Topic: Professions & Institutions
Protest Ethics: Futility vs. Realism
Scoreboard visitor and University of Rhode Island student Jeff Hibbert called our attention to a recent column by Providence Journal columnist Bob Kerr in which he chided U.R.I. students for being so parochial and trivial (in his view) as to stage a protest against an objectionable school policy rather than something important, like the Iraq War.
The protest was organized to express the students’ objections to new campus policies that would allow the University to search dorm rooms, administer Breathalyzer tests and some other disciplinary measures. The details really aren’t important, nor are the relative merits of the students’ dispute with the school’s administration. What counts is that the students disagreed with school policies, which they felt were excessive and unjust and reduced their freedoms on campus, and they decided to protest. It was a legitimate act, and a legitimate protest, especially so because unlike most protests, it actually caused those in power to take notice. U.R.I.’s president attended, and the effort was judged a success. Now, thanks to the protest, there’s a dialogue. The university is listening to the students. Mission: accomplished.
But in Mr. Kerr’s view, the whole matter was a waste of time:
Well, thank you, sir; now we know what you want to protest. But it is the height of presumptuousness, not to mention as arrogant as can be, for you to belittle what others care about, especially when the matters at issue does affect their daily lives.
It seems that Mr. Kerr has adopted an odd standard for protests. He evidently feels that a legitimate protest can’t be about something that is “only” about the protesters, like the protest by those self-centered Boston merchants who opposed the British tea tax by throwing tea into the harbor. (And imagine how darned silly they looked dressed up as Indians but I digress.) And apparently Kerr-approved protests aren’t supposed to have any discernable impact, as it is highly unlikely that a group of Rhode Island college students chanting anti-war slogans are going to cause aides at the White House to exclaim in a panic, “My God, Mr. President! Some college students oppose the war!! We certainly never expected this!”
Heaven forbid that a student protest actually accomplishes something tangible, like the demonstration Kerr ridiculed. Why invest all that emotional energy to actually change a school policy, Kerr asks, when you can invest it in getting on the local evening news, inconveniencing your fellow students, marching around with placards, and changing, in all likelihood, nothing? Oh, that’s right you’ll be protesting something that Bob Kerr cares about. That makes a protest worth the effort. Protest about something that doesn’t make his personal list, and you’re “silly.” “Self-absorbed.” “Irrelevant.”
The Scoreboard protests. Futile protests are for the most part unethical protests. Unless a protest or demonstration has a concrete and achievable objective, it devalues protest generally, increases cynicism, and dulls what can be a very effective tool of political and social change. Self-absorbed and unnecessary protests are the ones that are simply designed to make noise, not the kind of modest, effective protest that occurred at U.R.I. It is simple hubris to “protest” world hunger, or “racism” or any number of other macro issues that are simply not going to change one iota because students demonstrate about it on campus. Ethical protests have a realistic objective, and design the demonstration to accomplish it. Shouting that “war is bad” on a Rhode Island campus? Not a realistic objective, and therefore not a serious protest. Getting the university to re-think an offensive policy? Focused, realistic, ethical: good protest.
Meanwhile, Bob Kerr, bad column! The university is where students live; it is their world for four years, and if the conditions in their world aren’t legitimate objects of protest, nothing is. The students at the University of Rhode Island had a grievance and acted on it. They deserve respect, not cheap shots from a self-appointed arbiter of what’s “important” enough to protest.
One of the student protesters alerted the Scoreboard to the fact that Kerr’s column also misrepresented, in typical columnist fashion, the nature of the issues that sparked their actions. The fact that these are more substantive than Kerr implied doesn’t really alter the Scoreboard’s opinion, but the University of Rhode Island students have a right to correct Kerr’s effort to make them to be a bunch of beer-swilling rowdies. According to one of the protest organizers
“Very briefly, the changes to the URI Manual included:
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