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When Civility Is Violence

How we talk about Sarah Sanders at the Red Hen

Kitanya Harrison
Jun 27, 2018 · 6 min read
Photo by Emanuela Picone on Unsplash

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Politeness is a valuable social skill. We should all aspire to be courteous to our neighbors even when we’re having a bad day. If that moment of manufactured kindness sparks genuine warmth in return, your day may become a bit brighter. It may also lift the spirits of someone who may be going through a rough patch but hasn’t shared the details. Those moments when we bite our tongues and choose gentleness over hostility can help us find our better selves.

As marketed, civility is about shared values. It’s about co-operation. It’s about having agreed upon how society should function.

Civility is also a powerful weapon, though.

Civility is used to silence.

Civility is used to dismiss.

Civility is used to exclude.

Civility is used to mask inhumanity and indecency.

This is what we’re watching unfold in America right now: the weaponization of civility to protect the ruling class.

Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is the chief propagandist of the Trump administration. She outright lies to journalists about the human and civil rights violations the regime is committing. She has faced no consequences for this. Any opprobrium leveled against Sanders — including Michelle Wolf describing her eyeliner as made from the ashes of lies — is swiftly cut down, often by those who should be holding her accountable.

When Sanders entered the Red Hen restaurant, her presence discomfited the staff, some of whom are members of the marginalized groups she and her colleagues violently target. The owner, Stephanie Wilkinson, took a vote, and the majority of the staff voted not to serve Sanders. Wilkinson quietly requested Sanders and her party leave, and Sanders complied.

Is this uncivil? Politely asking the mouthpiece of American fascism to take her business elsewhere?

Using the word “fascism” in reference to Sanders and the White House where she serves will have some calling me uncivil as well. The act will be decried as name-calling.

Consider this exchange on CNN, where the host, Kate Bolduan, chastises her guest, immigration attorney David Leopold, for calling Sanders’ colleague, Stephen Miller, a White nationalist.

A tweet showing a CNN interview of immigration attorney David Leopold

“I just did an entire segment about civility here,” Bolduan chides. “I don’t think you want to call Stephen Miller a white nationalist.” Leopold counters that his statement about Miller isn’t uncivil; it’s a fact. Bolduan, a journalist paid quite handsomely to report the news, then claims to be unaware of any information that might support that conclusion.

Bolduan’s reflexive defense of Miller is on the record, and I think she’s going to regret it. (History is taking copious notes here.) Fascists adhere to a particular ideology, as do White nationalists. Accurately describing either as such after assessing facts and evidence isn’t uncivil, and it isn’t name-calling. It’s critical thinking.

This is another thing civility does: it scuppers analysis.

If the conclusions drawn by going down the “Is This Individual a Fascist?” checklist make a certain kind of person look or feel bad, then stating that conclusion out loud is condemned as “untoward” or “rude.” This certain kind of person wields power and influence, and we assume honor must remain unsullied. Calls for civility are about maintaining protections for others who are also in that class.

I wasn’t surprised when political journalists and establishment Democrats rushed to Sanders’ defense. They share class allegiance with her. Their kids go to the same schools, they attend the same cocktail parties, they frequent the same restaurants. Encroachment of her privileges might affect theirs.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) doesn’t use the same playbook. She encouraged other Americans to do what the staff at the Red Hen and others have done when they turned Trump staffers out of nice eateries.

A YouTube video of Maxine Waters addressing a crowd

Waters exhorted a crowd, “Let’s make sure we show up wherever we have to show up. And 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.” Fascists shouldn’t be welcome anywhere. That statement is easy to agree with when they’re not in power. When they are, this is what “resistance” looks like:

Nancy Pelosi criticizes Maxine Waters and calls for “unity”
ABC News shares a video of Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer calling Maxine Waters’ actions un-American
Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan compares the Red Hen incident to Jim Crow-era segregation

The media’s “harassment” language is shaped by its politics.

CNN Politics claims Maxine Waters “encourages her supporters to harass Trump administration officials”

Note that Maxine Waters’ call for direct action isn’t being framed as political protest. Citizens who bring their grievances to government officials using methods that cause those officials embarrassment or discomfort are pre-emptively assumed to be “harassers.” That hint of illegality is deliberate. The media is calling on Maxine Waters to apologize for inciting violence against Trump and his supporters, even though nothing in her statements comes anywhere close to that line.

This is dangerous propaganda. It is a way to delegitimize protest by labeling it a form of violence. Skulls will be cracked over this.

A tweet from Obama-era Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is particularly loathsome. He compares the government-enforced violence of Jim Crow-era segregation to a small business owner courageously defending her employees and standing up to the spokesperson for a dishonest government that is jailing toddlers.

Do not trust anyone making moral arguments in this climate who fails to address the imbalance of power between the parties being discussed. Their solidarity is with authority.

The Arne Duncans of the world have been educated at the finest universities America has to offer, and they have the historical perspective to know better. They are protecting their class privilege, and “civility” is their cudgel. They are choosing their personal comforts over the well-being of everyone the Trump regime targets with its violent policies.

Don’t pay attention to anyone who tells you that this dust-up over the Red Hen was a “distraction” or unimportant. It clearly demonstrates that the Democratic establishment’s strategy for dealing with Donald Trump’s administration is appeasement. They will turn on their own and throw them to the wolves not to rock the boat.

There is no middle ground with fascists. Every inch ceded is an inch lost, perhaps forever. Maxine Waters understands that there can be no “unity” with these people. She has Donald Trump’s number, and it is quite telling that the people shushing her don’t have the same energy when Donald Trump calls her “low IQ” — a coded racial slur if there ever was one.

They also have precious little to say about Sanders using her government Twitter account to shine floodlights on what happened at the Red Hen. Sanders used her platform as the White House Press Secretary to retaliate against a small business that wouldn’t kowtow to her. That’s a petty, foul way to behave, and it’s also likely a violation of government ethics rules.

Why all the sympathy for Sanders and none for regular people working in a small restaurant in a small town standing up for themselves and their co-workers?

It’s about who has power, and who doesn’t.

Arguments for civility in this moment aren’t benign, and the people making them are part of the power structure that is bringing violence to vulnerable people. They know that “if you don’t make them mad, they’ll stop beating you,” isn’t any sort of a plan, but they’re not the ones being beaten.

I wrote earlier that turning Congress blue would stop America’s horrific slide only if those elected have the spine to do what is required. It would be prudent to believe them when they tell you they don’t. I’ve seen people shouted down for raising this uncomfortable point, but, given the way things are unfolding, it seems unwise to trust in a “blue wave” to wash it all way. It may take a cleansing fire to set things right.

Kitanya Harrison

Written by

*squinting in Nanny of the Maroons* | Read my essay collection, DISPOSABLE PEOPLE, DISPOSABLE PLANET: books2read.com/u/mBOYNv | IG: kitanyaharrison

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