These historic times of populist upheaval are forcing Americans to wrestle with moral questions heretofore unconsidered, such as: If I see a member of the presidential administration in public, how much of a jerk should I be? If Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is sitting next to me in first class on an intercontinental flight, should I offer him a stick of gum, then yank it away, screaming, “No gum for pollution abettors!”? If I’m in front of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen at a Starbucks, do I order a venti half and half with 10 pumps of pumpkin spice syrup and tell the barista my name is “Kirstjen”? Also, is it worth it to move to Washington to do any of this?
I was forced to ponder the etiquette of resistance after White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweet-griped about being asked to leave the Red Hen restaurant. As I was trying to figure out whether that seemed appropriate, Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters held a rally in Los Angeles where she said that “if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.” This seems outrageous. First of all, I don’t know what kind of magnetic superpower Waters has, but I can’t round up a posse in the time it takes Betsy DeVos to fill her SUV gas tank. Secondly, I’m pretty sure Devos stays in the car while her driver pumps her gas.
Kelly Williams Brown, the author of “Gracious: A Practical Primer on Charm, Tact and Unsinkable Strength,” gave me some etiquette pointers on confronting White House staffers. She told me that although she believes civility is of the utmost importance, morality is utmoster. Sure, being rude to an ordinary 7-Eleven shopper in a “MAGA” cap is like placing your napkin on your lap before your hostess does. But, Brown said, the less powerful are free to confront those in charge. Though she suggested it is polite “to introduce yourself as a constituent from XYZ” before screaming in their face.
Respectful confrontation, even if it’s aggressive, strengthens democracy.
Brown says booting Sanders out of a restaurant is fine with her. Though she personally would opt for subtlety. “If Sarah Huckabee Sanders comes into my restaurant, she just gets served terribly and slowly. It takes hours and we just keep saying, ‘The entrees are coming,’ and they just don’t arrive.” At that moment, I realized how many restaurant owners hate my writing.
People who find this administration immoral, she says, are in an etiquette pickle. “We have to make a distinction between what we have to do to feel like we can continue living in our skin versus what we should do knowing that this is a very volatile moment,” she said.
I get that. We all have a point at which we are willing to sacrifice civility for authenticity. To figure out where the line should be, I called Thomas J. Harbin, a psychologist and author of “Beyond Anger: A Guide For Men.” “It amazes me how people take to social media and their response to people doing something they don’t like is advocating for them to lose their jobs,” he said. “No one has a dimmer switch. Just an on/off switch.” This seemed optimistic, since I no longer know anyone with an off switch.
Still, I was confused about exactly how to conduct myself when I bump into Ben Carson at an American Girl Café. So I turned to Daniel Buccino, the director of the Johns Hopkins Civility Initiative. The first thing Buccino told me was that “civility derives from the word civilitas, which is expressly concerned with the conduct of citizens in the polis.” Aristotle, he then pointed out, said that the correct way to be angry is “with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way.” Clearly one of the qualifications for running a Civility Initiative is spending your childhood getting beaten up for being a nerd.
Scientific studies, he said like a nerd, show that being civil is good for your health and society. “The good life is one that involves relationships. It involves being part of a family, a community, a city and a country,” he said. “Trump might get some short-term gain from being uncivil, but we need to take a longer view and trust that this era of incivility will pass.”
I doubt it’s random that the dudes told me to be civil and the woman didn’t. If I were a black trans-woman Muslim immigrant awaiting a green card, I would be pitching my story to Netflix. I would also be less in a wait-and-see mode.
But until we’re in an actual shooting civil war, my guide for how to confront this administration is going to be whether my action contributes to building the society I want to live in. I’m all for causing unrest at the immigration centers, the airports and at whatever place it is they collect tariffs. Respectful confrontation, even if it’s aggressive, strengthens democracy. Inciting violence, personal attacks, demonizing the press, scapegoating religious and minority groups, lying about facts, threatening political opponents and praising murderous dictators weaken democracy. So long as Trump officials aren’t doing such things in front of me during their off hours — by, for instance, wearing ill-fitting khakis accessorized by a tiki torch — I’ll let them be.
I interviewed then-candidate Donald Trump in September 2015. The last thing he said to me was, “Treat me nicely.” That’s the only issue he and I are going to agree on.
Joel Stein is the author of “Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity.”