Q: First there was Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen being surrounded at a Mexican restaurant in Washington, DC, and driven out by people yelling “Shame!” a day after she defended the administration’s policy of separating children and parents at the southern border. Next it was White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders being asked to leave a Lexington, Virginia, restaurant by the owner. Then there was Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) encouraging people to publicly confront and harass members of the Trump administration in response to family separation policy.
At first I was really thrilled by all this, but then I started having second thoughts. Is that how we, as humanists, should behave?
—Right On, or Wrong Move?
A: Dear Right On,
Humanists or just fellow humans? I had the same initial reaction and immediate second thoughts. Although I agree with the sentiments—abhorrence of the policies that split up families and traumatize young children (not to mention the parents)—and the desire to hold the minions accountable, I don’t think this is an appropriate or laudable approach.
I keep putting the shoe on the other foot: How would I feel if someone read my columns, hated my views, and accosted me during a dinner out with my family? How is this different from the man who hassled a Muslim girl in a coffee shop, or the man who screamed at deli workers who were speaking Spanish to each other? How is it any better than the baker who turned away a gay couple ordering a wedding cake, or the florists who refused to fill an order congratulating a girl for getting a prayer removed from her public high school’s wall? Obviously there’s a difference between accosting someone over their publicly shared views or professional actions and attacking someone simply for being a member of a class of people you disapprove of, but they’re all examples of attack on the basis of categorization rather than individual, personal animus.
Even before I saw the documentary about Mr. Rogers, I have believed it’s better to be a benevolent person than stoop to the level of those with whom we disagree. It’s preferable (and much harder) to counter meanness with kindness, to combat ignorance with enlightenment, to react to violence with nonviolence, to respond to arguments we loathe with an effort to understand where that hatred is coming from—rather than just lobbing back an equal but opposite measure of hatred. I also regret that Samantha Bee’s brilliant juxtaposition of Ivanka Trump cuddling her baby versus immigrants being torn from theirs would have conveyed the point more effectively if she hadn’t used an inflammatory term to make it. (Then again, Bee’s critique wouldn’t have gotten the attention it did if she’d toned down her language.)
Absolutely we should all be doing our part to protest things we think are wrong, whether it’s marching in the streets, writing letters, making phone calls, campaigning for and against candidates, voting, and so forth. But nasty attacks and refusing service make us no better than those who do the same things for different reasons. If I saw Sanders or Nielsen in a restaurant, I might quietly say something to the effect of, “How do you live with yourself?” But I wouldn’t be part of a group driving them out, nor would I encourage business proprietors to refuse anyone because of their principles. That’s not how democracy works, that’s not how our laws work, that’s not how civil society works.
And it’s a slippery slope. First the baker refuses to bake, then the florist refuses to flower, then the diner refuses diners. Where does it stop? Does it really matter what the reasons are, or is it just right or wrong depending on which side of an issue one is on? This kind of behavior will only escalate hostile actions and divisiveness. We should all back away from this kind of discriminating against and shaming people, no matter how justified it may feel. There are better, more constructive ways to express our views and opposition.
The Humanist Dilemma runs every Friday at TheHumanist.com. If you’re experiencing an ethical dilemma or need advice from a humanist perspective, send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. All inquiries are kept confidential.