Sarah Huckabee Sanders: Dining and Deceit

 

“We just felt there are moments in time when people need to live their convictions. This appeared to be one.”

I live in Lexington, a small town in southwestern Virginia that used to be rather sleepy but has been awakened (but far from “woke”) by several incidents over the past few years. These include a successful campaign to have the Lexington City Council prohibit flying the Confederate flag from city flagpoles (2011), a protest by students from the Washington and Lee University School of Law to have Confederate flags removed from the university’s Lee Chapel (2014), the 2017 and 2018 Martin Luther King, Jr., parades sponsored by the Community Anti-Racism Effort (CARE), and the racist events in Charlottesville on August 11-12, 2017 (*see a related Gender Shrapnel Blog post here).

Many of you have heard by now that Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a popular Lexington restaurant, the Red Hen, on Friday night.  This well-known, highly-respected farm-to-table restaurant, owned by 22-year Lexington resident Stephanie Wilkinson, employs a small crew of talented chefs, managers, and wait staff, whose culinary work has been featured in The Washington Post, Southern Living, The Wall Street Journal, The Roanoke Times, Edible Blue Ridge, and Virginia Living.  The restaurant is small and elegant, and its owner makes every effort to honor farming traditions of the Shenandoah Valley.  The staff is known for special touches, such as little anniversary cards for celebrating couples or a delicious birthday treat for an unsuspecting customer.  The restaurant not only tries to get it right; it does get it right, and it has done so for ten years.  Such is the case in the owner’s actions of this past Friday night.  I will get to this point in a moment.

Our community has demonstrated on many occasions the high esteem in which it holds Stephanie Wilkinson, who has advocated for small business development and has worked tirelessly to raise funds, write grants, and organize community events to make Lexington both a wonderful place to live and an inviting place to visit.  Small towns can experience great struggles to thrive, and this is certainly the case for small towns with small colleges whose students are away three or four months of the year.  Such a town flourishes only with real vision, community connections, and disciplined work.  Our little town has thrived in no small part due to Stephanie Wilkinson’s work and planning.

On a more personal note, I have rarely met a smarter, more generous, or more measured person.  Stephanie has a kind word for everyone, and she cares about the well-being of people she knows and doesn’t know.  That is why it is not surprising that Stephanie Wilkinson’s words in yesterday’s Washington Post article reflect her kindness and ethical standards: “I explained that the restaurant has certain standards that I feel it has to uphold, such as honesty, and compassion, and cooperation.”  The Washington Post piece carefully portrays Wilkinson’s equanimity in this tense situation: she spoke to her staff to understand their preferences; she considered Huckabee Sanders’ record as a purveyor of untruths for the Trump administration; she discreetly asked Huckabee Sanders to speak with her on the patio; she asked Huckabee Sanders to leave and explained why she was doing so; she charged Huckabee Sanders’ party nothing; she left it at that.

In summary, Wilkinson confronted a tense situation with thoughtfulness and grace, applying her own ethical standards and explaining the rationale.  I wish we all gave such full, careful thought to the world around us and made such brave decisions on behalf of ourselves, our employees, and our communities.

At this particular moment, individuals who identify as LGBTQIA see their own rights limited through ever-changing and unjust legislation concerning transgender rights in the military, service in stores, and Title IX.  LGBTQIA individuals are a protected group under several United States laws, especially Title VII.  (*See this useful site from Harvard University for more information on equal opportunity laws.)  While I have heard people near and far declare that Huckabee Sanders also deserves to be served, she does not belong to a protected category under civil rights law.  The category she does belong to is one of great privilege in a highly polarizing administration that is currently waging an immigration war on children and their parents. (*See this short video [Washington Post] of Huckabee Sanders in which she both justifies family separations and tells the journalist who has asked the question that he might not be able to understand long sentences.) Huckabee Sanders’ role as presidential and GOP spin-master makes her an extremely powerful person in our government, one whose lies have been documented time and again.  (*See this op-ed from The Boston Globe, this one from Politico, and many other news pieces from periodicals such as The Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, and The San Francisco Chronicle.)

