By Hannah R. Pitney
I have always believed that America needs more civility. During the Trump Administration especially, I thought there was a general lack of decency. I remember a moment during the first 2020 presidential debate when I thought to myself, “How is it acceptable for two politicians to yell at and insult each other on national TV?” But I have recently been introduced to a new perspective on civility, particularly when it comes to disruptive and controversial protests, in which a lack of decorum is sometimes vital for change.
A clear example is the civil rights movement of the 1960s, in which acts of civil disobedience were necessary to make a change. In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. criticized the idea that those denied rights and freedoms should be “more devoted to `order’ than to justice.” William Chafe, a history professor at Duke University and author of Civility and Civil Rights: Greensboro, North Carolina and the Black Struggle for Freedom, told journalist Harmeet Kaur, “I think it’s important to keep our eye on what the issues really are, and while recognizing that certain actions are inappropriate, recognizing that above all, you don’t change things without making demands.”
That said, most people agree that some boundaries shouldn’t be crossed, even if they disagree on what those boundaries are. Clayborne Carson, a history professor at Stanford University, uses the outrage over the Trump Administration’s separation and detention of migrant families as an example. While he agrees with demonstrating at official events, he says that he doesn’t support other methods of protest, such as when a Virginia restaurant owner asked White House press secretary Sarah Sanders to leave because of her role in the situation.
People will always disagree on what an appropriate breach in decorum is. “With protests, you’re always making a judgment about what is appropriate given what is at stake,” Carson told Kaur. “I can understand how people are not going to be overly concerned about decorum and how disruptive they are when part of the point of it is to be disruptive.”