Civility or confrontation? Yes? *Updated.*

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You’ve probably heard about the Red Hen incident by now — how Trump spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders entered a restaurant with several other people, ordered some cheese plates, then were asked to leave. That followed protesters hounding Trump’s Secretary of Homeland Security out of a Mexican restaurant earlier in the week, which itself apparently followed Stephen Miller being hassled out of a different Mexican restaurant.

The Red Hen story has set off a debate on the left about whether such actions are a proper way to express one’s political views or whether perhaps they end up being counterproductive. The debate has gotten tremendously uncivil, with left-on-left rhetorical violence getting as bad I can remember.

My own inclinations, as you know, are toward civility. I say that even though the last two years have seen my active relationships with Trump supporters devolve from hearty friendships, in some cases, into nothing. But I still embrace the hope of civility — while suspecting that, as a white guy, that’s a privilege I get to choose.

So let me resolve the conundrum thusly: Civility or confrontation?

How about … yes?

I honestly believe this: Some people are equipped to engage positively, even with people they heartily disagree with, and they should do that. Some people are better at protest and creating discomfort and heightening contradictions, and they should do that. And if two people have different ways of fighting, battling, resisting an opposing what they both see as evil, perhaps they should welcome each other to the fight instead of castigating each other over tactics.*

That’s difficult to do.

For our model on both fronts, let’s look to Martin Luther King Jr.

Let’s precede by saying: We talk a lot about how right-wingers create a strawman, one-dimensional version of MLK who was all good feelings and light when really he confronted evil. Lefties have a problem in either they buy that, too, and forsake King for what they see as a more aggressive approach — or they want the confrontation of evil to end with evil’s defeat, without seeking the “beloved community” that King sought as his end. Most of us betray MLK’s legacy or co-opt him to our purposes, in other words.

King’s journey toward nonviolence was complex, but the underlying truth is that he saw justice and reconciliation as going hand-in-hand.

Here he is in “Strive Toward Freedom”:

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Don’t misunderstand: King didn’t seek “friendship and understanding” instead of justice, but as an outcome of justice.

But it’s also fair to say that King was happy to create an incredible amount of discomfort in the name of justice. “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” has been cited a lot the last two year in its castigation of white moderates, but what’s clear in reading that letter is that what those white moderates wanted from King was, well, a kind of civility.

You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

Good God: Read the whole thing. “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. ”

Anything that disturbs an ugly status quo is going to feel uncivil to  someone.

I don’t presume to know how Martin Luther King Jr. would’ve spent this weekend. What I know is that the leaders of his time thought that his tactics, while nonviolent, were rude and disruptive and even negative. They probably even thought those tactics would create a backlash among whites whose support would be ultimately needed to ensure the success of the Civil Rights movement. He proceeded, because without such moments of pain and tension, it was all to easy to let the status quo stay the status quo.

But he also had an eye on the end game: “Beloved community.”

But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.

I’ll be honest: I’m not sure that this kind of community is possible. But we should hope it is: We’re a nation of more than 300 million people with a wide range of values, some of them even in opposition to each other. We’re either going to re-learn to live with one another, or the crisis will continue on in abated fashion, either with one side dominating the other, or though a limping form of the ugly status quo we have now. I can tell which is preferable.

Which brings us back to the beginning. Civility? Confrontation? Whichever you’re best suited to, I say. But always with an eye on the end game — justice, justice, justice … and, as a result, the creation of “beloved community.”

* For the sake of this discussion, violence is not on the menu of acceptability. Neither is trying to create a fear of violence in a person, even if no actual violence is intended. 

 UPDATE: Maxine Waters today:

She continued, “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… Mr. President, we will see you every day, every hour of the day, every where that we are to let you know you can’t get away with this,” she concluded to raucous applause.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

If you’re intent on surrounding somebody with angry people, you’re going to make them fearful for their life. I’m not down with that. The congresswoman goes too far for my tastes.

Author: joeldermole

Joel Mathis is a freelance writer who lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife and son. He spent nine years as a syndicated columnist, co-writing the RedBlueAmerica column as the liberal half of a point-counterpoint duo. His honors include awards for best online commentary from the Online News Association and (twice) from the City and Regional Magazine Association.

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