Last week, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave Virginia restaurant The Red Hen by the owner. A few days prior, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was confronted by protesters at a Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C., eventually prompting her to leave.
Some commentators have called these small acts of protest against Trump administration officials as marking “a decline in civility.” These critics miss a major point. Civil discourse is not always comfortable discourse, and dissent is not always polite. As the Trump administration rolls back the progress of the last century—leaving women, people of color and other marginalized group at risk of losing their basic rights—our moral obligation is to fight back.
They don’t get to define the terms of our fight. We don’t need to be civil in the face of abuse. We need to be strong and strategic.
Trump’s rhetoric, and his administration’s policies, are dangerous. He stirs up and perpetuates nativism, bigotry and prejudice, which has in part fueled a rise in white supremacist violence and hate crimes. He gaslights and scapegoats to justify policies that leave families torn apart and violence victims without recourse. Headlines throughout his presidency, and especially in the last few weeks, have largely centered around the destruction of American values and democracy happening under his watch.
Donald Trump has never been civil. His entire campaign was a firestorm of toxic masculinity, xenophobia and explicit racism. Thus far, his entire presidency has been, too. Within days of assuming the Oval Office, Donald Trump re-instated policies that left women around the world at risk of death and a loss of their own destinies. Within months, he had called white nationalists “fine people.” Most recently, he put in place border policies that the UN itself called a violation of migrants’ human rights—and then attempted to leverage their lives for a border wall. Now, he plans to oversee modern-day internment camps for entire families seeking asylum.
All of Trump’s major actions in office have been objectively violent. The Muslim ban, separating families at the border, ending DACA and pathways to asylum for women experiencing domestic violence, the ban on transgender soldiers serving in the military, numerous attacks on Planned Parenthood—these are assaults on the livelihoods of Americans. The actions of the Trump administration have serious and sometimes fatal consequences.
Some argue that incivility must not be met with incivility, for then this implies that we have stooped to Trump’s level and that we have been roped into the game of insults and vulgarities. I’ll concede that personal attacks, targeted bigotry and a commitment to narcissism are no way to respond to criticism. But to suggest that calling out and confronting violence, injustice and oppression is “uncivil” is to demand that we ignore the many people and communities that have suffered and will continue to suffer the most under Trump’s policies.
Recently, Representative Maxine Waters spoke to the need to continue resisting Trump and his affiliates by calling them out in public and making them know they are not welcome as a result of their inhumane practices. She stated that people committing inhumane acts should expect confrontation. “I believe in peaceful protest,” she told Chris Hayes on MSNBC. “I believe that protest is at the centerpiece of our democracy. I believe that the Constitution guarantees us freedom of speech. And I believe that protest is civil.”
One of the first lessons you are taught when you learn about bullying, harassment, abuse or other unjust behavior is to be an upstander, not a bystander—to call it out, to intervene and to use the social power you may have to protect those who do not. The lesson is not to be gentle and respectful of abuser—it is to address abuses and demand that they end.
Being the “bigger person” does not imply surrendering. It is unreasonable to suggest that any resistance to abuses of power is uncivil. Dissent is a patriotic act, and conflating civility with morality allows for Trump’s predominantly white and male administration to manipulate the narrative of resistance and shield itself from accountability and the demands of this democracy. Outrage at the indecency of this behavior should be encouraged. If inhumane treatment is Trump’s idea of power, then we need disobedience.
Of all the things deemed appropriate in response to these political times, the Trump administration’s idea of civility isn’t what comes to mind. Our actions as citizens have the potential to form a critical mass. We live in an era where individuals are finding their voice in order to stand up to bigotry and injustice, in a time where it is imperative now more than ever to speak truth to power.
I refuse to believe that rolling over or giving up or staying silent is the way to address the hateful statements and practices of this administration. I refuse to believe that anger is not a valid response to actions that actively demean and violate people’s basic dignity. We have the power to demand better—and we not only deserve to utilize it, but are called on to do so by our moral obligation to ensure that equality and justice are never lost.