Last week, talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres came under fire for her friendship with former president George W. Bush. Ellen responded with a statement promoting kindness and friendship, even to those who “don’t think the same way we do.” The statement has been picked apart and eviscerated nearly to death, but the concept of unconditional kindness still prickles the back of my mind.
The nuances of civility and respect are under examination in recent years, but there’s a limit to the amount of kindness one can show to someone who believes they are less than human. Bush has undergone a dramatic rebranding as a nice old grandpa who paints, but his history of violence and homophobia in office will not simply evaporate. In her statement, DeGeneres chooses civility at the expense of her own humanity in the eyes of a friend. Many Jewish people, I’m sure, have chosen the same.
Anti-Semitism is a given where I’m from. A small collection of Jewish kids in a mainly white, straight, Christian-adjacent school system endure consistent micro-aggressions, often from friends and teachers who don’t understand the gravity of their statements and actions. When I was working menial jobs slinging sandwiches and burritos in college, my coworkers dropped anti-Semitic bombs without so much as a blink. They made oven jokes, asked invasive questions and made comments based on stereotypes so ludicrous I could only stand, mouth agape, and stare. These micro-aggressions came from people I thought I could trust, who were otherwise friendly and welcoming and kind. They came from people who were marginalized as well, who understood what it felt like to be made small and did it anyway.
Eventually, I stopped staring and started snapping back, which is a dangerous thing to do when one is outnumbered. I was rude. I was coarse and hit below the belt and was more than willing to clock out and take the conversation outside. To an observer, I was out of line, particularly in the hyper-polite, passive-aggressive Midwest. I was supposed to smile tightly and turn back to my work, nicked to death by a thousand paper cuts.
Civility is not being kind without exception. Kindness should not come at your own expense. So many Jews have bitten their tongues and remained friendly for years with people who, in their politics and words and actions, clearly believe they should not exist. The push for civility, for “turning the other cheek,” is meant for the comfort of the aggressor. No one wants to admit they’ve been anti-Semitic or homophobic or racist. When a minority takes a stand, it makes them uncomfortable, and we cannot have that. Pushing civility means pushing for comfort over humanity. Remaining silent when a cousin uses hate speech at Thanksgiving may be polite, but it also allows the speech to continue.
It’s OK to not be friends with people who hate you. It’s OK to break ties, to speak up, to push back. It’s OK to be rude and get up from the table, to take the gloves off. It’s OK to stand up for yourself and to protect your community. Civility and kindness are important, but they should be given to those who give them as well. No matter how nice or well-dressed or eloquent that Nazi is, he’s still a Nazi. When he talks, you don’t have to listen.