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Emily Mills: In defense of incivility

Emily Mills: In defense of incivility

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An aerial view of the Wisconsin state Capitol building.

One thousand, five hundred and forty-nine human lives lost (so far). One hundred and sixty-seven thousand people infected. Our state is currently one of the worst hotspots for COVID-19 in the country, but the state Republican Party and its friends at the Tavern League could care less.

But go on and tut-tut about how some people are using “coarse language” in response to one of the most monumentally mismanaged public health and economic crises of the past century.

We’ve long suffered from a surplus of scolding about the “lost art” of civility in public discourse. Rarely has it been directed at the policies and laws that cause actual harm to people, like separating children from their parents at the border, or forced hysterectomies, or exploitative working conditions, or underfunded public schools, or the silencing of good science. Rather, we hear a great wailing and gnashing of teeth about how no one can try to undermine efforts to contain a deadly virus that’s tearing communities apart without being called the c-word. Truly, what is the world coming to?

The latest episode in this national obsession with so-called decorum comes in response to Democratic Assembly candidate Francesca Hong’s tweet calling out the Wisconsin Tavern League for its efforts to undo Gov. Tony Evers’ limit on indoor gatherings.

Hong, the chef and owner of Morris Ramen in Madison and a longtime advocate for service industry workers, rightly lambasted the Tavern League for its focus on profits over people. The lobbying group, like the state GOP, seems unconcerned with any proactive measures to support its members or the industry it purports to represent. There’s a complete lack of understanding or acknowledgment that, at some point, there won’t be many people left to run those bars and restaurants — or patronize them — if we just sit back and let the virus run rampant.

We in the Midwest are very fond of being “nice.” I’d rather we prioritized being kind. Kindness does not preclude pointed criticism or anger. I’d say that anger in the service of kindness is one of our most potent catalysts for change. Niceness, also known as civility, hasn’t worked because it is, by design, a means of avoiding conflict or accountability. It’s a tool of the powerful and the oppressors. It’s a rigged game, meant to hamstring any and every attempt to create real change while giving the appearance of meaningful engagement. Then, when those suffering under the constant barrage of indignities meted out by the ruling class get (rightfully) pissed off, the pearl clutching starts in earnest. Why can’t they just take the oppression without being so uppity?

This is even more outrageous given that neither the Tavern League nor the Wisconsin Republican Party have taken any concrete steps to provide relief for their constituencies. While Hong has been coordinating mutual aid in the form of food box deliveries to those in need, prioritizing the health and safety of her staff, and promoting small businesses, what have the Tavern League or the GOP done?

Nothing. There is no plan to combat COVID-19 or give aid to those suffering from the economic and social fallout of the pandemic. GOP leaders, the gruesome twosome of Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, have refused to even call the Legislature into session — except for a perfunctory, gavel-in-gavel-out when Evers tried to get them to act on racial justice and police reform. They have not passed a bill in months, in fact, earning them the title of least active, full-time legislative body in the country. However, they seem to have all the time in the world to attack the most basic and needed policies to keep Wisconsinites safe and alive in the middle of a historic crisis, the management of which their farce of a president has managed more poorly than his dozens of bankrupted businesses.

We are in uncharted waters, with a captain badly in need of a mutiny, faced with unimaginable loss of life and economic stability for most of America.

Naughty language as a response to such blatant disregard of human suffering should be the least of our concerns.

Emily Mills is a writer, editor, storyteller and musician. She spent several years as a regular opinion columnist, first for Isthmus and then for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, before putting down her pen for a much-needed break. It obviously didn't take. Emily lives in Madison with her partners and puppies.

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