“Don’t look now,” my friend said abruptly during lunch a few weeks ago, “but isn’t that Anthony Weiner?”
I was on the wall-facing side of the table in a cozy Tribeca bistro. I tried to scan as much of the room as possible without moving my head one conspicuous inch.
“Where?” I asked.
“Right behind us.”
There was a mirror to our left, and I turned slightly to clock our unexpected lunch neighbor. Sure enough, there he was; hair a little shorter than I remembered, but it was definitely him. If you were online a lot during the erstwhile mayoral candidate’s sexting scandal—or, I should say, his multiple sexting scandals—it’s hard to forget that face. After my friend and I shared a joke about Carlos Danger, I realized I’d forgotten something else about Weiner: that he’d been largely responsible for the FBI’s last-minute investigation of erstwhile presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. He undoubtedly helped cost her the election. Then I remembered why it was such a surprise to see Weiner out in public: He’d just been released from prison for sexting with a 15-year-old girl. Suddenly, I had the urge to say something to him. But the urge passed, outweighed by my interest in not embarrassing my friend. I never really even considered it; I just felt it and then it was gone.
I’m not in any way a hero for suppressing the urge to confront a public figure who disgusts me, but it’s frustrating to see those who act on such urges be painted as villains.
On CNN Sunday morning, Jake Tapper spent an entire segment admiring writer Tom Junod’s recent piece on why people who actually live their politics would give Mr. Rogers the sads. The part of the article Tapper focused on was an incident in which then Florida attorney general (and recent addition to Trump’s impeachment war team) Pam Bondi was confronted at the movies in the summer of 2018 for her role in attempting to repeal the Affordable Care Act and for her unbroken support of Trump at the moment his family separation policy was first revealed. Bondi had been on her way to see, of all things, the Mr. Rogers documentary. “Treating everyone, even the bullies, even those who advocate for policies we find abhorrent, treating all of us as children of God who are special and deserve love,” Tapper said, secondhand-admonishing Bondi’s hecklers. “Well, that was what Mr. Rogers demanded.”
.@jaketapper on what Mr. Rogers would make of the tone of today's politics: "We could all do worse than follow the lead of Mr. Rogers and attempt to remember the humanity of everyone involved … especially those whose behavior you find repugnant." pic.twitter.com/zABPWzIKXY
— State of the Union (@CNNSotu) November 17, 2019
First of all: No. Mr. Rogers didn’t demand that everyone treat white nationalist policy director Stephen Miller as a special child of God. In 1990, Rogers successfully sued the Ku Klux Klan for recording racist telephone messages that imitated Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood. His lawyer said the recordings ”are of racism, white supremacy and bigotry—the antithesis of everything Rogers and Family Communications Inc. stand for.” Nowhere did Rogers’s lawyer stipulate that the Klan be treated with kindness.
Radical kindness is fantastic as a guiding principle, but it’s not a loophole-free contract. Once you allow one super-obvious example—not being kind to the person literally trying to stab you to death—you have to admit there are indeed some exceptions. Then the conversation shifts to where it naturally should be: assessing whoever is worthy of kindness on a case-by-case basis.
More to the point, though, what is it about all these people with nothing to lose, such as Tapper and Ellen DeGeneres, that compels them to demand people who are fighting for their lives, or the lives of others, do so politely? Why do people who will always have healthcare and never be deported think they should be the ones to tell those on shakier ground that they’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar?
Tapper and DeGeneres talk about incivility like it’s a disease, but incivility has curative properties. Sometimes, it’s the only tool at one’s disposal. The woman who confronted Jeff Flake in an elevator during Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing wasn’t civil; she was yelling and jabbing her finger at the senator. But her decision not to be civil directly led to Jeff Flake calling for a federal investigation into the charges of sexual assault against Kavanaugh. That investigation may have gone nowhere, and Kavanaugh was still confirmed (by several people who have not exactly earned Mr. Rogers’s prescriptive kindness), but the protester said her piece, and it worked as intended. Incivility gets the job done.
The example Junod and Tapper use is a convenient one for their argument. It’s convenient because of the irony that Bondi got confronted while heading to see a documentary on the kindest man in history, and also because Bondi, like Anthony Weiner, is a relatively innocuous target. (Relatively! Pam Bondi has indeed done some pretty crappy things.) It’s easier to come out swinging against incivility in this case because of the low likelihood that anyone reading Junod’s article now feels the urgency those protesters felt in the summer of 2018 upon seeing Bondi out in public. Notice, for example, that Junod or Tapper didn’t point to the recent incident of Harvey Weinstein getting confronted during a comedy show to make the case that nobody is worthy of public scorn. “Mr. Rogers demands that you treat Harvey Weinstein as someone who deserves love” doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Sometimes, when it comes to certain people who cause deep pain (or worse) for many others, you might forget that these are real people who exist in flesh and share the same base reality as you. In the digital existence that is ever more our most common form, those people can easily continue to ignore you and treat you like you don’t matter, but if you act on the urge to tell them how you feel in real life, they have to at least consider you for one brief moment, like Jeff Flake in an elevator. I don’t know what it meant to the Floridians who saw Pam Bondi buying tickets to see Won’t You Be My Neighbor last summer, but I can understand how a woman who has been sexually assaulted might have felt seeing Harvey Weinstein enjoy a night on the town in October 2019. Tapper and Junod would probably not invoke Mr. Rogers as a means of shaming her, but that’s indirectly what they did.
Michelle Obama said many times in the lead-up to an election that was a crushing rebuke to her husband, “When they go low, we go high.” But there is a danger in this philosophy of never stooping to unkindness to attack the unkind. When you go high, held aloft by your buoyant sense of civility, the people going low are just going to continue doing whatever they were doing, since you’ve just proven there’s no threat of reprisal. Sometimes, when they go low, whoever they are, you have to get down low too, and get in their faces and let them know they absolutely cannot get away with this shit.