Column: The Red Hen Affair: Demands for ‘civility’ are almost always aimed at shutting down free speech
Here we go again: As Trump administration policies become ever more intemperate and inhumane, critics of those policies are being counseled to become more “civil” in their criticisms.
This is an old pattern and a discreditable (and discredited) one. The idea seems to be that if the critics would just air their views politely and tactfully, their targets would suddenly awaken to the error of their ways. All Americans would then march hand-in-hand toward a nirvana of permanent comity.
The truth is that, as urged upon critics by their targets, pleas for “civility” are a fraud. As aired by members of the critical camp themselves, the pleas are a trap. More often than not, the result is to blunt the impact of the critique and enfeeble the opposition. That is, of course, what the targets hope for.
I know it’s hard for you to understand even short sentences.
— Sarah Huckabee Sanders treats CNN’s Jim Acosta “respectfully”
As we observed a few years ago during a free-speech controversy on the UC Berkeley campus, the targets of free speech always try to counteract it by the use of weasel words. Calling for “constructive criticism” is weaseling. So is “You can express your views as long as they’re respectful.” In those examples, “constructive” and “respectful” are modifiers concealing that the speaker really doesn’t wish to be challenged at all.
The targets of free speech never think it’s constructive or respectful. Quite the contrary. “Civility” is the biggest weasel word of all, commonly invoked by those promoting the most uncivil viewpoints and policies.
Let’s examine the most recent case in which “civility” has been counseled: The request by the owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Va., that White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders leave the premises.
The reactions to this incident display all the dishonesty of the “civility” theme. According to an undisputed account the restaurant owner, Stephanie Wilkinson, gave to the Washington Post, Wilkinson was summoned to the premises by staff members upset to find Sanders at a table with other guests. Many of the staff were LGBTQ individuals discontented, understandably, with the Trump administration’s documented hostility to LGBTQ rights. She took a staff vote, which came down on the side of asking Sanders to leave.
Wilkinson and Sanders both say the 86-ing was handled politely and in private. Sanders left quietly.
The next day, however, she confirmed the episode in a tweet, in which she named the restaurant, gave its location, and took a sidelong swipe at Wilkinson. For some reason, many progressives seem to think this shows that Sanders dealt with the episode with “class.”
They must have a different definition of “class” from my own. The tweet was, in actuality, a masterpiece of crass passive-aggressiveness. Sanders had to know that her tweet would focus immense attention on a business that had tried to handle a delicate situation quietly, subjecting it to attack on social media, if not worse, by Sanders’ own supporters.
Let’s not overlook that Sanders ended her tweet by asserting that she always does her best “to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully.” At a press briefing nine days earlier, it might be remembered, she answered a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta with the ostensibly respectful words, “I know it’s hard for you to understand even short sentences.”
Sanders’ father, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, chimed in this weekend with his own gloss on the restaurant incident: “Bigotry,” he wrote. “On the menu at Red Hen Restaurant in Lexington VA. Or you can ask for the ‘Hate Plate.’”
That was a mere three hours after Huckabee had tweeted a photograph of alleged Mexican gang members with the words, “Nancy Pelosi introduces her campaign committee for the take back of the House.”
See how this works?
A few days before the Sarah Huckabee Sanders incident, Trump’s Homeland Security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, who has implemented Trump’s family separation policy on the southern border, was forced to leave a Mexican restaurant in Washington by a heckling crowd. And a few days before that, Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s anti-immigration campaign, was hectored by a guest at another Washington Mexican restaurant, though he didn’t leave. (What is it with Trump officials and Mexican restaurants — are they being deliberately provocative?)
These cases engendered the familiar calls for civility. “Let the Trump team eat in peace,” pleaded the Washington Post’s editorial page.
Weirdly, the Post asked rhetorically what those justifying “incivility” against Trump officials would think about “people who strongly believe that abortion is murder deciding that judges or other officials who protect abortion rights should not be able to live peaceably with their families?” — apparently forgetting that this isn’t a rhetorical question: Since 1993, four doctors and nine other persons have been murdered in attacks on abortion providers. And that’s not to mention the harassment of patients trying to obtain services from reproductive health clinics.
The Post’s formulation underscores what’s most insincere and hollow about “civility” campaigns. It treats all challenges to ideologies or government activities as though they’re the same. But tongue-lashings, heckling and other verbal assaults are materially different from murder. The first are legal — indeed, constitutionally protected — the latter is a crime.
Moreover, the problem with using words like “civility” to mark the boundaries of public discourse is that it has no fixed definition. As we’ve observed before, one person can be deeply affronted (or claim to be) by language that another finds perfectly innocuous.
Most problematic, it’s often used to distract from and excuse official behavior that violates the right of free speech. When the University of Illinois wanted to fire professor Steven Salaita after he tweeted some critical thoughts about Israel’s conduct in Gaza, then-Chancellor Phyllis Wise tried to weasel out of the controversy with the humbug of claiming that Salaita’s offense lay not in what he said, but his uncivil way of expressing it.
Not a few pundits have argued that the reason we have such a deep divide in the U.S. over abortion is that abortion-rights supporters don’t treat anti-abortion campaigners with respect, as though they’re missing a chance to persuade their adversaries by pure reason. Does anyone seriously think that’s why several states have enacted laws shutting down abortion clinics on transparently fraudulent grounds? Or why anti-abortion campaigners make their points with gunplay?
What’s left unexplained by the demand for civility is how best to get one’s point across when dealing with intemperate adversaries or an administration that shows no inclination to adhere to established rules of civilized discourse or to respond to traditional public expressions of dismay.
The context of the unhappy restaurant experiences of Stephen Miller, Kirstjen Nielsen, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders was that the administration they worked for was subjecting children to what objective observers consider abuse and even torture, and exposing them to lifelong mental and physical maladies, and that it was lying about it.
For many weeks, there were no signs that the Trump people were even hearing the calls for help. Now some of them have been deprived of restaurant meals. But that doesn’t really make things even.
Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email email@example.com.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.