Recall during the 2016 presidential campaign when protesters began heckling and interrupting candidate Donald Trump wherever he spoke. Instead of shutting Trump up, they caused him to double down on insulting public rhetoric. In fact, Trump told his supporters to “go ahead and punch someone in the face, and I’ll pay your legal bills.”
That ugly period encapsulated everything that’s wrong with the escalating nastiness of American political discourse today. The concept of civility is getting buried in a new competition of one-upmanship: You heckle me, well, I’ll have someone punch you out. If you defend something that I disagree with, I’ll run you out of a restaurant or throw rocks at your house.
Too many Americans are opting for disruption, harassment and uncivil disobedience without giving more gentle forms of persuasion a chance. This approach promises only to deepen divisions, shut down dialogue and further harden hearts.
In St. Louis, a group of out-of-town theater artists recently decided to disrupt a performance at the Muny of “Jerome Robbins’Broadway,” booing a white actor portraying a Burmese slave in a segment of “The King and I.” Artists chose to disrupt and harass other artists during an onstage performance as a way of making a political statement aimed not at them but at the director. It was the wrong call.
Many Americans snickered upon hearing that White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders had been asked to leave a Virginia restaurant where she was dining, and that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was heckled away from another restaurant. Did those protests change administration policy on immigration or move Trump toward a more conciliatory path? Hardly. He’s more dug-in than ever.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., articulated this sentiment during a floor speech last Monday, saying that Americans shouldn’t expect civility and respect from others if they’re unwilling to exercise it themselves. “No one should call for the harassment of political opponents,” he said. “That’s not right. That’s not American.”
He added: “The president’s tactics and behavior should never be emulated. It should be repudiated.” His remarks followed a call by Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., for an increased harassment campaign against people who work for Trump.
Amazingly, only days before Waters’ call, Americans of all political persuasions had found common ground in their revulsion toward Trump’s policy of family separation for migrants caught crossing the border illegally. Without any Trump supporters being heckled or harassed, prominent conservatives united with moderates and liberals in their expressions of outrage at Trump’s policy. The pressure grew so intense that Trump had to back down.
Yet the prevailing assumption these days is that civility is for wimps, as if the more radical the approach or the louder the volume, the more persuasive the message will be. Persuasion is our business on this page. And we’re here to tell you: that’s not how persuasion works.
This editorial was written by the staff of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the The Lima News editorial board or AIM Media, owner of The Lima News.