For weeks – possibly more – in Australia I’d watched the visceral discussion being had in the United States over various protests around the seemingly senseless and racially biased killings of black Americans by law enforcement.
There’s been a lot already said on this, and recently while I was in the United States I attended a presentation that included a ex-Navy Seal talking about management and leadership skills. The presentation was certainly interesting, but there was a brief Q&A session after. The final question was “how do you feel about people kneeling during the national anthem?” The (somewhat meandering) answer led to “there are some things you shouldn’t disrespect when you protest”.
My initial bullshit filter kicked in – if an object (flag, song, etc.) becomes so sacrosanct you can’t protest it, then there’s something dreadfully wrong in the society.
It’s an interesting question. What constitutes acceptable and unacceptable protest? The challenge here is there are truly offensive forms of protest. Like WestBoro Baptist Church sycophants holding hateful signs and holding mean-spriited vigils outside of funerals. Funerals should be sacrosanct, right?
But what if it was the funeral of someone truly despicable? Like Hitler? Surely it would have been OK to protest Hitler’s funeral, had he had one, right?
What about Margaret Thatcher? She was a despicable and divisive person – would it have been OK to protest her funeral? When John Howard eventually makes the world a better place by leaving it, will it be acceptable to protest at his funeral? Certainly we should speak the truth of the dead regardless of whether that is unpalatable or not, but would you necessarily do that when people who might have had a strong emotional bond to that person is potentially grieving at the person’s funeral? Regardless of my disdain for John Howard I know he has a family and that family is not tainted with his sins, and therefore would not deserve a protest at his funeral. (I believe the same would be said of Margaret Thatcher as well.)
The problem of course is we’re dealing with subjective analyses of personal behavioural traits.
Do we look at this from a utilitarian point of view? That protests should only take place when they do not impact on the greatest potential happiness for the greatest potential number of people? Herein lays the problem of trying to apply an ethical standard on protesting – the purpose of the protest is to demonstrate against and hopefully alter behaviour or laws you consider to be inappropriate. Many civil rights movements might not have achieved their success had we had a blanket attitude that protesting against a flag, a law, a person or a prevalent social attitude should be deemed inappropriate.
What form of ethical measurement then would we consider to allow protests and keep everyone happy?
Well, to start with, we can’t in this case keep everyone happy. Even if we take the attitude of no protests being allowed, this will make the people who want – or perhaps even ought – to protest unhappy. Perhaps such people are the silent majority, in which case a denial of protest would in fact fly in the face of a utilitarian view of ethical behaviour.
A deontological approach might be to define a set of rules and scenarios of when it might or might not be deemed appropriate to protest, but this of course just kicks the can down the road, because what happens if it turns out one of those rules about when we should or should not be protested should be protested?
One potential scenario would be to follow the ‘free speech’ argument – people ought to be allowed to protest whatever they like because that’s an expression of free speech. I’d suggest an unfettered observation of this is spurious bullshit however. Such scenarios can lead to the infliction of psychological trauma or perhaps culminate in physical violence when tempers or emotions fray. Yet we’ve demonstrated even recently in Australia there are solutions to this. The abhorrent practice of tormenting and traumatising women who were seeking an abortion in Australia was finally dealt with recently by establishing an exclusion zone around abortion clinics, preventing protestors from conducting their protest in such a way as to inflict pain (emotional or otherwise) on people.
Does that become the approach, then? Any protest is acceptable so long as it’s done in such a way as to not interfere unduly with others? That would be an extreme interpretation of the purpose of the law established in Victoria, and would lead to an effective silencing of protests, since they’d have to be conducted “out of sight/out of mind”.
It’s tempting to revert to the notion that no objection should be so sacrosanct that it can’t be protested. Yet my defence of say, someone burning a national flag would require me to defend someone burning a rainbow flag in a homophobic protest, too.
I find myself falling back to the notion of not accepting that allowing free speech also allows hate speech – or bigoted behaviour. Is burning a flag or refusing to stand during a national anthem something certain people would find uncomfortable? Certainly. But would either act, in or of itself, be a hate-speech action? I think not, until we evaluate the context of the action. Burning a flag because you loathe the country that owns the flag might be closer to hate speech. Burning your own flag because you’re protesting about immoral behaviour from your own government might not. Herein we get to a not so slight recursion problem – how do we define that which is immoral from a broad perspective and that which is immoral from the perspective of a subset of people? (I’m going to dodge that for now simply because that’s the root of ethics and something which people have been arguing for centuries.)
Is protesting a funeral of a gay man because you don’t like homosexuality representative of a protest bourn from hate speech, and disrespectful? I’d argue yes: those protesting such funerals hypocritically pick and choose their biases from their religious texts, blatantly ignoring others, and therefore don’t have a moral ground to walk on.
Is protesting the attitude of your country by kneeling during the national anthem hate speech if the attitude you are protesting is abhorrently high and inconsistent fatalities in a part of the population, caused by law enforcement officers?
If you think that’s wrong – that it’s disrespectful – maybe you need to think a little harder. I’m not going to pretend I’m undeniably right here, but I’d like to think I’ve looked at it from a few more angles today and challenged myself on it.