Featured Photo Credit: By Dr. François S. Clemmons – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41429120. François S. Clemmons and Fred Rogers recreating their footbath in 1993. The original scene in 1969 took a stand against racial segregation.
Words by Michael Wyatt
A few weeks ago, and for the first time, a stranger on the internet threatened to kill me. Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit had posted on Facebook about a new protocol for surrendering firearms under injunctions for domestic violence. One commenter wrote, “SHALL NOT BE INFRINGED,” a nod to the Second Amendment, implying that under no circumstances can the government limit gun ownership whatsoever. I responded by quoting a passage from DC v. Heller, the landmark Supreme Court case that established the individual right to bear arms. The opinion, written by Antonin Scalia (a man who loved guns so much he literally died in a hunting lodge), concedes that while there is a constitutional right to bear arms, that right is–of course–subject to reasonable limitations.
And that was enough for this guy to threaten to murder me. He told me how eager he was for the coming civil war, and how he and his guns were ready for me.
Much ink has been spilled in recent years about the decline of civility in public discourse, and there are easy anecdotes to drive the point home: a Floridaman mailed pipe bombs to various prominent liberals in the hopes of committing terrorism and murder. Another Floridaman spewed baldly racist rhetoric in a political campaign, and he now sits in the governor’s mansion. A Floridawoman threw a red slushie at my congressional representative, Matt Gaetz, and is now headed to jail. (And as I was writing this, Rep. Gaetz and Andrew Gillum both debased themselves by fighting over who had the better criminal record.)
But I’d like to take the time to argue that, first, things are not as bad as they seem. Second, civility is overrated. And third, love is the better (and far more difficult) aspiration than mere civility.
Before we decry our own times as perilous, we should pause to remember how uncivil Florida has been in the past. By law, blacks were not allowed in the same public spaces as whites. The Ku Klux Klan ran motorcades through the capital. In years past, Florida’s governor, sheriffs, county commissioners, and city managers were known to wear Klan robes. NAACP officials were murdered in their homes. Entire black neighborhoods were torched and razed. And of course, in addition to oranges, Florida has produced its own crop of that strange Southern fruit.
When we hear news of pipebombs being sent to the first black president, when we see actual Nazis march in Charlottesville, when politicians at all levels see advantage in stoking racial animus, a chill runs through the American spine. However, the chill comes not so much from the state of our current affairs as from the shadow of much fouler beasts slouching out of our past.
I don’t mean to suggest that there isn’t real violence, real oppression, real hatred in Florida today. There is. Nor do I mean to suggest that we’re incapable of slipping back into those darker days. We are. But we ought to remember that our present moment is not uniquely uncivil.
And what’s the good of civility, anyway? Adam Serwer recently argued that what we call “civility” is often just the “negative peace” that Martin Luther King Jr. found so frustrating to the cause of justice. Dr. King lamented:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
During his life, Dr. King did not enjoy the almost saintly reputation he does today. To many of his contemporaries, he was a criminal who openly encouraged others to break the law. (Let’s recall that his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was written…from a jail cell.) He’s less celebrated for this today, but King was an agitator who saw conflict as the labor pains of progress. His tactics were more pressure cooker than sous vide.
But an objective observer would conclude that Dr. King did more good for African Americans and for America’s soul than the hand wringers and pearl clutchers who decried his incivility.
I was thinking of Dr. King when I read this passage in this month’s issue of The Atlantic:
It isn’t that he is revered but not followed so much as he is revered because he is not followed—because remembering him as a nice man is easier than thinking of him as a demanding one. He spoke most clearly through his example, but our culture consoles itself with the simple fact that he once existed. There is no use asking further questions of him, only of ourselves.
The quote could apply to a number of people: Dr. King came readily to my mind as did, well, Jesus. What remains most vivid in our memories is the melody of Dr. King’s voice telling us of his dream that, one day, we would rise up. We’re less quick to recall his rigorous rebuttal of white moderates. We readily remember “As I have loved you, you should also love one another,” but we’re slow to work through the implications of that directive.
But the article wasn’t necessarily about Dr. King or Jesus. It was a memorial to Fred (Mr.) Rogers. (For the purposes of this blog, I’ll note that Rogers had a lifelong connection to the Sunshine State. In addition to spending his childhood winters here, he graduated with a degree in music composition from Rollins College, where he met his wife, a Jacksonville native.)
