The Fine Line Between Civility and Civil Disobedience
Should public figures, including people we despise, always be entitled to normal common courtesies? For example — what if the most offensive human being you can think of suddenly walked into your place of business? Would you serve him/her?
I’m torn down the middle by the Sarah Huckabee Sanders-Red Hen restaurant controversy.
In case you didn’t hear, President Trump’s federally-funded falsifier and simpleton stonewaller, otherwise known as Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, planned to dine out over the weekend at a posh restaurant in Virginia’s Shenandoah Mountains. When Sanders arrived, she was firmly but politely told she wasn’t welcome by the establishment. The Red Hen’s owner steadfastly refused to serve Sanders. The decision was based purely on politics. In other words, Sanders would have been welcome at the Red Hen had she been any lower-level employee, someone anonymous, or just about anyone else in the universe. She was refused service for one simple reason — because she holds a high-profile position in the Trump Administration, which is viewed by millions of Americans as the epitome of evil and incompetence.
I’ll veer around the legal debate and skip obvious comparisons to wedding cakes. Recall the recent Supreme Court decision which effectively now allows any business to openly discriminate against customers based on personal objections to their lifestyle (a gay couple was refused service at a bakery, leading to a lawsuit). It seems that if a bakery owner can tell someone to “leave” because of some confusion about where certain body parts belong, then a restaurant owner can say “goodbye” to someone who’s unremitting lies to the press and the public have turned the White House into a laughing stock that’s no longer funny.
Predictably, Trump supporters were outraged by what happened. Right-wing media bubbled over like an overflowing toilet. No one would even have even known about the isolated incident, except that Sanders blasted out the following tweet:
That’s one perspective. The other side had quite a different interpretation of events. The restaurant owner called the refusal to accommodate Sanders an act of civil disobedience. The owner-citizen had become so fed up with Sanders’ serial lies and constant deflection that he felt a moral obligation to take a stand given the unique opportunity presented when Sanders unexpectantly walked into his restaurant on Friday night.
Was Sanders treated unfairly?
How you answer is likely based on tribal reflexes rather than an objective evaluation of what refusing service to someone really means and most certainly ignores much broader and far more serious implications of carrying out such measures to the extreme. Not only is humiliating people wrong in most cases, disturbances of the kind could very likely result in an escalation of hostilities and open season in what’s become a culture war.
So, if lines are to be drawn, where should we draw them?
I think most will agree that just about everyone should be entitled to fair treatment. Otherwise, society can’t function. The Sanders controversy aside, I can’t imagine any successful business owner refusing to serve a customer based solely on politics. The reason for broad acceptance of differences and collective tolerance is simple: Banning a customer is bad for business.
We’re also likely to agree that public figures, including political leaders, should be treated with common courtesy in everyday life. This fundamental tenet is bipartisan. No matter what we may think of an elected (or appointed) public official, governing in a civil society demands some degree of decorum. People should enjoy the right to private time with their families and friends. They should be extended the same level of service and professional courtesies as any typical patron.
But wait. Are there limits to normal expectations of civility? We’re about to pressure test them, now.
What if you’re a restaurant owner and this man walks in and asks for a table?
That’s David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, an avowed White supremacist, and the former Republican gubernatorial candidate in Louisiana.
Would you allow him to dine at your place of business?
Proving this is a non-ideological exercise, instead, let’s suppose this man walks in and requests a table. Would you serve him?
That’s Louis Farrakhan, an anti-Semite, a Black Nationalist, and leader of the Nation of Islam.
Would you permit him to dine at your place of business?
Duke and Farrakhan may be on opposite sides of the political spectrum. But consistency rather than hypocrisy probably demands that your answers be the same. If you refuse to serve Duke, then you probably should also refuse to serve Farrakahn, and vice versa.
Here’s one more prospective “guest” to ponder:
That’s Martin Shkreli, the douchebag punk (and now a convicted felon) who bought a patent to a rare pharmaceutical drug prescribed as a matter of life and death for its patients and then hiked the drug’s cost 56 times the original price. A few years ago, Shkreli even “won” a poll asking “who’s the most hated man in America?” Obviously, that poll came out before Trump became a serious presidential candidate.
If you owned a restaurant and Shkreli walked in wanting a table, would you serve him?
What about Harvey Weinstein? What about Bill Cosby? What about the jackass who takes Safari selfies after shooting a giraffe? Would they be welcome at your place of business?
Indeed, there are many cretins, crooks, and con men who go through daily life unmolested in public places. There are countless racists and rapists who frequent fancy boutiques and upscale restaurants and receive impeccable treatment. There are some moral and ethical ambiguities at work here when we admonish a partisan political figure and then give a free pass to others who have committed well-documented disgusting acts.
Of course, doing nothing is always the easiest option. Non-confrontation is the easy way out. Ignoring the evil deeds of the wicked and overlooking the terrible harm they do — often at the expense of the helpless who have no power nor voice — is a natural human instinct. We’ve become subject to mass desensitization, to not only to our basic human responsibilities of decency but also willfully blind to awareness of misdeeds. Sometimes, scandal has even become a cause for celebration. We covet meeting anyone who’s famous — be they a mob boss or a Kardashian. O.J. Simpson can’t go out in public without being hounded by gawkers waving smartphones. Fact is — famous people never get turned away at restaurants. It doesn’t happen.
Except now, for Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
I do wish we could return to a much healthier and more productive time when political differences weren’t obstacles, but opportunities. Perhaps after the Trump nightmare ends, we can return to a culture of civility and cooperation. I hope it’s not too late.
Unfortunately, Trump and his supporters have gutted all the rules as to how the political game is played. Starting at the very top with a constant bombardment of impulsive tweets and petty personal attacks on just about everyone, from movie stars to Gold Star families, he and his sycophantic personality cult have annihilated the traditions of common civility. Defaming, dividing, and ultimately destroying all opposition is Trump’s modus operandi.
Call what happened at the Red Hen what it is — a small payback.
Those, like Sanders, who not only carry out acts which debase the culture and willfully deceive an entire nation must be subject to the consequences of what they are doing. Political protest isn’t pretty. It’s not polite. It’s not meant to be pretty and polite. Political protest, through peaceful acts of civil disobedience, is intended to entice a broader debate and inspire others to take similar action.
Let the civil disobedience begin. And let’s also remember — to keep things civil.