Yesterday, Huckabee Sanders issued a tweet that revealed how well she has mastered the spin machine.  She says that she always tries to treat people respectfully, even the ones she disagrees with.  If you watch the video cited above, you will see Huckabee Sanders, on June 14, treat a journalist with great disrespect.  In her tweet, she used the name of the restaurant to impugn Wilkinson’s reputation and to use her government-issued power to cast the restaurant in a negative light.  Huckabee Sanders’ father, Mike Huckabee, similarly used his political power to pile on in his own tweet.  Walter Shaub, known as the expert on government ethics violations, tweeted yesterday that he saw Huckabee Sanders’ tweets as a clear violation of 5 CFR 2635.702(a), “referencing the law that states government employees cannot use public office for private gain,” as reported in this piece from The Hill.

The Huckabee daughter-father tweets are an unethical use of political office to bully and harass, in the most public of media, a private citizen and business owner.  Compare this to a quiet conversation on the Red Hen patio and an assurance that the bill was covered—a simple act that reveals how a person stands by her staff and her own belief in the public good.  Those who say that Wilkinson should have been silent reinforce how civility codes fortify the status quo.  (*See this related piece and this one in the Gender Shrapnel Blog.)

Some people who have come to Lexington this weekend in some odd attempt to protect Sarah Huckabee Sanders, one of the most powerful individuals in the land, are waving the Confederate flag and praising the KKK.  This flag, which has so consistently demonstrated hatred of African-American individuals and signaled neofascist tendencies and whose symbolism has so marked this town, has resurfaced in the Huckabee hullabaloo.  A fake website pretending to be a downtown historical association has also followed the Huckabee Sanders spin machine, empowered by the press secretary’s tweet and expanding her network of spin, subterfuge, and slander.

The Red Hen’s owner acted quickly, forthrightly, gently, and morally, and she explained her actions thoroughly and thoughtfully in the Washington Post piece.  I wish our town, state, and country had more role models like her.

Stop Soft-Pedaling Rape and Rapists

(From elconfidencial.es)

Many of you have read about the resolution of a criminal case in Spain last week.  The case, described thoroughly in this The Guardian article from last Thursday and this December, 2017, article from El País, involves an 18-year-old woman who was at the Pamplona Running of the Bulls (“los sanfermines”) on July 7, 2016, and was approached by five men in the early hours of the morning.  They offered to walk her to her car, but instead took her to a lobby of a nearby building, where they raped her and filmed the gang rape on their cell phones.  One man stole the woman’s cell phone before leaving the scene of the attack.  The five men, self-named “La Manada,” or, “The Wolf Pack,” planned and filmed the attack.

Last week, the five attackers were not convicted of rape, but of “sexual abuse,” a decision that brought a lesser punishment of nine years in prison (five years to probation) and a 10,000-euro fine.  One of the magistrates, Ricardo González, deemed that the event was consensual from start to finish.  His questions and comments sexualize, rather than criminalize, the case, thus demonstrating his inability to make fair judgment and the ease with which more than insensitive legal actors can influence outcomes and retraumatize individuals attacked in violent cases.  In addition to harming the survivor, the blame-the-victim line of questioning does further harm to any person who has experienced such violence.  The distinction made by the Spanish law and the court, in this case, is that sexual abuse does not involve violence or intimidation.  Upon hearing the decision, thousands in Spanish cities big and small took to the streets, in a wave of protest, to decry the utterly unjust verdict and the revictimization of the young woman who survived the brutal attack. (*See the BBC’s report of the protests here.)

Were any of you stuck in the last paragraph at the mention of “sexual abuse does not involve violence or intimidation?”  First of all, I would think that both sexual abuse and sexual violence involve violence and intimidation and that the impulse to distinguish one from the other here is an impulse to say that boys will be boys and, well, rape just happens.  Second, when a single person, armed with only a cell phone, is surrounded, stripped of her clothing, and raped by five grown men in a building lobby, we can clearly say that person is being both intimidated and violated.  It is sheer insanity to say otherwise. Saying otherwise reveals the depth of our (us, our cultures, our laws, the people we know) willingness to allow violent, insecure men to take and keep control of others.