Mr. Rogers is famous for his earnest, guileless kindness. The Atlantic piece is penned by Tom Junod, whom Rogers befriended late in his life. (Junod’s pseudo-personna is portrayed by Matthew Rhys in the new film It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.) Junod’s main contention, aside from Mr. Rogers relentless goodness, is that incivility was incompatible with Mr. Rogers’ character.
Junod shakes his head, for example, when recounting that protestors picketed Pam Bondi when she went to a showing of Won’t You Be My Neighbor in Tampa. She was confronted with shouts of “Would Mister Rogers take children away from their parents? Would Mister Rogers take away health insurance? … What would Mister Rogers think about you and your legacy in Florida, taking away health insurance from people with preexisting conditions? Pam Bondi, shame on you!” And this shouting, Junod argues, betrays the kind example of Fred Rogers.
I disagree. Admittedly, Junod knew Mr. Rogers better than I did (in the sense that he actually knew him). But even in reading Junod’s piece, I couldn’t help but get the sense that Mr. Rogers was far less concerned with the facade of civility than he was with the foundations of love. This is apparent even while Junod is imagining Mr. Rogers’ meditation on Pam Bondi. Junod writes in Mr. Rogers’ voice, “She is special; there has never been anyone exactly like her, and there never will be anyone exactly like her ever again; God loves her exactly as she is.”
But civility and love are not the same thing, and both can exist in the absence of the other. People can be civil at a dinner party while still loathing the attendees. And sometimes love requires us to speak uncomfortable truths sharply and directly. Mr. Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, modeled his kindness on Christ’s example. But Jesus did not mince words, even and especially with those closest to him. Peter, who enjoyed a privileged place in Jesus’s circle, was the frequent object of his scolding.
My own moral, social, and political views have changed over time, and often at the rebuke of a friend. Several times a friend has scolded me for saying something thoughtless, demeaning, or callous, and that scolding had the power to change my thoughts and behavior because I knew it came from a place of love. To risk the cliche, I knew they were upset with me, yes, but more than that, I knew they were disappointed. Rather than feeling dismissed or subhuman for stepping out of line, I felt encouraged to reconsider how I thought and behaved, and I wanted to be better.
Back to Dr. King for a moment. Martin Luther King Jr. advocated breaking the law, but he had a well-reasoned test to determine whether he was justified in doing so. First, for a law to be broken, it must be unjust; for, as he and St. Augustine concluded, “an unjust law is no law at all.” And second, whoever breaks the unjust law “must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”
Many activists would be uncomfortable with openly breaking an unjust law and are unwilling to accept the penalty. (As one of my old professors pointed out, consider how differently Edward Snowden’s message might have been received had he been willing to accept the penalty for breaking the law.) Even more activists, I imagine, would see the “lovingly” requirement as unnecessary packaging. But this isn’t dressing on the side of effective social change. This is the secret sauce.
I’d like to suggest that we apply Dr. King’s test for law breaking to incivility. Just as we ought to behave with a presumption that we should follow the law, we ought to begin with the presumption that we should speak to one another politely. It’s nice, after all, to be nice. But there are certainly times when breaching civility is all but required. So here is my repurposed test: We should only be uncivil when responding to injustice. And before we respond, we should be sure to respond openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the consequences.
That would mean not using the pseudo-anonymity of an alt account to blast someone online. That would mean refraining from hateful or vicious language, even in the face of hatred and viciousness. That would mean holding back until we consider that the object of our incivility was, as Fred Rogers reminded us, once a child too.
I recognize that this is a demanding (and almost impossible) standard for our online and in-person conversations. How, exactly, do we love our neighbors, let alone politicians we presently despise? How do we find the line between loving someone for who they are and sharply letting someone know they’re hurting others?
I admit I’m hazy on the details. I know that I don’t live up to these standards myself. Loving our perceived enemies, or even attempting to do so, is a profoundly humbling exercise. It requires us to acknowledge that even villains may have goodness flickering within them, that we don’t have the right to dismiss the humanity of another, no matter how much we despise what they say or do. It is painful and frustrating.
But if all we do is idolize people like Dr. King and Mr. Rogers–if we fail to learn from their examples and change ourselves–then they remain idols. Empty etchings of ideals we hang up when we want to feel good, without ever living up to the principles they so clearly set forth.
As we plunge headfirst into an exceptionally divisive election year in a hotly-contested swing state, I’d like to extend an invitation to Floridians of good will. Let’s work together to emulate Mr. Rogers’ kindness, and when appropriate, Dr. King’s courage. When we disagree, even sharply, let’s do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the consequences. It’s not easy, but I’m convinced it’s the only way to win against hate. And love will be a much more powerful force for change than mere civility.