Is incivility a just response to cruelty?

Is it right to disrupt a prominent public official’s otherwise quiet dinner at a restaurant, even if she is the co-architect of a governmental policy that many claim is cruel and immoral? It’s not a hypothetical question, as the recent experience of U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen illustrates. Devra First writes for the Boston Globe:

On Tuesday night, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was heckled by protesters as she ate dinner at MXDC Cocina Mexicana in D.C. “Shame! Shame!” they shouted repeatedly. “End family separation! If kids don’t eat in peace, you don’t eat in peace.”

What they were referring to, of course, was the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents at the border. Nielsen, as a Globe editorial recently said, was the face of that policy. And here she was at a Mexican restaurant, albeit one run by Todd English (chef de cuisine Juan “JC” Pavlovich is a native of Mexico).

The protesters were political activists who oppose the Trump Administration’s immigration policies. Here’s the video of their interruption of Secretary Nielsen’s dinner, posted to Facebook:

Widespread, bipartisan criticism and outrage, including an unusual and strong opinion piece by former First Lady Laura Bush in the Washington Post (calling the Trump policy “cruel” and “immoral”), have forced the Trump administration to call a halt to its child separation policy. However, this comes too late for a few thousand kids and their families already separated. To its great shame, the administration never bothered to put in place a logistical plan to reunite these families. So these poor people are still in limbo, and for now the kids will remain in various camps, cages, and buildings, most of which were never designed for child care.

Child psychology experts have likened the administration’s policy to child abuse and opined that many of the kids will live with the resulting psychological trauma for years.

And what of dinner interruptus?

Devra First (quoted above) is not a political writer; she’s the Globe‘s food and restaurant critic. However, she sees the significance of protest in places where we normally gather to enjoy food and drink:

Restaurants are where we set aside our differences and come together at the table. Yet — or perhaps thus — such venues are also ideal theaters for protest. It is easy to see that black men are the ones who get the cops called on them while waiting for friends at Starbucks. It is easy to see that same-sex couples are the ones to whom bakeries refuse to sell wedding cakes.

Those who work in the food industry are uniquely positioned — and uniquely entitled — to advocate for immigrants. After all, their businesses depend on the people Trump says threaten to “infest” this country.

How one sees the administration’s immigration policies — as either a significant moral outrage or an instance of politics & policy on the edge — may well predict how one feels about protesters loudly interrupting Secretary Nielsen’s gourmet Mexican dinner.

In normal instances, I strongly prefer civility over incivility. But I don’t regard this as a normal disagreement over public policy; I see it as a cruel and willful disregard of basic human dignity that already constitutes a shameful chapter in American history. Nielsen’s burdens in searching out a peaceful dinner venue are minor compared to the trauma being inflicted on these children and their families by the policies she has spearheaded. Is it bad form to remind her of this while she carries on as if nothing was wrong?

9 responses

  1. trump and pals have broken every rule of human decency, they deserve every level of disrespect that can be brought…

  2. In this case, silence is complicity. Those children and their parents are not enjoying much of anything right now.

  3. I’m glad to see Americans are pushing back strongly against the oppression of the Trump administration. If activists start using social media to alert restaurant staff that senior Trump officials are eating there, it will soon be impossible for them to eat in public again. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0348333/

  4. Call it the David-Duke-Reflex.* I applaud the strategy of the activists who made their point in a savvy way that was not rowdy at the restaurant where Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen learned that she would not be eating in peace that night. There needs to be more of that. What a classy move by Red Hen restaurant owner Stephanie Wilson telling, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, discreetly, to leave the premises. We need more of that for people capable of making us retch as if David Duke was present.

  5. I worry that confrontational approaches that are not directly and explicitly related to the issues causing outrage serve only to stoke the fire in the bellies of irrational people spoiling for a fight. I have discretely left a restaurant when I found it also patronized by an individual I felt nauseated by. I exercise what control I have in the public sphere without compromising my own behavioural standards.

    It’s probably at least partly cultural- I’m Canadian. I don’t have a record of success in dealing with bullies and their abusive behaviour. And I do think the Trump administration has taken y’all way outside the bounds of human decency. I hope you can pull it back.

  6. Another thought- I think I’d have a different reaction if I were a restaurant employee than I’d have as a patron. It would feel more like a respectful workplace issue- and from my perspective, the Trump administration’s policies and behaviour have demonstrated a profound disregard for the dignity and safety of the human beings generally. I’d be uncomfortable, but I might well refuse to serve someone who had demonstrated those characteristics. As a former nurse, there were certainly times I’d like to have had the option of refusing to serve people who willfully posed a threat!

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