At the very least, this case is forcing Spanish legislators to reckon with these laws and is demonstrating how thousands of Spaniards are willing to protest this toxic masculinity embedded in the law.  Protests of “No is No,” “We are All the Wolfpack,” “I Do Believe You, Sister,” and “Justice Now” contribute to a public display that might help to move the legislative needle in the centuries-overdue right direction.  The President of the High Tribunal for Justice in Navarra, Joaquín Galve, has criticized protesters for being out of control, and yet has no comments about the out-of-control verdict handed down last week.  This is yet another case of embracing a centuries-old status quo and blaming the wrong group of people—those who are appropriately protesting profoundly unjust laws. (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post on the status quo, this one on civility codes, this one on rape as violence against a real person with a real body, and this one on gender-based violence in Spain and elsewhere.)

As were many people, I was particularly touched to see a group of Carmelite nuns from the north of Spain write and post a communiqué on Facebook to protest the decision and express support for the young woman in the case.  According to this piece (the translation is pretty close to what I read in the original Facebook post in Spanish), the nuns write: “We live in closure, we wear a habit almost up to our ankles, we do not go out at night (more than to the Emergency Department), we do not go to parties, we do not drink alcohol and we have taken a vow of chastity.  And because it is a FREE option, we will defend with all means within our reach (this is one) the right of all women to FREELY do otherwise without being judged, raped, intimidated, killed or humiliated for it.”

I will leave it to Spanish critics to determine the significance, if any, of the occasion of the sanfermines, a runaway seven-day fiesta that caters largely to foreign tourists wanting to drink until dawn and then run the streets with the bulls.  Perhaps this celebrated tradition has a deep-rooted masculinity at its core that has dictated to young men that bulls and women are to be taunted, maimed, and killed.

No expert in Spanish law, I still believe that legislators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges have a long way to go in terms of understanding how legal precedents based in the Napoleonic Code (think of Emilia Pardo Bazán’s tremendous short story, “El indulto” [“The Stay of Execution”], which criticizes both perpetrators and legal codes designed to allow them to keep committing crimes) dictate patriarchal power that continues to be extremely difficult to undo in the courts.  In addition, lack of representation of women in powerful legal and judicial positions (*see this 2017 article with statistics) limits the likelihood that new perspectives will be introduced and taken seriously, thus confounding the initial problem of legal history and stagnation in legal reform.  On-the-spot protests like we see happening throughout Spain, along with sustained protest movements like “Ni Una Menos” in Latin America, must continue to gather steam, push legislators and judges, and change the deep acceptance of gender-based violence still so prevalent in this 21st century.

Rape is rape, not “sexual abuse.” Rapists are rapists, not “sexual abusers.”  Let’s call it what it is, ensure there are real consequences for the crime, and effect lasting cultural change.

Charlottesville (and Lexington)

(Photographs of “flaggers” in Lexington, Virginia)

If the events in Charlottesville did nothing else, they made clear to multitudes of people who somehow weren’t yet sure that, since the nation’s inception, we in the United States have created and sustained in overt and covert ways profound systems of oppression—especially of black and brown individuals and communities and Jewish peoples.

The flood of articles, interviews, longer magazine pieces, and more informal posts on social media take our nation, and especially and appropriately white people, to task for ignoring realities and/or taking no action in the face of awareness, and they reveal the many gulfs of levels of belief and understanding between and among us.  Sherman Alexie’s poem “Hymn” speaks beautifully to the sadness and complexities of our current moment; “Renegade Mama” reminds white women that “This is definitely us” (meaning we are complicit in the system of oppression); Ijeoma Oluo’s piece on The Establishment gives practical advice on battling white supremacy; the UVa Graduate Student Coalition published “The Charlottesville Syllabus” to teach us about “the long history of white supremacy in Charlottesville, Va.”; presidents of academic organizations and universities and mayors, congresspeople, and governors have made statements about Charlottesville to condemn white supremacists and their umbrella groups.  This video clip of Toni Morrison on the Charlie Rose Show in 1993 has also recently made the rounds on social media.  Of course, we all know that our oppressor-in-chief was prepared from the very start of his term (and seemingly throughout his life) to support white supremacist groups.

I am a white woman who still has a lot to learn about the history of monuments, the rise of white supremacist groups, and the daily dangers, obstacles, and challenges in the life of people of color living in the United States.  I am writing about Charlottesville this week because I cannot think or write about anything else (except for the additional tragedy of the events in Barcelona and Cambrils), nor can I sleep, nor can I feel safe for friends, oppressed communities, or my own family.  In this blog post I’m going to provide cultural context to my own living situation and then list briefly the major issues that I have seen underscored in the week since white domestic terrorists armed themselves to the teeth, marched triumphantly through various areas of Charlottesville, chanted vile words against African Americans, Jewish people, women, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and killed peaceful activist Heather Heyer and injured many more.

