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The civility trap: There's a right and a wrong way to express dissent

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Yahoo News photo Illustration; photos: AP, Getty

The calls for civility are a distraction.

The issue at hand — one of many — is how to reunite families who have been separated by the U.S. government.

And for those who want to apply pressure to the Trump administration on this point, what is the most effective way to do that without descending into fascism and violence?

Perhaps you disagree with the owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Va., who asked White House press secretary Sarah Sanders to leave. Or with the man who called White House senior adviser Stephen Miller a “fascist” at a Washington restaurant.

But there is a notable difference between those incidents and the one in which groups of people harassed Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen at a restaurant and at her home, and another in Florida, where a number of left-wing activists harassed state attorney general Pam Bondi at the movies.

The Sanders and Miller incidents are examples of individuals acting spontaneously to express disagreement with another individual. Some might find it distasteful. Some might find it uncivil. But there’s nothing completely outside the bounds of what is allowable in a free society.

But the Nielsen and Bondi incidents are different because they veer closer to vigilantism and a breakdown of the rule of law.

When you have a group of angry people confronting an individual, that is inherently destabilizing. The person targeted will fear for their physical safety, and rightly so. And the more private the setting, the fewer constraints there are on those whose passions might lead them to violence.

Passionate political views must almost always pass through a filter to achieve positive change. They require mediation.

Sometimes that mediation is simply a norm: the expectation that in a public setting, adults should conduct themselves peacefully, with restraint and dignity. Sometimes that mediation is the presence of law enforcement officers who form a physical barrier between opposing groups. Sometimes that mediation is a political party that attracts people who want change and helps them work with others to do so, over time and through the established processes of democracy.

And that’s what made Rep. Maxine Waters’s comments Saturday in Los Angeles particularly dangerous.

“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,” said Waters, a California Democrat.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., issued a robust rebuke to Waters. “I strongly disagree with those who advocate harassing folks if they don’t agree with you. If you disagree with a politician, organize your fellow citizens to action and vote them out of office. But no one should call for the harassment of political opponents. That’s not right. That’s not American.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was more circumspect, but still indicated she felt Waters’s comments were “unacceptable.”

President Trump, meanwhile, poured gasoline on the fire by insulting Waters’s intelligence, exaggerating what she had said, and issuing what sounded like a vague threat.

Waters defended herself from Trump’s exaggerated accusation. He said she “called for harm” to Trump supporters, and she retorted by saying she had not “called for harm of anyone.”

This is not the point. Waters’s exhortation for people to “create a crowd” in any setting to harass administration members is incitement to essentially form mobs. Her call to “push back” was likely not meant literally but could easily be taken that way by impassioned opponents of the Trump administration. The rhetoric of “not welcome anymore, anywhere” is vague and menacing enough to be taken to extremes quite easily.

If more public figures endorsed this kind of behavior, it would quickly create chaos. The likelihood of violence, by anti-Trump people or by those being harassed, would escalate. The Trump administration would appear more sympathetic to many Americans. Law enforcement would have greater room to step in and act aggressively, possibly to the detriment of our civil liberties.

This is why group action and organized protests should be limited to institutional settings. Go to the White House, or outside a speech by a public figure.

Even historical examples from those who ridiculed the idea of civility on Twitter this week upheld this standard.

Political historian Nicole Hemmer wrote, “You got heckled at a restaurant? Dean Rusk appeared in San Francisco and was greeted by 400 people chanting ‘Dean Rusk: Wanted for Murder.’ Then they hurled ‘rocks, eggs, and blood-filled balloons’ at the hotel where he was speaking.”

This was a group targeting an individual, yes. But they protested at an official event, a speech. And when the speech was over, there are no accounts of the crowd forming into a mob that chased Rusk down the street. They went, they protested, they took action, and no, it was not civil. But it was also not mob justice. There was a line they did not cross.

The line, again, is that in a democracy, we do not want groups to target their political opponents in the streets and at their homes. And while there is much to feel urgent about these days, the bigger question than civility is how we can learn to start asking ourselves and each other not just what we are against, but what we are for, and what we are doing to move constructively toward that goal, in a way that includes all Americans.

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