Freedom Of Speech And The Civility Debate

Jul 9, 2018

First, Stephanie Wilkinson, owner of The Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, upset by many of President Trump's policies, asked White House press secretary Sarah Sanders and her party to leave her restaurant – politely by first-hand accounts.

This ignited a social media brushfire in which confused Trump-supporting internet trolls vented their anger on the Red Hen Bakery in Middlesex, Vermont, which has no connection to the Virginia restaurant, promising never to buy their bread.

Co-owner Randy George told a reporter he wouldn't ask guests to leave, but "If a member of the Trump administration came to our establishment, I would consider it a golden opportunity to give them a piece of my mind.”

These encounters and more have refueled an age-old debate about civility and whether the notion of polite politics is an oxymoron.

With the Democratic Party now out of power in all three branches of government, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when California Representative Maxine Waters advocates for confrontation with current power brokers by urging "Shame them everywhere! Call them out!"
It reminds me of how 40 years ago, Prof. Laura Ulrich advised feminists that "Well-behaved women seldom make history."

And historian Thomas Sugrue has written that as an engine of real social and political change civility is much over-rated: that the civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was NOT civil, that justice takes precedence over order, and that bad laws rarely yield to good manners.

Others insist that only those who already have power can afford civility, citing the cynic's Golden Rule that “Those who have the gold make the rules.” Or more crudely put, don't mud-wrestle with a pig - you both get dirty and the pig loves it.

Some of us might still rather take the high ground, believing that civility is, after all, about reasonable limits - rather like spoken and unspoken traffic laws that help us share the road safely – and that civil discussions are not verbal drag strips where you go from 0-60 in three seconds amid clouds of noxious exhaust fumes.

As children we’re taught that if we don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything. But more people today seem to be following the example of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Teddy’s feisty daughter, who famously had a pillow embroidered with the quip, "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me."