Lexington, Virginia, is a city where history radiates like hot air shimmering over blacktop. Nestled in the Shenandoah Valley, the town’s namesake is the site where Massachusetts patriots first gave their blood in battle against the British. The area’s institutional heart, Washington and Lee University, is named after Virginia’s two best-known sons, one who created the Union, and the other who fought to destroy it. The bones of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson rest in Lexington, perhaps as reminders that the country continues fighting their war.
Last week, in the middle of an immigration and family-separation crisis that has engulfed the administration, Lexington reminded the country of its deep partisan and philosophical divides again. Stephanie Wilkinson, owner of the Red Hen restaurant on Main Street, refused to serve a party that included White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Improbably—or maybe inevitably—that refusal has become a national flashpoint. In a widening debate over the boundaries of debate itself, the notion of civility has again become a bipartisan rallying cry.
As has so often been the case, the demands for civility function primarily to stifle the frustrations of those currently facing real harm. But protest is not often civil. In fact, in the long tradition of American protest, it’s incivility that has served as an alternative to violent resistance, and it is what has functioned best as an antidote to the violence of oppressors.
The controversy made its way to Democratic Representative Maxine Waters, who at a rally in Los Angeles on Saturday, endorsed Red Hen tactics as a tool for pressuring senior administration officials. “You tell them they're not welcome anymore, anywhere,” Waters told the crowd. “And if you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station—you get out and you clear the crowd. You push back on them and you tell them they're not welcome anymore anywhere.”
The rebukes for Waters and Wilkinson came swiftly and from all political corners. President Trump responded with familiar and predictably crass vitriol, referring to Waters as an an “extraordinarily low IQ person.” “She has just called for harm to supporters, of which there are many, of the Make America Great Again movement,” Trump tweeted on Monday. Then came a barely veiled threat: “Be careful what you wish for Max!”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also rebuked her longtime colleague, tweeting: “Trump’s daily lack of civility has provoked responses that are predictable but unacceptable.”
“Those who are insisting that we are in a special moment justifying incivility should think for a moment how many Americans might find their own special moment,” wrote The Washington Post’s editorial board, warning of mirror-image actions by conservatives against pro-choice advocates. At USA Today, the conservative columnist James S. Robbins agreed, adding that “a return to decorum would be a useful step towards restoring the notion of a personal sphere and promoting a more rational tone in our policy debates.” My colleague Conor Friedersdorf weighed in on Twitter: “I think members of the Trump coalition are more likely to be energized and less likely to be turned off by flagrant incivility than members of the relatively more civil anti-Trump coalition.”
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Many of these arguments invoke the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent protest as a platonic ideal. Indeed, some version of his organizing philosophy is often produced as the “right way” for abused minorities in the country to protest and effect change. But the version of Kingian and nonviolent civil-rights activism used to scold those who use shame and confrontation as tools today is a false image.
For King—and more so for the younger generation of student civil-rights leaders who initiated sit-ins and Freedom Rides—nonviolence was militant. It was confrontational by design. Often, this sort of protest required breaking laws—which is why King went to jail dozens of times. While Red Hen-style tactics were obviously unavailable to black activists during Jim Crow, obstruction, public call-outs, and protests designed explicitly to provoke white onlookers into violence were part and parcel of the civil-rights strategy. But those tactics were not widely considered civil, and according to public-opinion polls, many whites believed black agitators were themselves the ones upending public order, and creating the conditions under which voters who supported white supremacy would only double down on their beliefs.
Not much has changed over the ensuing decades. Marginalized people remain at risk of being labeled “uncivil” for all but the most passive of disagreements. From outrage over black activists stopping cars in San Francisco to essays that lectured Women’s March participants for signs that “send a message of hostility to those conservatives and Trump voters,” to the two-year-long freakout about Colin Kaepernick’s choice to kneel, cries to return to civility often overshadow the actual violence being targeted by protest. Remarkably, the current national hand-wringing was provoked by two legal and entirely nonviolent methods of protest. Denying a senior administration official a meal is perfectly legal in Virginia; Waters advocated a campaign of public shaming, not acts of violence.
The term civility itself is more a reflection of majority-enforced social norms than of a proven set of rules for effective debate. Ironically, a country founded on on tea-dumping, property-smashing, and norm-breaking has as its major bipartisan project a robust defense of social norms. King understood this dynamic well, and even applied it to riots in the inner-city. “A riot is the language of the unheard,” King famously said in his “The Other America” speech. What he said next, though less frequently quoted, cuts to the heart of the matter. “And what is it America has failed to hear?” King asked. “It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
What King understood was that civility stood not as a companion or a near-synonym to his project of radical, militant nonviolence, but as its most insidious opponent. King and his intellectual forebears engineered nonviolence specifically as a tool that would break the violent foundations of white supremacy, and doing so necessarily meant disrupting order and breaking the law. The current model of civility counsels accommodation to violent power, but that course of action is actually antithetical to the Kingian project. Civil-rights protesters escalated confrontation and provocation in proportion to the violence that met them, seeking to push that violence to its logical end—either exhausting its proponents or horrifying voting bystanders.
The cruel irony is that the success of King’s own project has made the call for more civility from America’s aggrieved groups all the more routine. Poor people, immigrants, black activists, and perhaps LGBT employees at a restaurant in Virginia are bludgeoned into silence by the constant cry for civility, made to hold still as injustices are visited upon them. Meanwhile, those with no real fear that they’ll ever wind up on the wrong side of the power dynamic in America can scold and hector. For the majority, the idea that civility might not be a panacea is purely abstract—there is little reasonable fear that the machinery of the state will be turned against them.
But that machinery is being turned against thousands, perhaps millions of people today. As King lamented, tranquility and the status quo will serve them precious little. Civility is an instinct that only serves to silence them. It is itself wielded as a cudgel against those already facing obliteration that dictates to them how they must face it. It snuffs out nonviolent and violent protest alike. Civility is the sleep-aid of a majority inclined to ignore the violence done in its name—because in the end, they will be alright.