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Voices / Column

Where do we draw the line between civility and civil disobedience?

Now is the time, if ever there was one in this country, to do the right thing, and doing so includes peacefully protesting evil proclamations, policies, and politicians

Elayne Clift has written about women, health, politics, and social issues since the very earliest days of this newspaper.

Saxtons River

In the recent uproar over civility, it was deeply frustrating to note the absence of civil disobedience in the discussions, and to see the time-honored tradition of leaders like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. being conflated with actions perceived to be rude and unkind.

It was also dangerous, and it was also another sign of the ideology of autocracy being used to quiet resistance when government, and its officials, are doing the wrong thing.

One can argue that shouting in a public space at an agency head whose policies are vile to most Americans is nasty or counterproductive.

But it’s troubling to have that kind of action equated to the quiet, dignified way in which the Red Hen restaurant asked Press Secretary Sarah Sanders to leave the premises because customers and staff were uncomfortable with her presence.

* * *

Civil disobedience is consistent with civility. It is nonviolent and never incites harassment or foul language. It simply calls attention to and peacefully protests uncivil and unjust acts and laws.

As former Vice President Al Gore noted, “Civil disobedience has an honorable history, and when the urgency and moral clarity cross a certain threshold, then I think that civil disobedience is quite understandable, and it has a role to play.”

Peaceful resistance against oppressive regimes is a characteristic of civil disobedience. It’s meant to confront, expose, and end an unruly system being imposed on citizens by the powerful in positions of authority. It is, as Henry David Thoreau said, “the true foundation of liberty.”

Gandhi knew that when he led the famous Salt March in India, and King knew it when he and others led the civil rights movement with marches and sit-ins.

* * *

The demonstrations against the actions and policies of the Trump administration, from the historic Women’s March of January 2017 to the respective protests demanding sensible gun legislation, an end to the Muslim Ban, and now an end to the tragedy of incarcerated children, are all examples of legitimate, desperately needed, and constitutionally protected acts of civil disobedience.

All of these actions were carried out by peaceful protesters, as was the protest in Charlottesville, Va. in August 2017, when 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed by white supremacists marching and shouting slogans like “Jews will not replace us!”

Where was the call for civility then?

Where was it after any of Mr. Trump’s rallies when he has incited vicious verbiage and vile acts?

Where was it when Mr. Trump mimicked a disabled man? Or insulted a gold star family? Or bragged about grabbing women by their genitals?

Where is the demand for civility when Muslims are harassed or attacked, or when swastikas are painted on Jewish schools, synagogues, and gravestones?

Where is the call for civil behavior when police are called because a black person is driving or shopping or simply trying to go home?

What has happened to civil behavior at the borders and in the detention centers (jails) when workers are instructed not to touch or comfort weeping, terrified children?

Why did no talking heads on television or in the mainstream print media insist that civil disobedience be part of the conversation? Surely, at the very least, a debate about where the line should be drawn between civility and appropriate civil disobedience was called for.

* * *

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The time is always right to do the right thing.”

Now is the time, if ever there was one in this country, to do the right thing, and doing so includes peacefully protesting evil proclamations, policies, and politicians.

Autocrats and dictators thrive when they can suppress civil discourse and action, whether by fear and intimidation, trivialization, objectification, or ultimately arrest — all of which have already occurred in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

The first step toward oppression and irreversible autocratic control often appears as attempts to silence protest and attack the press. It begins by calling others vermin and labeling protesters and reporters “uncivil” — all while behaving in the most odious and uncivil ways possible. It’s a cruel irony, and a calculated one. And it must be stopped dead in its tracks.

That’s why we must continue to resist by demonstrating peacefully, in the face of others’ terrifying and terrible behavior, the solidarity and strength of good, kind people whose behavior can only be called brave, decent, respectful, and totally representative of civility.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #470 (Wednesday, August 1, 2018). This story appeared on page E1.

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