On June 22, 2018, Stephanie Wilkinson, the owner of the Red Hen restaurant in Virginia, refused service to Sarah Sanders, the White House Press Secretary for the Trump Administration. Wilkinson asked Sanders to leave on “moral grounds” for supporting Trump’s policies including the practice of separating of illegal immigrant parents from their children.
Discriminating against Sanders was not against the law. In January 2017, Greg Piatek was refused service at a New York bar for wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. A judge ruled that the law does not protect against political discrimination.
However, just because it is legal to refuse service to Sanders or a Trump supporter does not make it moral. On the contrary, it is an act of bigotry: “intolerance towards those who hold different opinions from oneself.”
When a person is a bigot, they are intolerant towards a specific group of people. Unable to separate a group member from their beliefs, they reject the person. To a bigot, a person’s worth or value is based on what they believe.
Consciously or unconsciously, a bigot looks down on a member of a group and considers him or her a morally inferior human being. (If they regarded the person as their moral equal, they would not reject them.)
Bigotry is self-righteous behavior. It is tantamount to saying, “I’m a better person than you, and I’m not going to associate with you.” Bigots believe that their intolerance is justified because of the group member’s beliefs, values or actions.
Since Donald Trump became President, Democrats are more intolerant of Republicans than Republicans are of Democrats. According to a 2017 Pew Research poll, 35% of Democrats (and Democrat-leaners) said that if a friend voted for Trump, it would “put a strain on [the] friendship.” In contrast, only 13% of Republicans said it would put a strain on a friendship if a friend supported Hillary Clinton.
Whether Democrat or Republican, a political bigot can become so intolerant (because they believe they are right) that they shun people who they believe are wrong.
Shunning is an age-old practice of social control. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel, The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne is shunned by the members of her community because she committed adultery. Shunning serves as a warning to others: If you violate certain social norms, you will become a social outcast too.
One problem with shunning is it often results in living by a double standard. If you shun a person on “moral grounds” then you become obligated (by your own moral standard) to shun anyone else whose behavior is equally bad or worse.
Instead of shunning, it is better to engage in dialogue with the person we disagree with. Speaking the truth is the right moral response to someone whose beliefs or actions we find offensive. Too often, shunning someone is hatred and contempt masquerading as a virtue.
Shunning can be justified to safeguard our physical and/or mental health. For instance, if someone threatens to harm us, then we would be wise to have no contact with them and report them to the police.
However, if a person intends us no harm, and has done us no wrong, then there are no “moral grounds” to shun them. The act of shunning only serves to dehumanize them.
When a business owner shuns a Trump supporter (by refusing service), they may rationalize it as a form of protest. While it will no doubt gain media attention, it is not about protest.
Shunning is a form of punishment. When Wilkinson refused service to Sanders, she wanted the White House Press Secretary to pay a price: to become a social outcast for supporting Trump’s policies.
Hence, when used as a political strategy, shunning is an attempt to make oneself appear on the side of the angels, and the person you disagree with, a devil.