I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, where I always wondered at the lack of nuance in official discussions about Thomas Jefferson and at the banal insistence on putting a Jefferson quote on every building stone and t-shirt.  For 20 years I have lived in Lexington, Virginia, home to Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University.  Lexington continues to confront its own problematic history of slavery, the Civil War, complicity with Jim Crow laws and culture, civil rights struggles in the 1950s and 60s, and present-day conflicts about what the city does or can represent.  This week there has been discussion here among knowledgeable and generous people of generating a “Lexington Syllabus” to make more transparent the conflicted history of white supremacy in this town.

VMI was founded in 1839.  Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson taught at VMI and is kept alive in the town through the following: his statue at VMI; his gigantic tomb, flanked by those of other Confederate soldiers, at the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery; the Stonewall Jackson House; the Stonewall Jackson Hospital (where my two children were born); Stonewall Street; Jackson Street; even Jackson’s horse, Sorrel, is stuffed and housed at the VMI Museum.

Washington and Lee University was founded in 1749.  As you can tell by the name, the university was named for its founders, two of the most famous generals (the “Generals” are also the mascot of the university) of United States History.  As president of the school from 1865-70, Robert E. Lee lived on the university campus.  “Lee House” is the name of the presidential residence at W&L.  The university’s chapel is Lee Chapel, in the basement of which you can find the crypt of Lee and several family members.  Even his horse, Traveller, is buried right outside the chapel.  A famous statue of Lee literally occupies center stage in Lee Chapel.  This statue is called “Recumbent Lee,” but I usually call it “Incumbent Lee,” because it feels as if he’s always about to return to the university presidency.  Besides W&L’s numerous reminders of Lee, the town of Lexington boasts the RE Lee Episcopal Church, the Robert E. Lee Hotel and Lee Street.

The university has celebrated Lee as just another one of its presidents.  In 2006, the incoming president of W&L said this about Lee: “Then of course, there is Robert E. Lee, assuming the leadership of Washington College after the Civil War. Offered numerous other opportunities, Lee chose a college presidency because it was the only option that allowed him to help bind the wounds of a divided nation. If the United States was to recover from the devastation and moral wounds of the Civil War, the healing had to begin with education. We build upon the legacy of Lee, the educator, with an ongoing commitment to educating citizens and leaders for a complex world.” (Here is a piece that president wrote almost six years later, more nuanced, but still adopting a rehabilitative view of Lee.)  Ultimately, though, this president did take down the Confederate flags that were displayed on the W&L campus.  If I recall correctly, the university (where I teach) has also sponsored exhibitions and workshops of “Lee the Educator.”  When I interviewed at W&L on a January Monday, the university was celebrating “Founders’ Day” (Washington and Lee), while the rest of the nation celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr., Day.

In the Gender Shrapnel Blog, I’ve written on several occasions about the oppressive nature of civility codes and the problematic silencing of so-called identity politics.  I suspect that this week’s post will be unpopular among some groups of my town and university, but I also think we must face the hypocrisies we continue to foment as we fear airing the dirty laundry of our past and present.  Four years ago, W&L rightly determined that it would publicly reckon with the institution’s slave-owning past.  To do so, the institution placed an historical marker on the side of Robinson Hall on the university’s historic Colonnade to show that donor John Robinson had been the owner of 84 enslaved people and to name those 84 individuals.  This marker was visible from my office window, and I was glad to see even the smallest nod towards understanding that W&L had benefited from the ownership and labor of enslaved peoples.  At the same time, renovation of the entire Colonnade was nearing its end, supported in large part by a big donation from W&L alumnus and former trustee Warren Stephens.  Stephens has been listed as part of the Wall Street fraternity not-so-slyly named Kappa Beta Phi.  In a 2014 article in New York Magazine, Kevin Roose recounts his infiltration of the group’s big annual event, which featured Stephens and his “fraternity brothers” doing skits.  Roose writes, “Warren Stephens, an investment banking CEO, took the stage in a Confederate flag hat and sang a song about the financial crisis, set to the tune of “Dixie.” (“In Wall Street land we’ll take our stand, said Morgan and Goldman. But first we better get some loans, so quick, get to the Fed, man.”).”  This link from the Arkansas Times used to contain a link to the audio of the performance.  As I recall, the New York Magazine piece originally included video coverage of the event, but that has also been removed.  This Salon piece comments on Stephens’ link to the Confederate flag, and extrapolates to a discussion of Wall Street’s ties with the Confederacy.

