If incivility always carries a moral cost, we had best be sure it’s justified
Christopher Rufo is famous for making critical race theory a subject of public controversy. He has also been a prominent part of the campaign to punish the Disney corporation for its opposition to Florida legislation that prohibits “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity . . . in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.”
In a recent speech, Rufo gave advice to those interested in carrying on the kind of work he has been doing. One piece of advice was to be impolite. “We can be polite and lose every battle, or we can be impolite and actually deliver results for the great majority of Americans who are fighting for their small businesses, fighting for their jobs, fighting for their families.”
Should we be impolite when we object to laws or public policies promoted by others or when promoting our own?
We are all indebted to Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil, four young Black men who were so impolite as to sit at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, NC in 1960 and ask for service. But what about those who protest outside the homes of Supreme Court justices whom they fear will take away a right that the Court granted fifty years before? Or what about protesting outside the schools the justices’ children attend or the places of worship they frequent?
Would Rufo approve of the impoliteness—the incivility—of those harassing the justices and threatening to harass their children? If not, on what grounds would he object? Would he quibble with us over the acceptable places or targets of incivility? Is it okay to target businesses but not homes or places of worship; adults, but not children? On what basis would he draw such limits?
America was founded on a right to revolution, which permits—indeed, requires as a duty, says the Declaration of Independence—that all human beings resist despotism even to the point of using force and risking death. If we are faced with something less than the “absolute despotism” of which the Declaration of Independence speaks, we are presumably warranted in using measures of protest less than the violent or life-threatening. The means of protest we choose, from blog posts to honking horns at 3AM outside someone’s house, will be determined by the degree of threat to our rights.
In this view, the incivility of Blair, Richmond, McCain and McNeil was justified. Indeed, much more was justified. And the protests of those who believe there is a right to abortion might be justified, as well.
But Rufo’s incivility deserves to be questioned. One could argue, for instance, that rights are not at stake in the disputes over critical race theory and Disney’s objections to Florida law, that these are, rather, differences of opinion over educational policies. Invoking rights tends to justify measures beyond the civil debate we expect over policy differences. Perhaps this is why the Florida legislation that Rufo defends styles itself “An act relating to parental rights in education.”
All those invoking a right to incivility to protect their rights should remember that the Declaration speaks of the need for prudence in the exercise of our rights of protest and revolution. One element of that prudence has to do with the relation of means to ends. Justifying our incivil protests by appealing to the rights we are protecting is a form of allowing the end to justify the means. This is always a problematic endeavor: How can we be sure we will attain the end that (ostensibly) justifies the means we use? If we don’t attain the end in question, we are left with a world and democratic practice diminished by our incivility. Even if we do, we must calculate the damage done by incivility.
Progressives have always been more willing to allow the end to justify the means because they believe (however tacitly) that they are on the right side of history and that history will carry them to the end they envision. That’s what it means to believe in “progress.” Traditionally, a conservative (whom Rufo understands himself to be) would have been skeptical about letting the end justify the means. Such a person would have thought human understanding too weak to comprehend the meaning of history, and that unintended consequences—not reason—are the governing force in human affairs. Such a view always counseled moderation with regard to human action. That Rufo has adopted the ways of progressives and is championed by supposedly conservative institutions is a sign of the immoderation that now characterizes our politics.
David Tucker is a Senior Fellow at the Ashbrook Center. He received his Ph.D. in history at the Claremont Graduate School. His most recent book is United States Special Operations Forces (Columbia University Press, 2020).
So let’s see. The right elected the most “impolite “ president we’ve ever had. But it’s the left that’s being impolite. Please show me a true example of this.
In my 72 left? progressive? Democrat? years, I have met no one who thinks like me and also thinks the end justifies the means. NO ONE.
John Fea says
Fair point, Barbara.