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Editors' Picks Opinion

Civility Conceals State Violence

You’d have to have no skin in the game to truly believe that it’s just a game.

I’m responding directly to the opinion piece published in The Politic last Wednesday, “Serving the Trump Administration,” that argued against the actions of Red Hen restaurant staff in denying service to Sarah Huckabee Sanders and advocated, more broadly, for a strengthened commitment to civic unity.

Frequently throughout, the author reduces the destruction championed by Huckabee Sanders to individual, or intellectual matters: “the owner…refused to serve someone whose lifestyle went against her beliefs”; “the refusal of service based on political beliefs is not the way to move forward”; “despite radically different policy ideas, both sides could be united in acknowledging the good faith of the other side.” [emphasis mine]

Herein lies the classic liberal focus on the individual as a standalone political unit, obscuring the fact that we are all implicated in each other’s lives and actions. Yes, Sarah Huckabee Sanders holds intellectual, ethical, historical, and (let’s be realistic) racial beliefs that likely differ from mine, the author’s, and the manager of Red Hen’s, as do millions of other Americans. But what distinguishes her from us is that Huckabee Sanders is a senior official in the White House, a top aide to the President of the United States. Every day, she takes her beliefs and actualizes them; the entire nation is bound to them.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders lies brazenly to the world in the service of a president whose only guiding policy principle seems to be deep and horrifying cruelty. But the state shields its bureaucrats from its violence (which is what deportation, family separation, oppression, warfare, and imperialism undoubtedly are), and Huckabee Sanders will assuredly never be held accountable for her distortions of reality in the service of inhumane policy. The slightest attempts to do so are treated as unacceptable disruptions of the norm.

That’s why people like Kirstjen Nielsen, Stephen Miller, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders can finish a day of visiting unimaginable destruction on other human beings and expect to be welcomed at any restaurant in D.C. It’s why an ordinary civilian shouting in a restaurant at the Secretary of Homeland Security, fresh off a day of ordering that migrant children be ripped from their mothers’ arms, is cast as the uncivil one, the disrupter of order. The order is state violence.

Tavia Nyong’o, a professor at Yale, and Kyla Wazana Tompkins, a professor at Pomona College, have written about the way civility discourse masks the everyday machinations of the government’s violence. They deserve their own block quote:

“Civility is not care, but it pretends to be; civility is the affective shape of administrative violence. It is the velvet glove around the iron claw; it is the rationality of logistics. Civility discourse enforces a false equation between incivility and violence that works to mask everyday violence as a civic norm.”

For many people, to live in the United States is to every day ignore or normalize the horrors that sustain our lives here. That means not thinking too hard about the conditions of the workers picking the grapes we ate for breakfast; not wondering if the cooks who made our cheap meal are being paid fairly; not wanting to know who’s still yearning for the land on which the English built Yale. The daily violence of the Trump Administration, too, is one that many of us have learned to swallow. Most of our lives here are sustained by violence that we do our best to mask, and that is the civil order that “incivility” challenges. It problematizes the notion of neat categorizations: that politics is politics (or activism is activism) and the real world is the real world, and never the twain shall meet.

Saying that the political beliefs and deeds of Trump administration officials are limited to such abstraction —as if politics were a neutered thing, blissfully separate from real people’s lives—and therefore should not affect their acceptance in restaurants and other ostensibly apolitical places is a surrender to the idea that the Trump administration will never face true accountability proportional to the harm it has wrought. It concedes that there are certain types of violence, committed by certain types of people, that we shouldn’t get too riled up about, at least to the point that we’d yell in public. We’d rather not be reminded, while chowing down on a $16 quesadilla in a wealthy part of the Capital, that a child was just ripped from her mother’s breast and one of the many culprits is in our midst. That uncomfortable, yet all the more real, understanding would then demand action, or perhaps a rejection of the violent order that’s given us so much.

Moreover, as a political tactic, incivility (or, as Nyong’o and Wazana Tompkins frame the opposite of civility, militancy) works. Scott Pruitt cited “unrelenting attacks” on him and his family when he resigned from his position as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency soon after a viral video showed him being accosted in a restaurant. This administration is made up of many workers whose morale is key to its speed and efficacy, and making their jobs publicly toxic, making them miserable and their professions socially unacceptable, can restrict the state’s ability to damage.

This debate is not a distraction from “real issues” if done right. We should start by accepting that people on the left have no greater obligation to prevent division or adhere to “E pluribus unum” than does the right, especially considering that the right enjoys immense, near-total power in government. And if those who control the state apparatus are hell-bent on using it to kill and destroy, with little regard for bipartisanship, then those scrambling to protect lives do not need to temper their actions with a misguided adherence to national unity, or with a false dichotomy of separate political and apolitical spheres. The debate over civility is not about restaurant service: it’s about clarifying how much people are willing to resist the U.S. government. It’s a war for people’s lives. Fight, or, at the very least, don’t decry those who do.