While the historical marker for 84 enslaved people is found to the side of one of the buildings on W&L’s historic Colonnade, Warren Stephens is honored with not one, but two, rectangular stones, placed right on the Colonnade itself—one at either end of the brick-lined walk.  Stephens frames the Colonnade, and W&L’s enslaved peoples are tucked to the side.  There is still much work to do in terms of the semiotics of remembrance, reckoning, and reconciliation.

One of the Lexington citizens who led the way to make illegal displays of the Confederate flag in public spaces used to own the house I live in.  Groups of “flaggers” still drive by our house every year throughout Martin Luther King Day Weekend and, on occasion, they hop out of their cars, 30-40 women, men, and children abreast, line up by the curb in the front of our house, wave their Confederate flags, and sing “Dixie.”  (See photos of this, above.) They also remark at the “Latinos for Obama,” “End Crooked Districts,” “Safe Space,” and “Take Back the House” bumper stickers on our 21-year-old car.  These are the days we don’t allow our children to walk home from school or go outside without us.

Three days ago, as the town worried about increased activity and potential for violence, especially given the events in Charlottesville, the U.S. “president’s” continued support of white supremacist groups, and our proximity to Charlottesville, I heard myself say to my daughter, “The flaggers are out.  Please be careful after school.”  After I said this, I realized how normal such a statement had become and thought about how that statement must feel more acute and necessary in homes of black and brown residents of our town.

This week my mind has done daily roundtrips between Charlottesville and Lexington.  The major issues that keep popping up include (but are by no means limited to):

-Real violence and real threats of violence being enacted by white domestic terrorists on communities of color and their allies;

-White House cultivation and support of these groups, including Neo-Nazis, Neo-Confederates, and the KKK;

-Discussion of white supremacy, systems of oppression, our nation’s history as the present, and the need for greater awareness and action, especially on the part of white people;

-Awareness of increased tensions for Jewish peoples and women as well;

-The clash between the 1st and 2nd Amendments; how to protect free speech and the right to assembly when weapons of war are used against us;

-Monuments and memorials (See Barton Myers’ interview in the Los Angeles Times);

-Complicated conversations among people on the left, revealing some intersectional and generational splits, or rifts; a recognition of the need for more education, dialogue, and action on the issue of white supremacy.

Our “president” is both a symptom of and a catalyst for oppressive systems that have been in place here in this nation for centuries.  His “vice president” can’t be much better.  Therefore, even an accelerated change in the leadership of the White House to an entirely different administration won’t reduce or eliminate white supremacy.  We citizens have to do it, and we’ll need to do so with a multi-pronged approach.  This should include firmness about the terms we use, the legal implications of the 2nd Amendment and the powerful NRA lobby, the monuments we remove, and the hours we devote.  We also need a heightened understanding of the politics and ethos of non-violent protest.  And we need to show up. The resources are out there.  It’s time to read, learn, and act.

The Stifling Status Quo

Name some things you take for granted.  For example, if you’re speeding down the highway and are stopped by a police officer, are you sure you’ll just be asked about your speeding?  Are you certain you won’t experience violence at the traffic stop?  Are you sure you won’t be killed?  Do you feel like you can automatically trust the officer to assess the situation and have everyone’s best interests at heart?  Another example: Can you walk down the street without someone yelling something about your body?  Can you walk down the street and not have to wonder if you or your children are safe?  Can you walk down the street and hold hands with whomever you like? A more minor example: If you’re in a meeting at work and you make an informed recommendation, are you sure you’ll get credit for it?  Will you be considered astute or arrogant to have made the suggestion?  Will anyone else make the suggestion after you and then get credit for it?  Another one:  If you bring up race or gender shrapnel, will you be perceived as overly dramatic or overly sensitive?  Do you even need to bring up race or gender shrapnel just to make it to the next day or moment?

