Thought for the Evening: Of Just Protest
Both in class discussions with students, and in various other situations outside of class, I've noticed a tendency not to think very critically about political protests. This occurs on two different levels -- one, there is a sort of cargo-cultism about protesting, in which people go through the motions without any real understanding of what they are doing; and two, there is a tendency not to recognize that protesting is the kind of thing that must be done according to ethical standards, beyond (what is often the only significant ethical issue to be considered) distinguishing between protest and riot. The first I set aside here, although I think it ends up being a severe problem; it will come up in passing in discussing the second, which I think is the more serious one.
There are a number of reasons why the ethical standards for protesting are actually fairly high, but the most essential of these arises from the nature of a protest in and of itself. A protest is by its very nature:
(a) a complaint, which must meet the kind of standard of reasonableness a complaint must meet; and
(b) a rebuke, and thus something that can be a punishment, which must meet standards of justice;
and therefore must meet ethical standards relevant to both.
Reasonable complaint requires moral standing to complain, which involves at least the following basic elements:
(1) A reasonable candidate for an injustice has been identified.
(2) The real cause of the injustice, to the extent possible, has been identified.
(3) The injustice must actually admit of an identifiable remedy.
(4) These three components must be properly integrated in the complaint, so that the protest is addressing the real cause of the injustice in such a way as to contribute to reaching the remedy.
(1) is sometimes the most vehemently debated, but it's arguably a fairly easy standard to reach, in part because even made-up reasons to protest (like those used by dictatorial regimes) may sometimes be only made-up in specifics. Generic injustices are easy to find. (2) is often an issue; one saw this with the Chik-fil-a protests a few years back, which were utterly ineffective because they were done without any understanding of how franchises work, so that the targets were all wrong. But I think this tends to be most commonly a problem with spontaneous protests in particular. I think the most common weakness with protests generally is with (3) and (4) -- one might think that this is a fairly obvious thing, but it is remarkable how often you can flummox people simply by asking them either "What, specifically, can and should be done to solve the problem?" or "What, specifically, is this protest supposed to do to help the problem get solved?" This ties in, I think, with the cargo-cultism I previously noted: people treat protests as if the point of them were to have a protest, when in reality protests are social means for achieving practical ends. And the position that people most often fall back to in answering the second question, that the protest is to "raise awareness", is a useless one -- protests are extraordinarily poor means for raising any kind of awareness at all. Raising awareness is what you do in order to get people to pay attention to your protest, and to pay attention to it in the right way; protesting in order to raise awareness is starting at the back end. The effectiveness of a protest depends on how aware people already are of the actual issues; a protest on its own cannot be interpreted properly without an already existing context in place; and raising awareness, on its own, doesn't actually do much, since such awareness, if not focused by something, is temporary and results in no practical action. If you are protesting only to raise awareness, you are wasting time that could be better spent on means that would actually address the problem.
Besides moral standing, there are additional conditions required for a rebuke to be fully just. For instance, it must be necessary -- that is, less drastic measures have been tried -- and it must be proportional to the problem -- overkill turns a rebuke into an unjust punishment. The protest must be legible, i.e., it must be set up in such a way that people can figure out why it's happening in the first place. And one must do it in such a way as is appropriate to common good -- that is, the way one does it must be focused on rendering benefit to everyone, even those against whom one is protesting. This is, I think, the most difficult of the standards to meet, and it is often not met; movements that have done unusually well at meeting it, like Gandhi in India, or many of the protests of the Civil Rights Movement, did not find it easy, and did as well as they did only because they put a lot of time and effort into trying.
People tend to assume, I think, that you've done your duty if you've avoided rioting, but finding out how to uphold the common good while protesting is not a trivial problem to solve. People also tend to assume that if your goals are just enough, you are done; but here, as everywhere else in ethics, your means must be appropriate and just. Both of these assumptions are very dangerous, ethically speaking, and seem to be tied to a tendency (which sometimes seems to be on the rise) to give oneself a free pass to attack your fellow citizens and human beings when you feel like it, without any consideration for them as citizens and human beings.
There are, in any case, various complications that arise that I haven't gone into here-- protests are often planned, but sometimes arise spontaneously in the face of egregious injustices, and the former arguably involves a rather stricter set of standards than the latter, for instance -- but the above all arise from general principles. You can't be a just person in any endeavor and not consider some analogue of these. There is no end run around them.
Various Links of Note
* John Irons translates the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, A Leaf from Heaven.
* Richard Marshall interviews Roman Altshuler on time and action.
* I recently gave a link to a translation of part of St. Francis Borgia's litany through the topics of Aquinas's Summa; for those who are interested, here is the full thing in Latin, all twenty-two dual-columned pages of it.
* Joseph Trabbic defends Plato's Republic.
Dorothy L. Sayers, The Man Born to be King
Christ - Our Pascha: Catechism of the Ukrainian Catholic Church
Max Planck, Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers
Hyacinthe Sigismond Gerdil, The Anti-Emile
Michael Flynn, In the Country of the Blind