A fierce defense of incivility

The Tunisian revolution of 2010–11. Photo by khaled abdelmoumen, cc

Peter Beinart at The Atlantic is arguing that “Left-Wing Protests Are Crossing the Line”, looking at the recent protest at Tucker Carlson’s home, and other incidents.

What I find frustrating about this piece, and others like it, is that it makes so little attempt to distinguish between annoying people by telling people how their actions hurt you, and making people feel threatened and unsafe.

Many elected conservatives being opposed are supporting — sometimes by their own admission — an extremely unusually dangerous leader who is uniquely bad for the country. Yet constituents coming up to them and pointing out their own stated position is unacceptably uncouth?

I understand and appreciate that norms of civility are important, and protect all of us. And, I know that norms of incivility — blocking traffic, loud protests, occupying a biz and refusing to leave, bringing your grievances in person — have been crucial in justice movements.

What does a piece like this do to illuminate the landscape of those dual truths? Very, very little. What does it do to obscure them? Quite a lot, I think.

Take Carlson. This is someone who professionally lies for a living, who aggressively spreads hateful propaganda, and may have criminally lied about the actions of protesters in the course of a law enforcement investigation.

I fiercely defend the norm that Carlson should not be threatened with violence. I also defend the norm that defacing his driveway with spray paint should be prosecuted.

But I also fiercely defend the norm that people should be able to attempt to argue with a public figure in public places, and places with right of way.

Especially people who bring legal observers with them, for crying out loud. Beinart quotes protester Alan Pyke as saying part of the point was to unsettle and frighten Carlson and his family.

But Beinart leaves out mention of the sentence that follows Pyke’s admisson, where he argues that reporters such as Beinart are falsely embellishing the case. Beinart leaves out mention of the legal observers and police present. And Beinart leaves out mention that the group made a dozen specific steps to ensure the relative civility of the protest.

And even the word “frighten” is doing double duty here. The powerful certainly have a right not to be in danger. They don’t have a right not to be anxious, worried, unsettled, or pressured. Beinart is fudging these, casting cases of the latter in with the former.

Of course it’s annoying to be protested at your home, and possibly can mask or invite real danger. These situations should be managed reasonably by police, the way protests are sometimes made to relocate to a safe distance. Protesters should not even create the kind of environment where someone might be assaulted.

I appreciate that Beinart is engaging some of this complexity. But by focusing on the most glaring and incivil voices, and editing around the middle ground where important social change so often happens, he obscures that most of this form of protest is not credibly threatening, not destructive, and not out of place.

Norms of civility should not mean that the common people must not address the powerful who prey on them with honest impoliteness, or that they must confine their voices to select times and places.

Independent programmer, chatterbox. http://techno-social.com

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