If you don’t have to be wary of any of the situations listed above, from the most threatening to the least, you are pretty damned lucky.  You don’t ever have to think twice.  You walk through life feeling comfortable all the time.  Your presence is considered “normal.” You live what you think is everyone’s status quo because you have experienced this comfortable-all-the-time feeling every day of your life.  This is profound privilege, a word whose semantic weight matters now more than ever.  The privilege might come from your being white or being perceived as white.  It might come from your being a man or being perceived to be a man.  It might come from the perception that you are heterosexual.  It might come from perceived wealth or from physical stature.

You have the privilege of being annoyed by other people who call your attention to privilege.  You think other people are doing this all the time, but, really, other people are doing this about 1/16 of the time they could be doing it, up from 1/2000 from decades ago.  You think other people need to just get over themselves, that things can’t be that bad, that it’s impolite or uncivil to throw things like race, gender, and sexual orientation in your face.

The government and media messages after 9/11 made it difficult (unpatriotic) to criticize war and impossible to criticize soldiers (“I’m against the war, not the soldiers.”). The lives of black women and men are endangered in our public spheres, but somehow any critique of the situation or visible protest is turned into an anti-police or anti-blue lives message.  Those who are oppressed continue to be the ones who must seek remedies, rather than having all of us recognize and rectify wrongs.  The embrace of the status quo and the fear of loss of privilege convert legitimate, significant protests into marginalized complaints of marginalized peoples.  They reinforce our systems of oppression and ignore data, critical thinking, and a clear and consistent need for change.

Everything I’ve said here is obvious to many people I know.  Critical race theorists and gender studies experts have done excellent work on perceptions of the status quo and maintenance of privilege.  Critical Race Theory for years has made clear that the law, based on precedents handed down from case to case over centuries, bears its own biases and delivers its own blunt reinforcement of the status quo.  When my husband and I bought a house in a predominantly white and socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhood, on settlement day we were struck by two old-time elements of status quo.  The first was receiving the deed to our new house.  The deed stated, in no uncertain terms, that the house could not be sold to anyone not of the Caucasian race.  We were undone by this and could not sign the deed to the house.  We then had to consult with a lawyer, who said it would take tens of thousands of dollars to dig back through all the deeds and change the record.  We finally settled on drafting a new document that would always accompany the deed to undo the status quo that others had just left there.  This cost us extra money and time—just to undo a racist status quo of decades (maybe centuries, for the neighborhood in general).  The second was needing to pick up the mortgage check from my employer (from whom we had the good fortune of receiving a mortgage benefit).  The check was made out to my husband, who was not and is not an employee of the institution.  For all the paperwork and tax documentation to work out correctly, the check needed to be made out to an actual employee of the institution, who happened to be a woman married to a man.  We were delayed again in changing the institution’s understanding of status quo (the money goes to the man, even if his name is different from the actual employee who is to receive the benefit).

This is why I roll my eyes when I’m told that not everything is about race or gender (right—it isn’t if you have the luxury of not having to think about it), when I’m told that this pope is wonderful, even though he won’t even begin to address the question of women in church leadership, when Wimbledon finally pays women and men equally, but still gives men carte blanche to Centre Court, and when we’re told that only Fox News can take down the “president” (7-5-17 The New York Times op-ed).

The status quo is a lumbering tank, a heavy wagon, a toppled scale of justice.

For some of you, it is just the air you breathe and the water you swim in.

P.S. My daughter points out that, if “High School Musical” can question the status quo, then we all can!

Civility

A few months ago, I delivered an impromptu anti-Trump rant at the dinner table.  The rant was rambling.  It covered the imprudent proposal to repeal the ACA, racist and anti-immigrant policies, sexist comments, and a general and increasing concern about the candidate’s sanity.  When I finished, my daughter said scoldingly, “Mo-oooom.  Opinions!”  I retorted, “Yes, I have a few.”  My daughter’s comment and rolling eyes shouldn’t surprise any of us who know what 12-year-olds are about, and I appreciate my daughter’s sense of challenge and feistiness.  At the same time, I do wonder if her desire for me to express fewer opinions comes from the social inculcation of a woman’s place, niceness, and civility, all of which seem to nudge people to make women “behave.”  Like most young people, my daughter is learning to navigate gendered impositions of speech and silence, while also figuring out how to police these very same elements.

