A Plea for Civility


I have mentioned that I occasionally enjoy attending liberal protests. Partly this is for the circus like atmosphere they often acquire, and partly because I want to routinely remind myself what the most passionate members of the other side believe so I do not get trapped in a conservative bubble.

Last night I went to a protest outside the White House that opposes Trump’s executive order temporarily suspending refugee programs from certain countries. This is an issue that I had not made up my mind about, mostly because there is so much conflicting information it is not clear what the real policy is.

The plan last night was to go to the rally, hear what people firmly opposed to the new policy had to say, and then maybe write a blog post about their views. That plan was completely upended when I made the decision to open my mouth and ask a question.

As I moved around the outskirts of the rally, I noticed a Trump supporter talking to a protester. Since this back and forth of competing ideas was exactly what I had come to hear, I, along with a few protesters, gravitated towards the conversation and listened in. Both women were having a nice if pointed debate, when a third woman walked over and began shouting at the Trump supporter that the new president is a racist and a fascist, and the executive order is “step three towards genocide” and the Trump supporter is “an abominable human being.” This outburst was met with a round of applause, and the Trump supporter then walked away to jeers. (video here)

That is when I made the fateful decision to ask the angry woman how she defines fascism. At first she gave me an oddly specific definition of fascism that included Steve Bannon working in the White House. Since there have been fascist governments that did not employ Steve Bannon, I asked for a broader definition that could be applied anywhere in the world. She then went too broad and said fascism is a “right-wing authoritarian” government. All of that is debatable, but I could not get very far because this woman I had met just a few minutes ago loudly informed me that I am also a fascist.

It felt like a bad parody of Oprah Winfrey

oprah-fascist

At this point, another protester interjected and agreed that the yelling and name calling was not warranted. The two of us had a nice conversation for a few minutes where we found some common ground, until another protester asked me why I am afraid of Muslims. I cannot stress enough that the whole time I was at the protest I did not say one word in support of Trump’s policy. The closest I came to speaking in favor of it was to say I had not yet made up my mind. But I disagreed that it was “step three towards genocide” in a fascist America, so many of the protesters felt comfortable extrapolating my whole worldview from that.

Although I can understand why the Trump supporter had left, I refused to be intimidated or back down when insulted, so this pattern repeated itself several times. Someone would call me a fascist, then a rational person would interrupt and we’d have a a productive conversation. Inevitably someone else couldn’t handle something I said and would tell me I don’t believe in science. Back to the reasonable people. Now I’m told I shouldn’t fear Muslims. Reasonable people again. “Trump is a dictator!” Rinse. Repeat.

Now, I love political combat, so this is motivation to me. I’m a bit perverse that way. But I imagine most people are like the Trump supporter I mentioned at the beginning of this story: they are willing to talk, but insult and yell at them and they walk away. That might be cathartic for the person doing the yelling, but are they going to convince anyone to change their minds?

I will end this with a simple plea to both sides: recognize that the vast majority of those on the other side are good and decent people with whom you have a disagreement. Yes, we are often debating incredibly significant issues that sometimes reach to the core values we wish to see guide our nation. But doesn’t that make it even more important to convince your political opponents to switch sides instead of berating them until they are more firmly entrenched in their position? Whether it is over Facebook, Twitter, or those occasional times we discuss politics face to face, please, let’s do so with some civility and recognition that on the other side are political opponents, not the enemy.