Over the weekend, Sarah Huckabee Sanders was politely asked to leave the Red Hen restaurant in Virginia because the employees did not want to serve her. She calmly left the restaurant and the incident did not escalate—except, of course, when it expanded to social media with new players. This was not the only episode of protest. Rather ironically, Pam Bondi (the attorney general of my adopted state of Florida) was targeted by protestors at a screening of the new Mr. Rogers documentary.
One concern raised by some about the media (social and otherwise) focus on these episodes is that they are a distraction from more important issues. For example, critics have contended that the focus should be on migration, especially the treatment of migrant children being held in detention.
On the face of it, this sort of concern is legitimate. Like a computer, the human mind can only handle so much—memory and processing power used to address one matter means less for other matters. As such, if people cannot focus on multiple matters, then they should focus on the more important ones at the expense of the less important. On a related note, I occasional get a similar sort of criticism when I write an essay on a topic a reader might regard as of little importance—the gist of the contention is that it is a waste to write about such topics.
One reply to this contention is to point out that people deal with hundreds of things each day of varying degrees of importance (and triviality) and it is unlikely that their minds would be utterly exhausted by considering the matter of the Red Hen. Another reply is that people do, obviously, have a choice on what they focus on—so while the media might be focusing too much on, for example, Red Hengate, people can seek out stories that cover the subjects they regard as more important. In the case of my essays, it is easy enough to ignore the ones that a person thinks of as unworthy of attention (which could easily be all of them).
Another reply is to note the obvious fact that importance is relative. As such, what one person regards as unimportant to them can be very important to others. For example, my knee injury is probably of no importance to you yet is rather important to me. Likewise, the treatment received by Sanders and Bondi might seem unworthy of attention by some yet be quite important to others. As such, when someone says that something is unimportant, they typically mean that it is not important to them. This does raise the broader philosophical question about subjectivity and objectivity. In this context, the key question is whether there is objective importance. Unfortunately, addressing the subjectivity-objectivity debate would go far beyond the limited scope of this essay. Fortunately, I can advance the discussion without addressing that problem.
Even if importance is not objective, it is still possible for a person to be in error in their assessment. This is because, obviously enough, people can make a mistake in assessing how much something impacts what they value—which is a good, albeit rough, measure of importance. For example, someone buying a house might regard the Federal Reserve as unimportant because they find it uninteresting—yet if they knew that it impacts the rate they will pay on their mortgage, they would realize that it is quite important. As such, it is possible that the Red Hen and Mr. Rogers incidents are important even for many who think they are unimportant. The challenge is showing that these incidents do impact what they value. One obvious problem with this approach is that people value different things, so no one argument will appeal to everyone. However, I think that a broad enough argument can be made by appealing to those consider how Americans interact on political matters to be of concern.
While Trump and his defenders have largely shredded the old rules and traditions that have governed political interactions, the liberals have generally followed Michelle Obama’s imperative to “go high” when others “go low.” There have, of course, been some exceptions in the recent past, but the latest incidents could mark a shift in how the left approaches the Trump administration. For example, Maxine Waters has put forth a call to action against members of Trump’s cabinet: she wants people to form crowds to tell them they are not welcome anywhere. This is essentially what was done to Bondi and Sanders, although they are not members of Trump’s cabinet. While targeting individuals for such public attacks is not a new thing in politics, widespread adoption would mark a shift in American political discourse. As such, those who are concerned with this matter should regard these incidents as important—or, more accurately, potentially important. If they turn out to be aberrations, then it will be show that they did, in fact, not really matter.
I have, obviously enough, not addressed the ethics of such attacks. That will be the subject of an upcoming essay.