The exchange reveals how we can feel discomfort when we hear strongly stated opinions and how that discomfort can result in an urge to silence another person.  We have likely all silenced a person or an idea, as we instinctively protect dearly-held beliefs and opinions and/or an internally set sense of how things should be said or done.  In other words, we have a built-in sense of civility and its relevance to certain social or political contexts.  Popular culture breaks with some of these gendered norms, but often at a cost.  For example, Leslie Jones starred as part of the all-star cast of the remake of “Ghostbusters” but suffered a ridiculous chain of insults based on her race and gender.  The racism and misogyny of those who criticized her probably stemmed in part from their desire to remember “Ghostbusters” as a dude-centered and incredibly successful ‘80’s movie.  The intrusion of women, including a woman of color, on that hallowed ground of pop culture stirred anger and hostility directed primarily at the person whose profile is the most apparently intersectional.

What is civility, if not a list of rules to live by?  Who writes the rules, and who suffers more if they break them?  At Billboard’s Women in Music event back in December, Madonna addressed gender disparities in the music industry:  “Thank you for acknowledging my ability to continue my career for 34 years in the face of blatant sexism and misogyny and constant bullying and relentless abuse.” She discussed her muse, David Bowie, who “embodied male and female spirit” and “made me think there were no rules. But I was wrong. There are no rules – if you’re a boy. There are rules if you’re a girl.”

Those rules are as follows: “If you’re a girl, you have to play the game. You’re allowed to be pretty and cute and sexy. But don’t act too smart. Don’t have an opinion that’s out of line with the status quo. You are allowed to be objectified by men and dress like a slut, but don’t own your sluttiness. And do not, I repeat do not, share your own sexual fantasies with the world. Be what men want you to be, but more importantly, be what women feel comfortable with you being around other men. And finally, do not age. Because to age is a sin. You will be criticised and vilified and definitely not played on the radio” (cited in The Guardian, 12-12-16). Traditional race and gender norms rely on codes of civility for their survival.  The more we follow civility rules and tacitly or explicitly police others’ behaviors, the more we reinforce the damaging status quo of oppression.

At many universities with honor codes or systems, the word ‘civility’ accompanies the word ‘honor,’ thus recalling centuries-old (millennia-old) systems of behaviors based on expectations of gendered norms and scripts and enforcing those norms with a code of civility, which silences anything or anyone approaching reasoned protest.  In fact, my institution still uses the phrase “conduct unbecoming a gentleman,” thus entrenching behavioral codes and implying that those who break them (according to whom?) are somehow less attractive, less lovely, less in the box in which they belong.  We have to question more fully why it is considered “unattractive” to call out injustice and ask for change.

The questioning of civility codes often falls disproportionately on those who have less power in hierarchical situations, thus allowing the people with more power to retain it in what appears to be a morally superior, more “becoming” way.  Steven Mintz, a professor from Cal Poly who calls himself the “Ethics Sage,” wrote this 2012 blog post about civility.  Mintz contributes to the entrenchment of gendered civility scripts by expressing surprise that girls and women are also capable of civil “mayhem”:  “Have you checked out You Tube lately? More and more we see video clips of teenagers attacking one another and there seems to be a marked increase in girls getting involved in the mayhem. I suppose such actions were the motivation for the Oxygen network developing a television program called Bad Girls Club that is in its sixth season.  Sigh.”  He concludes the post by saying, “Civil discourse was an important value to our founding fathers. Perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best: ‘There can be no high civility without a deep morality.’”

There were founding fathers who owned slaves and raped women, which should tell us once again to question postures of moral superiority cloaked as civility.

People should have stark opinions, and disagreement should make us stronger.  I want us to have a thoughtful rationale for those very opinions, a rationale that has taken into account data and multiple viewpoints.  I want us to state opinions thoughtfully but also forthrightly, and this is a lifelong challenge for most of us.  I want opinions not to translate into universal truths that end up harming people and our planet.

This means that I want Trump to get the hell off Twitter (I know, “Mooo-ooom.  Opinions!”) and for us to dismantle his platform of selfishness, lies, and violence.  How can we have these conversations in a respectful way that doesn’t water down the real danger that many of us observe and feel and doesn’t silence individuals or groups?  Is it more “civil” to maintain an unfair status quo by silencing others or to voice unequivocally what is wrong with the status quo?

(See this 5-11-2003 NPR piece on George Washington and civility.)