This was years ago, at a community college in a city five hours from here. I knew this guy was coming to the campus to speak. I’d read his letter confirming his presentation — it was out on the counter behind the secretaries’ desks when I looked for some forms for the English composition class I taught. Yes, he wrote, he’d be there on the date specified to speak to the sociology class. He also requested a guarantee of his safety.
What about this letter caught my eye? Certainly not the elegant block paragraphs in this dignified, civilized-looking letter. No — it was the logo on the letterhead. The sociology instructor had invited a representative from the Ku Klux Klan to come speak.
Huh, I thought. And then I forgot about it.
But a couple of weeks later, I remembered. I saw the teacher and his guest walking toward me. The guest wore the full KKK regalia.
Yow. My reaction was visceral. I was offended, horrified, disgusted.
What did I do? You guess. I’ll tell you in a while.
The teacher who invited the speaker was Jewish. I thought then, and I think now, that inviting a man to speak who despises your community takes courage and maturity — and a self-control that I did not have. The teacher was willing to listen and give time to a man from an organization that would happily prevent him from voting, would fire him, evict him. Or lynch him.
Me, too. I’m not Jewish, but I’m also not the KKK’s idea of a Christian.
Other things I took away from that moment: nobody else paid attention. I saw no demonstrators, no signs decrying his presence, no TV cameras. The campus remained as civilized as that well-typed letter.
I never heard any fallout from that guest’s presence. The speaker spoke. The teacher continued teaching. No classrooms went up in flames. I heard no comments in the cafeteria, no gossip about the guy in any of my classes. The teachers didn’t bring it up in the break room, either. The local newspaper mentioned nothing about it. Life went on.
I seemed to be the only one around who reacted the way I did.
I saw him. I gulped. And I turned my back. I wouldn’t give the speaker the honor of my acknowledgement.
This felt radical and rude. I’d never done that before, and I haven’t done it since.
He probably didn’t care, if he even noticed. And he probably had received less refined reactions in his lifetime. As long as I didn’t throw tomatoes or scream or take a tire iron to his car, he was happy.
And I was happy to get as far away from him as I could.
Sure, he could say whatever he wanted to that class. It didn’t occur to me to try to stop him from speaking. I just wanted nothing to do with him. So I had nothing to do with him.
Not terribly dramatic, right?
And I think about that silent, outwardly undramatic moment and I wonder how things might play out now. You and I agree that these days, some groups who don’t want other groups to present their ideas publicly will do everything they can to prevent anyone from hearing, bar people from attending these events and insult those trying to speak and trying to listen. The result: chaos. And chaos is catching.
I started this column intending to talk about courtesy — which, like chaos, is also catching. Although I keep hearing about increasing rudeness everywhere, I’m not seeing it in my own life. People smile at me, help me load my truck, wave me through the intersection, open doors for me, return my calls, wait for me patiently as I put my change back in my purse.
I know nothing about the politics of these patient people — or their religions, backgrounds, nationalities. They know nothing about me, either, as I open the door for them. For all they know, I could belong to the KKK. Or the person who opens the door for me might own unregistered guns and think correct spelling is overrated.
Yet here we are, knowing nothing about each other, and we’re exchanging courtesies. And the more people treat me well, the more I treat others well. Which is so much better than growling at each other.
Courtesy breeds courtesy. Civility is catching.
And we have that wonderful, civilizing First Amendment, which says I don’t have the right to shut you up. But I also have the right not to stick around and listen to you. Nor do I have the right to prevent anyone else from listening. I only have the right to decide for myself.
But we have the obligation, don’t we, to be civil about our opinions? We can civilly disagree. Someone isn’t stupid because they don’t agree with you.
I admit I have a hard time acknowledging the non-stupidity of that KKK speaker, though. But I’m proud that I shut up. I’m proud that I neither encouraged nor discouraged him. I could not have changed his mind — nor could he have changed mine.
Susan Rushton’s opinion column appears regularly in the Auburn Journal. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.