Sunday, June 24, 2018

My House, My Rules

Y'know, I think I've learned a lesson this weekend, watching some of the fuss over a Virginia restaurant's refusal to serve Trump's press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.  That lesson is that many reasonably well-educated people have no idea what "civility" means.

If you haven't heard, Sanders and seven other people drove up to Lexington, Virginia (pop. 7,000), and walked into a small (26 seats) restaurant called the Red Hen.  The staff recognized her and called the owner, who was at home. The owner arrived, asked Sanders to step aside with her, and politely asked her to leave. Sanders politely agreed.
Sanders went back to the table, picked up her things and walked out. The others at her table had been welcome to stay, Wilkinson said. But they didn’t, so the servers cleared away the cheese plates and glasses.

“They offered to pay,” Wilkinson said. “I said, ‘No. It’s on the house.’ ”
One of the servers mentioned the incident on his Facebook page, and the shit hit the fan.  Sanders tweeted about it: "I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so ... Her actions say far more about her than about me."  Other reactions were predictable: Trump fans were outraged, predicted that the Red Hen would soon close for lack of business, many Trump haters were delighted.  Large numbers from both groups posted reviews of the restaurant on social sites like Yelp, even though as the Washington Post article notes, few if any had ever eaten there or ever would.  Some Democrats, also predictably, attacked the owner for lack of "civility," saying that Sanders should have been served no matter what.

I saw a lot of online complaints about the lack of "civility" the Red Hen's owner supposedly showed.  I don't think there was any incivility or lack of respect (as I presume Sanders meant) involved.  The owner was both civil and polite, even respectful.  She explained her reasons and politely asked her to leave.  One of the basic mistakes many of the commentators make is their apparent belief that you can't disagree with, let alone cut off socially or in other areas, a person without being civil -- that civility means maintaining friendly relations with anyone, no matter how vile.  And while Sarah Huckabee Sanders isn't as vile as Donald Trump himself, she's his press secretary, lying for him, defending his vilest policies.  She's personally and professionally complicit in his evil.  Even if you believe (as I do not) that the Red Hen should not have refused her service, civility is a separate question.  The same goes for "respect."  If Sanders meant (as I presume she did) that she'd been treated disrespectfully, she was mistaken.

The owner of the Red Hen did not scream profane abuse at Sanders.  She didn't punch her in the nose. She didn't overturn the table, spilling cheese and drinks over the party.  She didn't invite other patrons to throw food at them.  She didn't lock them into a wire cage and beat them, starve them, inject them with drugs to make them docile, or throw them out on the street months later, unwashed and infested with lice.  Since Sanders and her boss and the people they represent support the right of small businesses to refuse service to anyone whose lifestyle or beliefs they disapprove of, Sanders in particular has no ground for complaint at all.

If Sanders were starving, I'd give her food.  But she's in no danger of starving, now or ever.  There are, as her fans crowed on social media, many restaurants where she and her friends and colleagues will be welcome.  Someone, in a tweet I can't find now, speculated reasonably that she'd traveled outside Washington, where "everybody hates her," to find a place to eat.  It seems she made a small blunder in her choice of the Red Hen, and I wonder who recommended it to her.  According to the Washington Post article, "Lexington, population 7,000, had voted overwhelmingly against Trump in a county that voted overwhelmingly for him."  So Sanders somehow lighted on one of the few places in Red America where she might not be welcome.

Another theme that raged in the line exchanges was Who's A Hypocrite Now?  Both Trumpists and liberals invoked the Masterpiece Cakeshop Decision.  The Trumpists asked how libs could object to refusing to bake a wedding cake for a gay male couple, yet accept refusal of service for Sanders.  The liberals asked the reverse: if it's okay to refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, then why isn't it okay to refuse to serve Sanders?  Of course I think the liberals have the stronger case.  Some liberals argued that the two cases are obviously totally different and if you can't see that then there's something wrong with you.  I agree that there are differences but I don't agree that they're relevant: the refusal to serve Sanders doesn't constitute legal or unjust discrimination.  And since the Right has been opposed to civil rights laws all along, they can't suddenly change their mind without some pretty hefty explaining.

Contrary to some complaints, it is not clear that "discrimination" was involved, and certainly not "prejudice."  "Prejudice" means pre-judging someone without evidence, or based on irrelevant evidence -- assuming that a pale, rather chunky woman will be a Trump supporter for example.  But the objection was to Sanders herself, a public figure, who has defined herself by her words and her willingness to defend the indefensible.  "Discrimination" is similarly slippery.  Some opponents of public accommodation laws like to point out irrelevantly that we all discriminate all the time.  That's true.  But unlawful discrimination is determined and defined by civil rights laws, and it's rather narrow.  People may use the word sloppily, but Sarah Huckabee Sanders was refused service because of her words and actions, the kind of person she has shown herself to be.  Someone irrelevantly quoted Martin Luther King's "judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" line at me.  I don't like it much, because we can never really know the content of anyone else's character.  But they (and we) do show something of our character by our actions, our words, the people we choose to associate with and work for, and Sanders has shown us enough about her character to judge her by.  It's discrimination, all right, but not the kind of discrimination civil rights law is meant to prohibit.

It raises another important question.  Public officials at all levels almost never face any accountability for crimes even greater than Trump's, for moral cowardice even greater than Sanders's.  The feeling of many Democrats (leave the Trump fanatics aside) that Sanders should face no accountability, no consequences for her actions or words, also has to be evaluated in the context of the refusal of the Obama administration to punish Bush-era figures who justified and ordered torture and other war crimes, or to punish the fraud and other crimes of business figures who nearly destroyed the economy in 2008.  Between doing nothing at one "extreme" and, oh let's say public execution by fire (the kind of extreme that centrists will think of to show the impossibility of doing anything other than nothing), there are many possibilities.  Compared to the imaginable extremes, being ejected from a restaurant is pretty small accountability for Sanders, and one that I'm sure she will be able to live with.

Glenn Greenwald posted a challenge today:
Everyone accusing each other of hypocrisy over the gay-wedding-baker and Sarah Sanders cases: please state the general principle you support when it comes to the right of business owners to refuse service to customers. That would be a more constructive way to have this discussion[.]
I think this is a good question.  As I expected, the responses were mostly not very constructive, to put it mildly, except insofar as they showed that most people have no general principles on this issue.  People they dislike should suffer, those they don't dislike should not suffer, and there's an end on't.  "It's very simple," one person said to me, and "Seems pretty straight forward," another said to Greenwald, thus showing how little they had thought about it.  Which is understandable -- how much do most of us think about difficult issues?

This takes me back to a question I've been grappling with for some time, namely under which circumstances it is all right to refuse service to someone, or to remove them from a job for actions or words committed outside (or even during) working hours.  Someone scolded me online that it's never right to refuse service to anyone.  This is obviously false, and absurd.  Bartenders refuse service to people all the time, for example.  At the same time, I disagree, and I think most people would disagree if they took it seriously, that any business owner should be able to refuse service to anyone for any reason. The absolutes are unworkable, so we have to judge actual cases in the middle.  This bothers many people, not only on the Right, who want moral absolutes, with no middle ground.

I don't think that general principles can definitively answer Greenwald's question.  That may be our problem.  General principles are useful but they only take us so far, and from there we must wing it, make judgments that may or not turn out to be right.  There don't even seem to be reliable ways to decide whether a judgment is right or wrong.