The Ethics of Political Disruption

Posted on December 7, 2010


One positive side-effect of my participation in NaNoWriMo is that it has given me an awful lot to blog about. At the beginning of November, I decided that having two writing projects on the go at once would probably drive me to madness. I therefore decided to forget about my blog for a little while. Unfortunately, my other writing commitment did not stop interesting (and by interesting, I sometimes mean infuriating) things from happening. The result is that I have generated dozens of post ideas from a month of not blogging. I promptly forgot most of them at midnight on November 30, but I had the good sense to write a few down.

One such event occurred at the University of Waterloo. Christie Blatchford was to speak at the school to promote Helpless, her new book where she argues that the Caledonia Standoff is an example of total lawlessness on Canadian soil. It isn’t terribly surprising that some people have a problem with this thesis. What is a little bit more surprising is that some of these people decided that an appropriate response to Blatchford’s appearance would be to storm the stage, bike lock themselves together, and prevent Blatchford from speaking by shouting out accusations of racism.

This is not the first time that this has happened. Planned disruptions are a staple of campus leftists, and wharrgarbled responses to them are a good way for right-wing campus bloggers to whip their followers into a frenzy. If you want to be cynical about it, you can say that these events benefit both sides of the political spectrum. Unfortunately, things that make good politics frequently lead to bad policy. The polarizing nature of these actions is detrimental to political discourse, regardless of who they aim to shut down.

Shutting down a speech can, of course, look very good in the short term. Imagine that your least favourite pundit (Everybody has one. Mine is Charles McVety) was coming to speak somewhere near you, and you knew that the content of their speech would be nothing short of appalling. In such a situation, it is easy to think that anything would be better than having one’s campus suffer the indignity of the planned speaking engagement. The actions of Kitchener-Waterloo’s Anti-Racist Action are, therefore, worthy of sympathy if not endorsement.

The problem with this justification is that it has more to do with your feelings towards a particular issue than the relevant facts. There is nothing about disrupting a speech which suggests that you have a better grasp of the topic than the intended speaker. I have intentionally not read up on the Caldeonia standoff before writing this post, because I would like to point out that I am the kind of person that the Kitchener-Waterloo Anti-Racist Action should be trying to win over. I am undecided on that particular issue because I don’t know anything about it. Blatchford’s book offers one biased interpretation of the event. If I read and uncritically accept what Blatchford has written without access to any alternative perspective (and accusations of Nazi sympathies do not count as an alternate perspective), then I will be won over into her camp.

In disrupting Blatchford’s speech, the Kithener-Waterloo ARA did not bring any new information or arguments to the table. The only thing I can learn from their actions is that they think that Blatchford is a racist, and that they are good at shutting down events. Neither of these gives me any good reason to believe that Blatchford is, in fact, a racist. The protesters should also note that their disruption got national media attention, and there is no such thing as bad publicity.  Their actions have therefore increased the readership of the book while providing no substantial alternate perspective. This constitutes a massive step away from their goal of educating the public about the history of colonialism which lead to today’s situation in Caledonia. Even if Blatchford truly is a horrible racist, the actions of ARA Kitchener-Waterloo were not remotely useful in furthering any discussion of the matter.

I am going to go one step further and suggest that these kinds of actions are never justified. The reason that it is never justified to disrupt an event is that it takes political influence away from those who have the best facts and arguments, and places it in the hands of those who have the loudest voices and the most disruptive tactics. If you are offended by the hateful, ignorant bile that is being spouted at a nearby speaking event, then the most effective way to disarm the speaker is to confront them on their own terms. Attend the event, let them say their piece, and then ask very pointed questions with the goal of invalidating their position. If you have better facts, then cite them. If their argument employs fallacies, then point them out. Nobody was ever made into a martyr by being publicly proven wrong.

Of course, this post would not be complete if I did not bring abstract philosophy into this. I’m going to do so by bringing up Immanuel Kant, a rather boring German dude who lived about two hundred years ago. He developed a remarkably complete (if somewhat flawed) ethical system based on an idea called the Categorical Imperative. There are two formulations of this. The first can be roughly summarized as follows:

“…act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law”

This is best illustrated with the case of lying. If everybody always lied, then the entire concept of truth would be invalidated and the very act of lying would therefore be meaningless. Lying is, therefore, always off limits because you are irrationally placing yourself ahead of others by allowing yourself to do it.

There are a number of good reasons to think that the Categorical Imperative is obselete. I think, however, that Kant’s theory is based on a valuable intuition. If you need to make an exception of yourself in order to justify your conduct, then you’re probably not acting all that justifiably.

Applying this simplified and less absolute version of Kantian ethics to the question of political tactics, we come away with the following question: If you would agree with the right of your most hated political opponents to engage in the action you have planned, then you are justified. If not, then there is a good chance you are trying to move the conflict away from substantive ideas and into the realm of dirty tricks. If a bunch of white supremacists showed up at a lecture by some native elders and shouted racial epithets until the planned speech was abandoned, I doubt the Kingston-Waterloo ARA would agree that turnabout is fair play. If the Carleton University Administration, bowing to pressure from church groups, took on a pro-life stance and had pro-choice protesters arrested for not protesting in a designated room with a closed door, I don’t think the progressives would see it as a fair application of campus regulations. And if the Toronto Police were called in to brutally crush a large gathering of conservative protesters calling for market liberalization at a meeting of socialist governments, I don’t think that the Blogging Tories would be giving the police the benefit of the doubt.

So, to activists of all political affiliations: Play nice, and let politics be based on who has the best ideas, rather than who is best at silencing competing ideas.

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