MLK and Civility in an Era of Shitholes

The president is at it again. This week, in a White House meeting on immigration reform, and just days before the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Mr. Trump apparently let loose with disparaging comments about Haiti and various African nations suffering from natural disasters, poverty, or underdevelopment. He called them “shithole” countries, and he wondered aloud why we should want to invite immigrants from those places, instead of from places like Norway. The comments, confirmed by both Democrats and Republicans in the room, exhibit clear racial undertones, and they continued Mr. Trump’s tendency toward racially ignorant public rhetoric (think Mexican rapists and the “good people” he assumed to be among the white supremacists in Charlottesville). Rather than serving the cause of unity, the president’s remarks further stoked the racial antagonism and injustice that is our national crisis.

For the past decade, I have been writing and speaking about the need for more civility among American leaders and citizens. I define civility as the exercise of patience, humility, integrity, and mutual respect in public life, even (or especially) with those with whom we disagree. Civility is a set of virtues that we need to actively cultivate in each other, in our relationships and our civic institutions, as the public ethos that guarantees the health and effectiveness of democratic politics. (My most recent book argues for a Christian version of these norms that I call forbearance.)  Without this commitment to open and constructive dialogue, rooted in a genuine respect for others as fellow participants in public life, the future of democracy looks grim.

It should be universally obvious (though I suspect it’s not) that the president’s public comments do not serve the cause of civility as public virtue. In fact, Mr. Trump campaigned, won, and governs on an unapologetic platform of hostility toward civility, which he frequently mischaracterizes as “political correctness.” His civility allergy poses a grave challenge to those of us committed to the idea. When the ungracious attitudes that Mr. Trump peddles show themselves in public at the highest levels, how can we be civil toward them? Are we obligated to extend civility to them—to him?

Critics of my insistence on civility argue that responding to the likes of Mr. Trump with patience and mutual respect risks legitimizing his views. They also argue that insisting on civility as the “rules of the game” for public debate seems to rule out public expressions that appear to be less deliberative—and thus less civil—but historically are the best recourse for marginalized citizens with little political power. Social protest, civil disobedience, and prophetic denunciation are forms of public participation whose design gives voice to those located outside society’s normal power structures. They strengthen calls for change precisely because they are strident, caustic, and disruptive to the status quo. Yet these kinds of public participation would seem to lie beyond the accepted parameters of civility as an expression of the deliberative democratic ideal, for they are impatient and impolite forms of expression. To mark them as uncivil effectively codes protests utilized by women, persons of color, and other oppressed communities as irrational, anarchic, excessively emotional, and threatening to social stability, while the leader of the free world aids the cause of marginalization with his own disparaging words.

Is it possible to object to Mr. Trump’s bigotry—even to denounce it and respond to it with social protest—and still remain loyal to the expectations of civility? I think it is, and for wisdom on how to maintain the balance, we need look no further than the man we celebrate this weekend. Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to his theological vision for social protest as the project of becoming “transformed nonconformists,” engaging in modes of social protest that challenge and change, rather than perpetuate, the fundamental social inhumanities that foster political injustice. For King, proper civil disobedience in the name of racial justice originated from a transformed nonconformity that engaged in social disruption out of a commitment to respect the humanity of even the most ardent segregationist, even while unequivocally rejecting the ideals, practices, and structures of racial hatred. Obviously, King not only supported but employed disruptive civil disobedience and social protest in his leadership on civil rights, but he insisted that intention matters, and the intention of even prophetic protest is properly subject to moral scrutiny. Justified prophetic denunciation and civil disobedience should radically disrupt social norms and call out social disorder in ways that reflect the moral ideals to which they aspire.

That means that modes of dissent that use injustice as license to inflict physical harm on person or property or to stoke hatred or intolerance of others may be morally questionable responses to a disordered society. But other kinds of dissent may be provocative, disruptive, and challenging, yet still committed to humility, openness, moral integrity, and respect for the humanity of others. Such social protest would still be defined as civil expressions in my view, and I think King would agree.

According to King’s notion of “transformed nonconformity,” nothing in our aspirations for civility as public virtue prevents us from speaking and acting out against injustice—even calling it for what it is, in this case racial bigotry and callous xenophobia. But we speak that truth with a particular character and intention. Committed to seeing the imago Dei in all people, King was able to embrace the humanity of his opponent even while rejecting his message of racial hatred. “We must recognize,” he wrote, “that the evil deed of the enemy-neighbor, the thing that hurts, never quite expresses all that he is. An element of goodness may be found even in our worst enemy” (King, Strength to Love, p. 51). By virtue of their being children of God and reflections of God’s image, even the most hateful antagonists possess human dignity, which obligates us to reject their values while persisting with the aims of love and reconciliation.

As King admitted, to love another as a child of God does not guarantee that I will necessarily like him: “ ‘Like’ is a sentimental and affectionate word,” he wrote. “How can we be affectionate toward a person whose avowed aim is to crush our very being and place innumerable stumbling blocks in our path?” (King, Strength to Love, p. 52).  I must admit that I do not like Mr. Trump, at least not what I have seen from his media omnipresence the last couple of years. But love challenges us to transcend mere liking, for it is animated by “redemptive goodwill” and reconciliation. Love challenges me to speak out against Trump’s beliefs and actions while I hope for a time of greater mutual respect. That hope energizes the persistence it takes to maintain civility in an age dominated by views I find reprehensible and ideas and attitudes that cut to the heart of who I think we are as Americans and the principles we hold dear.

A commitment to civility does not undermine the challenge of power and struggle for justice. In fact, civility’s aspirations for truly participatory democracy are arguably most important when society is disordered, for its virtues signal to us the extent to which we have deviated from the ideals of just citizenship. The ideal of political patience measures unfavorably a society in which public discourse is consistently divisive, or where segments of the citizenry effectively are silenced in deference to the power of a privileged few. The virtue of humility chastens a society that does not take sufficient advantage of its diversity by creating systems, structures, and opportunities that ensure a wide range of voices and perspectives will be heard. The norm of political integrity indicts a society in which character assassination reigns over substantive debate, or where facts are distorted or abandoned for political advantage. The virtue of mutual respect makes clear the disease in not only hateful political rhetoric, but also in institutions and practices that disempower and disenfranchise citizens who have the right to participate in democratic life.

In sum, civility’s attention to the ideals of deliberative democracy recognizes and names political disorder, amplifies the need for social reform, and provides us with the vision, measure, and language by which we might constructively critique the “new normal.” Considered as a component of King’s transformed nonconformity, civility shapes righteous efforts at social reform, so that they internalize the very measure of the good society to which they aspire. But when used as a measure of the leadership we’ve seen on display this week, the virtues of civility also lay bare just how far we have fallen from the ideals of moral democracy.