civility. If she had asked Sanders to leave because Sanders was a registered Republican and/or had voted for Trump, this would arguably violate the second stratum of political civility. If she had told Sanders to leave because she’s a woman, this would violate any and all notions of civility (not to mention it’s illegal). But this is not what took place. The owner asked Sanders to leave because of the part she plays and continues to play in an administration that so often refuses to participate in the values of “honesty, compassion, and cooperation.” What the Red Hen’s detractors miss is that civility was present that evening — Sanders was quietly and politely asked to leave the restaurant, she was not charged for her meal, and the public at large would likely not have known about it but for Sanders’s spotlighting it on Twitter (though an employee did make an initial post on Facebook). What’s more, given the Red Hen’s location, it likely serves people all across the political spectrum every day without issue.
But let’s assume the doomsday scenario and say that what happened to Sanders falls outside the bounds of any categorical civility. We should all stop pretending that civility is the highest (or necessary) good in resolving social differences. The ACT UP demonstrators throwing buckets of blood on town hall steps to wake the world to the plight of the many with HIV; the occupying of seats in white-only restaurants and the refusal to sit at the back of the bus by people of color; or the many teachers in several states shutting down their schools to yell, and yell loudly at their legislators for better treatment of them and their students — all demonstrate the occasional need to set aside categorical “civility.” Progress in these and many other areas were arguably far less likely with a “civil” approach of petitions, phone calls to representatives, and quiet conversations. Government was not going to suddenly start funding AIDS research, recognizing people of color as equal, or treat education as a priority because we were nice about it.
Civility can only help us accomplish change to the extent that, per John Rawls, all parties agree to some basic principles about our shared humanity. This appears to be less and less the case with the current administration. So, while I continue to hope that many of us can have meaningful exchanges over our political and social differences, I would not ask anyone to “tone down” their protest or criticism of our elected officials in the name of maintaining civility. “Uncivil” is not always synonymous with unnecessary, but “civility” can be with complacency. Civility is not a end in itself but a means of attempting decency in resolution before all else. True civility requires us to develop and promote empathy and compassion for our shared condition and then to act accordingly; “civility” only requires to pretend we have.