I’m not sure I ever wore a dunce cap. But I remember them. They came to a point, like a Conehead, and teachers made you wear them if you did something stupid.
I also remember “Go stand in the corner,” another form of student punishment. You could sense the eyes of your classmates on your back as you wiggled with the hot flush of embarrassment. Sometimes you stood there for an hour. At least it felt like an hour.
These were ways, even for kids, to be publicly humiliated. If you trace the idea back, you’ll find a time when we put people in stocks in the public square. The idea was if you shame someone in front of their peers, they’ll think twice about repeating the offending behavior.
Today, we are much more “enlightened.” We have no stocks. We would never make kids wear a dunce cap. Even standing in the corner is frowned upon. We are more sensitive to others. Bullying is a preeminent issue. Making people feel bad about who they are is taboo.
So it intrigued me to watch the recent public shaming of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House Press Secretary, who went to a restaurant called the Red Hen in Virginia and was asked to leave by the owner, who was offended by Sanders’ politics.
We also recently saw a Congresswoman, Maxine Waters, exhorting her supporters at a rally in Los Angeles, telling them, “If you see anybody from that (Trump) Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and create a crowd…And you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.”
Public shaming. All that’s missing is the dunce cap. Except this time, the dumb behavior is from the people who think they’re being smart.
‘It’s on the house’
Deep down, even Donald Trump haters know that telling a customer you disagree with to get out of your restaurant — on principle — won’t win you any points. Our prickly history of telling those we don’t like that they can’t eat or drink in certain places should be enough to prohibit anyone from using similar behavior in 2018, no matter how righteous you think your cause may be.
The owner of the Red Hen, Stephanie Wilkinson, was actually at home when Sanders and her party came into the restaurant. Wilkinson told the Washington Post that she drove down after her employees informed her, and she asked what they wanted her to do. She said that some of her staff is gay, and they didn’t like President Trump’s stance on transgender people in the military, which Sanders, in her job as press secretary, had defended.
“I can ask her to leave,” Wilkinson said she offered her employees. “They said, ‘yes.’”
At that point, the Post reported, she went over to Sanders and asked for a private word.
“I explained that the restaurant has certain standards that I feel it has to uphold, such as honesty and compassion and cooperation. I said, ‘I’d like you to leave.’”
Sanders did not argue. She quickly departed. Her party followed, and reportedly offered to pay for the appetizers. The owner told them, “It’s on the house.”
How gracious. No charge for throwing you out.
The other side of the coin
The fact that Wilkinson is being celebrated in certain corners as some kind of hero only shows you how deep into hypocrisy our angry divisions have thrown us. To use words like “honesty, compassion and cooperation” as reasons to evict someone shows a total lack of, well, honesty, compassion and cooperation.
If we’re being “honest,” was Sanders the first person to sit in that restaurant who may have had anti-transgender feelings? Yet those people were served. And since it is in Virginia, was Sanders even the first member of the Trump administration to eat there? Maybe others less recognizable had already come and gone.
As for “compassion,” what compassion are you showing for someone who, for all you know, may struggle with certain elements of her job herself? What compassion are you showing in a country where the Supreme Court just ruled on gay customers being denied services in a cake shop, yet your gay staff members want you to refuse service to someone they don’t like?
Nor is this about “cooperation.” It’s the opposite of cooperation. It’s about your feelings trumping everything else, include decorum, manners or common decency. Sanders didn’t murder anyone. She never physically harmed a member of the restaurant staff. She was simply on the other side of a political ideology. If that’s cause for eviction, our forefathers might never have sat in the same room together.
You get what you give
Meanwhile, instead of criticizing the restaurant’s behavior, instead of invoking the Michelle Obama suggestion, “When they go low, we go high,” Waters, who as a congresswoman has an even greater responsibility to that principle, actually upped the ante. She called for public humiliation of every member of Trump’s cabinet.
Think about the words she told her supporters to use: “You’re not welcome anymore, anywhere.” At a time when her biggest issues include immigration, racial injustice, and LGBTQ rights, is that really a sentence she wants to invoke?
It’s tough but simple. You can’t play dirty and complain about the other side playing dirty. You can’t show disrespect and claim you’re being disrespected. Waters, on Friday, bemoaned having to cancel two events out of threats to her safety. Such threats, if made, are wrong and illegal. But can she be surprised? Did she think encouraging her supporters to harass public officials wouldn’t spread like a fire to the other side?
We are now in a time when the head of Homeland Security is jeered publicly in a restaurant, and an intern for a Democratic Senator, working at the Capitol, can yell “Mr. President, F— you!” after Trump passes by, yet receive no worse than a one-week suspension.
A one week suspension? Yes. And her boss, Senator Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, told the media that the intern, a young woman, “took full responsibility (for her actions)” while Trump has not.
This is a common defense. Donald Trump is crude, a bully, uncivil, mean. It’s not us. He started it!
We used to say the same thing in grade school.
Teaching young people that it’s not so bad to curse out the President, teaching restaurant owners that it’s OK to toss customers for being on the other side of your politics, telling supporters that you should get ugly with any member of an administration you don’t like, isn’t going to get us away from an uncivil leader.
It’s only going to make us more like him.
That may not warrant a dunce cap, but you can’t really call it smart behavior, either.
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.