This is Not Who We Are

Published: June 27, 2018

By Jim Lichtman
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Twelve days ago (June 15), I wrote “Without standards of courtesy, civility and decency, everyone is free to engage in a bickering brawl of incivility that only continues the cycle.”

Last week confirmed that we are officially in the brawl.


Most Americans are good, decent, honest people. They’re respectful and courteous. If they make a mistake, they usually make amends. They’re responsible. They not only care about their families and friends, but their neighbors and communities.

What we are seeing are the actions and reactions from political extremes on both sides. It’s not healthy and only serves to further divide a country that was founded on religious and political freedom.

There’s an old story told by my ethics teacher, Michael Josephson, that goes like this:

Two politicians are engaged in a bitter debate. When one becomes personally insulting, the other replies, “Sir, I will continue to treat you as a gentleman. Not because you are one but because I am.”

“It is our own humanity,” Josephson writes, “not theirs, we affirm when we treat all people with respect.”

This is what crossed my mind when I read the story of Press Secretary Sarah Sanders being asked to leave the Red Hen restaurant last week. As reported by The Washington Post (June 25), Stephanie Wilkinson, the restaurant’s owner, approached Sanders and asked to speak to her outside.

“…[Wilkinson] believed that Sarah Huckabee Sanders worked in the service of an ‘inhumane and unethical’ administration. That she publicly defended the president’s cruelest policies, and that that could not stand.

“ ‘I’m not a huge fan of confrontation,’ Wilkinson said. ‘I have a business, and I want the business to thrive. This feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals.’ ”

In asking Sarah Sanders to leave her restaurant, Wilkinson not only violated her own policy of keeping “politics off the menu,” but acted contrary to her stated goal of wanting her “business to thrive.”

When it comes to a clear and concise ethical response, perhaps former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart says it best:

“There’s a big difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.”

In general, if you are in business to serve the public, then serve the public without any consideration to political, cultural, religious, sexual orientation, or any other personal identification. The only exception being if a customer is interfering with the peace of other customers.

In a Capitol Hill rally, California Congresswoman Maxine Waters took the extraordinary and offensive step in saying, “God is on our side. On the side of the [immigrant] children. On the side of what’s right. On the side of what’s honorable. On the side of understanding that if we can’t protect the children, we can’t protect anybody.

“If you see anybody from that cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station,” Waters added, “you get out and you create a crowd. You push back on them. Tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere!”

As an elected representative, Waters should know better. No elected official should encourage direct confrontations with any member of an opposing point of view.

One year ago, TIME magazine published an Op-ed piece by Senator Orrin Hatch in response to the Congressional shooting during baseball practice in Washington.

“Civility is the indispensable political norm,” Hatch said. “It is the public virtue that has greased the wheels of our democracy since its inception. Although nowhere mandated in our Constitution, civility is no less essential to the proper functioning of our government than any amendment, court ruling or act of Congress. Without it, little separates us from the cruelty and chaos of rule by force. …

“Our nation,” Hatch wrote, “cannot continue on its current path. Either we remain passive observers to the problem, or we endeavor to act, to make the necessary changes — in ourselves, in our families and in our communities — that will lead to a more civil, prosperous society. …

“I will be the first to admit to saying things over the course of my public service that I later came to regret. In the heat of an argument, it’s easy to indulge in irresponsible rhetoric. But we must avoid this temptation. Whether in town halls, casual conversations with neighbors or posts on social media, we must likewise refrain from dehumanizing, demeaning or unfairly disparaging the other side. … We must restore sense, decency and proportion to our political speech. …

“In 2017, Republican and Democratic Members of Congress seldom socialize outside of votes and committee hearings. We used to break bread together; our spouses used to plan weekend trips; our children used to attend the same schools. But today, our families barely know each other …we miss out on opportunities to share with one another the more intimate, humanizing parts of our lives. … We now struggle to see the common humanity in the other side, and we increasingly treat each other as opponents rather than friends.

“I’m grateful for the late Senator Ted Kennedy, who taught me that the bonds of friendship are stronger than any partisan pull. When I first joined the Senate, I thought Teddy would be an adversary. Instead, we became the best of friends.

“Teddy and I were a case study in contradictions. He was born into privilege; I was brought up in poverty. He was an East Coast liberal; I was a Reagan conservative. He was a Catholic; I was a Mormon. Yet time and again, we were able to look past our differences to find areas of agreement and forge consensus. Had Teddy and I chosen party loyalty over friendship, we would not have passed some of the most significant bipartisan achievements of modern times — from The Americans with Disabilities Act and The Religious Freedom Restoration Act to The Ryan White bill and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.”

It’s time to remember that the Red Hen incident, Maxine Waters’ call for confrontation and the rest of the current fever of incivility is not who we are.

At it’s heart, America is respectful, decent, fair, honest, trustworthy, responsible and compassionate. And when you watch the cadets of cable news talk about the acrimony that passes for civil discourse, turn it off and remember who you are and what you stand for.

Friday: what we can do, personally.


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