The Whole "Civility" Conversation Is Secretly Sexist

Melania and Ivanka Trump
Photo: AFP/Getty Images

By now we all know what's happening: immigrant children have been separated from their parents at the border and sent to detention centers thousands of miles away, with no tracking system nor plan in place to reconnect them. This is a Trump administration policy, and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has stood behind it, to much approbation from reporters and concerned citizens. Like Stephanie Wilkinson, the proprietor of the Red Hen restaurant in Virginia, who asked Sanders to leave her establishment as a matter of moral conscience. In the days since, Sanders being asked to leave has been covered like its own mini-atrocity—the crime of being “uncivil.”

To me, it is patently ridiculous to call for civility when infants and children are being imprisoned away from their families in cages. (I'll have to check Emily Post to see if that gross violation of human rights qualifies as "civil.”) And yet, that is the conversation that the right is strenuously insisting we have, aided by a media that keeps finding defensible ways to cover the indefensible, so no one will accuse them of being biased toward facts. Oh no! Have I offended someone with that sentiment? Oh, dear. How unbecoming of a lady.

This whole thing strikes me as barely coded sexism. The manners police—who have thus far been silent on Donald Trump calling Mexicans "rapists," or mocking a disabled reporter, or peeping at teenage pageant participants backstage, or extracurricular grabbery, or calling for the imprisonment of his political opponents—have fallen backward on the fainting couch, shocked that someone could be so rude as to ask a person they find harmful to leave their place of business. And for the second time in as many months, conservatives and media members have rushed to defend Sarah Huckabee Sanders against an outspoken lady who was mean to her.

And, sure, the civility conversation simmers here and there when men speak out—for example Robert "Meet The Fockers" De Niro getting bleeped at the Tony Awards—but it never quite spikes the way it does when the bleepee is a woman. And it spikes even more furiously when the target of the criticism, a.k.a. the “incivility,” is a white woman who herself is already in a position of power.

Comedian Michelle Wolf made many sharp, loaded jokes at the White House Correspondents' Dinner this year, but it was one punchline about Sanders' penchant for obfuscating at the podium, referencing her eye makeup, that got the civility-mongers up in arms—despite both the obfuscation and the makeup having been previously documented in mainstream news, and many comedians having taken similar aim at the White House at many a dinner prior. But this time it was deemed uncalled-for, across some imaginary line of righteous outrage, and the prolonged, pious flaming of Michelle Wolf successfully distracted from the idea that, hey, maybe the whole lying-at-the-podium issue might be one to explore.

And of course no conversation about women being called impolite, improper, uncivil—or “nasty” —for stating true facts can be complete without Hillary Clinton, at whom Trump hurled the latter as an epithet after competing against her in a presidential debate. (Clinton, forever on eggshells about whether she’d be deemed “likeable,” was engaged in demonstrably civil discourse at the time: a moderated debate.) Recall also the umbrage when she dared to call the racist, sexist, bigoted, nativist faction of Trump voters “deplorable.”

Women speak out when they have something to speak out about, which is why the immediate call to shh, now be nice, is so alarming. Shall we be nice about the laws springing up everywhere to limit our bodily autonomy? Shall we be nice about the gun culture that vastly increases our odds of being murdered if we’re dating an abuser? Shall we smile sweetly while the government establishes an extrajudicial precedent for snatching children away from their parents? I hope I won’t offend any delicate sensibilities by screaming HECK NO! (And by “heck” I really mean “some other word that may end in 'CK,' that a lady ought not say.")

There is something really wrong when the act of protesting atrocity gets more criticism than the atrocity being protested. (Colin Kaepernick and his respectful, constitutionally protected, kneeling football brethren could have told you that.) But it gets much more insidious when the protest is against a demure white woman whose silence is taken for virtue.

Think of Ivanka Trump, silent about her father’s policy of displacing and incarcerating children until she could safely place her words on his side; think of Melania Trump, mute except for a bizarrely heartless message on her jacket, and then used in her muteness as a shield for an administration that deflected from the border crisis to instead claim that, wah, everyone’s being mean to her. Think of Kirstjen Nielson and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, whose value to the administration lies in their obeisance to the party line and speaking nary a word out of turn beyond it. Think of Hope Hicks, who has still maintained her prudent silence post-departure from the White House. These women are silent because their silence allows us to fill in the blanks with our own imagined impression of their virtue—the impression borne from centuries of valuing white women for their politesse and decorum. (And just like that, I found the nexus between Ivanka Trump and The Handmaid’s Tale’s Serena Joy. Try to unsee it.)

The history of protecting white women in this country is very, very ugly. That protection does not extend to women of color, which is why Donald Trump’s attacks on Rep. Maxine Waters (with the oft-repeated and likely defamatory “low IQ” claim) have not caused Paul Ryan to leap to her defense, but her call to refuse service to anyone in the administration spurred Ryan to demand her apology. (It maybe also explains why he hasn’t demanded a similar apology from Rep. Steve King for retweeting a white nationalist.)

Indeed the protection of white women only extends to those who fit into the narrow, faux-virtuous image of what is expected of women under patriarchy: Don’t be loud. Don’t be nasty. Don’t question power. Don’t demand more than what we want to give you. Happy Mother’s Day! We cherish women! We protect life! (Well, that’s “life” with an asterisk.) It’s “Shh, you’re so pretty when you’re quiet,” with a side of, “women are such nags, amirite?” And then, “We interrupt this broadcast to bring you a panel of white men talking about sexism.”

The whole thing smacks of the narrow ambit of agency women are granted in public discourse, and the stereotypical setup of how nice, good, and—yes, "civil"—women ought to behave. Which of course is barely coded sexism, wrapped in racism with a heaping side of deplorable. (Which, ahem, is apparently not on the menu at the Red Hen.)

Respectability politics is not the friend of speaking truth to power; it’s the first weapon the status quo uses to to quash it—historically, in order to strip agency from people of color, and in this case from women. “Come on now, let’s be civilized,” is not what you say to a mother demanding to know where you took her child, or to a nation demanding to know where those children are and when they will be returned. The only way to make a difference is to be loud, and to fight.

So be loud, and fight. And let them pout that you’re not being ladylike enough—because when they tell you to shut up, it means they can hear you.

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