Thursday, August 14, 2014

Is civil disobedience not a "nice" thing to do?


 
This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “Saying 'No' Through Civil Disobedience” You can hear the whole episode online here.


Today’s episode is about not getting along with people who are committing what our guest will call moral crimes. We’re going to talk about a variety of topics, all of which are familiar to us in political debate. It will be easy to see them as purely hypothetical, so for the sake of our discussion, I wanted to provide a concrete example that can’t be theorized away: a neighborhood father is a registered sex offender.

The man in question abused a young girl for many years. He served time in prison and is now married with two kids of his own. His children are great. They are well-behaved, friendly, easy going, and the girl is friends with my daughter, so she spends a fair amount of time at our house. My daughter, however, is not allowed to reciprocate. She’s forbidden from going to their house or playing in their backyard. We have never had the parents over for coffee and we won’t, but we are cordial to the mom, and cool but polite on the rare occasions we see the dad. The other neighbors seem to treat them similarly, especially those with kids.

Obviously, my first concern is for our daughter’s and the other kids’ safety. But I think we’ve struck a generous compromise; we are most certainly not holding his children guilty for the sins of their father. Nevertheless, there is still a sense, especially here in North Dakota, that we shouldn’t talk about his criminal record at all, that it is somehow rude to mention it even now, on the air. The father is already on the sex-offender list, and his name and address are public record; that’s how we learned about it, but talking about it now still feels wrong.

What’s happening is that my desires for safety and moral accountability are fighting with the part of me that wants to be polite, that wants to make controversy disappear. I’m absorbing what locals call “Mindakota Nice,” the premium that North Dakotans and Minnesotans put on getting along, even in the face of social tension. [Outside of North Dakota, it is just called Minnesota Nice.] But niceness is more than just a behavior; it has serious social justice consequences. It is a moral code that maintains the status quo. It ensures that newcomers remain outsiders by concealing the rules and expectations of the community, and it means that any complaint, even legitimate ones, are frowned upon. Here in North Dakota, even the most minor of public complaints can seem like civil disobedience.

For the record, and because my comments are very public, I want to be explicit that the father whom I am discussing is classified as a low-risk offender; the courts have faith he will not do it again and I have no desire to cost him a job, home, or friends. I’m also aware that there are great debatesabout the morality of sex-offender lists and serious discussions about the nature of forgiveness and empathetic understanding. Nevertheless, if I am going to take my guest’s point of view seriously, then I have to talk about the moral wrongs in front of me and acknowledge the ways that social expectations silence all of us.

Today’s episode is going to take aim at the morality of nice and look at its consequences for social justice. We are going to revisit the questions of protest and civil disobedience with a guest who argues for their necessity in the face of wrongs so egregious that they should not be tolerated. We are going to have to reconsider the value of civility and wonder when, if ever, we should put it aside.

This will be harder than we think. We are all used to relegating civil disobedience to history—to Woolworth lunch counters, anti-war protests, and to the two decades we characterize as “the sixties.” But there are still great injustices among us and sometimes, despite all the shouting, it appears that Americans have become much more passive, much less willing to make a real fuss, at least not when we are protected by fake names on the internet or by paid pundits on Fox News or CNN.

What does it look like to NOT get along and when is it justified? These are the central questions for today’s show, and they come with a price. Civility ties into a two-thousand year tradition that led to the ideas of tolerance, human rights, and diversity. It has made way for democracy, freedom of speech, and equality under the law. If we reject civility, are we destabilizing our society? Maybe. But since the ideas I just listed have never fully been realized, since there are no universally acknowledged human rights and not everyone is equal under the law, maybe a little more instability is just what we need. Maybe it’s time to put aside niceness and seek justice instead.

Which moral wrongs are so horrendous that I would suggest such a thing? That answer will have to come from my guest.

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