When President Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was recently refused service at the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, both Trump supporters and some liberals criticized the restaurant owner, Stephanie Wilkinson, and called for “civility.” Yet asking Sanders to leave was in fact a thoughtful stand taken by Wilkinson after consulting her staff, some of whom were uncomfortable serving Sanders. It was a stand carried out with remarkable civility, given the many egregious examples of the Trump administration’s own incivility. The owner even comped the cheese plate Sanders and her staff had eaten.

Does Buddhism counsel civility above all else? One could argue that it does. Yet the civility that it advises is neither a tolerance of all views or actions nor a commitment to break bread with everyone, especially when refusing to share one’s table might send a powerful message of critique and a refusal to collaborate with or normalize grossly unethical behavior. Burmese and Cambodian monks, for instance, have turned over their bowls and refused to accept offerings from their respective governments—a much more serious rebuke than refusing to serve someone food, as it refuses the person a chance to make merit and be seen as virtuous in the community. No doubt those monks were also accused of being uncivil.

The civility that Buddhism advocates is a civility of the mind. A civil mind, in Buddhist terms, is a mind that possesses the brahmaviharas, or four immeasurables (goodwill, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity) and abandons the three poisons (greed, hatred, and delusion) while cultivating their many opposites, like generosity, patience, calm, and clarity. These states of mind are not only civil because they encourage gentility and kindness but also because they literally build civilization. Civil states of mind are both humane and foster healthy community.   

The landscape of public discourse, however, seems pervaded by uncivil emotions. Verbal wars, often toxic to both speaker and listener, rage over how to best view things: which terminologies are most just or free of oppressive thought structures, which worldview or analysis is right or wrong, which person is pure or impure or good or bad, which actions are helpful or harmful. As important as these debates are, there is a real danger in overlooking their affective nature—the moods and motivations that underlie them, and whether they are, in these senses, civil.

“Affect is easily one of the more under-attended drivers of recent world events beyond and within movements, and it may also be among the most crucial spaces of intervention,” writes poet and activist Hari Alluri in the introduction to Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times, which explores the emotional toxicity that often creeps into activist communities and how to cultivate alternatives.

The word “affect” is popular among contemporary activists, but its present use is rooted in the works of the radical 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), who meant it as a transformative feeling that moves one either to a state of greater capacity, clarity, and vitality, or toward depletion, weakness, and dullness of thought. As Alluri writes, “affect” has not only personal but also communal and even international effects, driving a politics of love or fear, clarity or confusion, proactivity or reactivity.

The analysis of mental states with regard to their effects, as opposed to a moralistic or theological analysis, is bound to strike a chord with Buddhists. The Buddha analyzed mental states with regard to the way they color consciousness, their impact on well-being and clarity of thought, and their short- and long-term effects in promoting pleasure or suffering. For the Buddha, the health of the mind was primary:

Phenomena are preceded by the heart,
ruled by the heart, made of the heart.
If you speak or act with a corrupted heart,
then suffering follows you —
as the wheel of the cart, the track of the ox
that pulls it.


The 8th-century Indian Buddhist saint Shantideva, in the Guide to The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, wrote:

If at the outset, when I check my mind,
I find that it is tainted with some fault,
I shall be still and self-possessed,
Unmoving like a piece of wood.

When I was a monk, I was given a similar piece of advice by an ajaan [teacher] in the Thai Forest tradition: “When you’re doing something, keep 9/10 of your attention on your mind and 1/10 on the work. If your state of mind declines, then stop what you’re doing until you’ve got it back.”

To overlook our own mind is a falling away from cittanupassana, or mindfulness of mental states. Sometimes we may feel that an angry, tense, or tiring exchange is justified by the worth of our cause, or that engaging with another in a way that provokes their anger or damages the relationship is worth it in light of the important facts or principles we are defending. Buddhist analysis, which tends to reject the justification of the means to an end, would argue otherwise. According to the law of karma, good mental states produce good results, and vice versa. As the Thai forest monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu once wrote, it is not good intentions that pave the road to hell: it is those that are greedy, harmful, mean, inappropriate, or ignorant. When we seek love with hatred, peace with war, or happiness by means of unhappiness, there is probably something wrong with the intentions behind our actions, and they could bear some investigation.

It is important to note, however, that this critique of toxic results is not intended as a way of silencing the anger or sadness of those suffering under oppressive structures or confronting discrimination. It is all too easy to take the wisdom of calm and kindness and then use that as a way to shut down people raising uncomfortable truths. The best response to someone else’s anger or pain is almost always to listen, try to understand it, and offer what support we can, not to tell the person to be polite, calm down, or focus on common ground. The Buddha’s analysis of toxic emotions and clinging to views is, like all of the Buddha’s medicine, meant to be taken by ourselves, not weaponized against others.

Wilkinson was kind and polite as she used the resource at her disposal—her restaurant—to protest the actions of the Trump administration and to stand in solidarity with those in her community whom it had discriminated against. Civil indeed.

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