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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Right to Protest

Among other issues which divide Americans so starkly the right of protest and the reactions it elicits speak to fundamental differences that cut across political lines. Before I go further, let me add a point of clarification, though it is one I wish I needn’t add. When I speak of protest, I mean non-violent words and actions expressing the disagreement or disapproval of a policy, position or state of affairs. While some protests degenerate into violence the overwhelming majority do not, however much media and politicians would represent otherwise. Law and Order, the familiar dog whistles that are conjured up do nothing to allay fears, instead they act as not so subtle prompts to repression and silence—precisely the opposite of what protest is intended to prevent.

The right to protest is so important to our form of government that it is embodied in the US Constitution in the first amendment which states that “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble.” But long before the US existed, peaceable protest was the agency by which people sought justice, freedom from religious repression, relief from tyrants and from onerous taxation among other things. In our world it is a tool used to bring an issue to the attention of the public at large but also a mechanism intended to create social change. When we think about peaceful protest we might think of Gandhi or Martin Luther King but increasingly peaceful protest in our divisive world is not peaceful at all—violence is implicit even when violent action is not an immediate outcome.

Consider the Right to Life versus the Freedom of Choice movements. Advocates for both whether they invoke the action or not, contemplate violence—either to an unborn fetus or to the woman who carries that fetus, as the baseline assumption of their deep and emotionally charged contest. No resolution can be found to this divide as each claim a moral high ground that they believe should be set into law with appropriate punishments for the violation thereof. There is little room to consider root issues around which both sides might agree, such as prevention of unwanted pregnancy, or adequate social and financial support for unwed mothers that carry a child to term. These and other reforms that would result in reducing or even eliminating the need for termination of a pregnancy get lost in a din of religious and moral indignation in stark contravention of the stated aims—to preserve the autonomy of individuals without abridging the rights of others. Attempts to debate legality toward which both sides turn to counter one another devolve into existential definitions—and these are ultimately unproveable thus perpetuating the division.

The anti versus pro vaccination movements are another fertile ground for implicit violence—in this case surrounding the threat to children from administering or refraining from vaccination and the identical contest-between the autonomy of individuals to make a choice without abridging the rights of others is at the heart of the matter. On the one hand anti vax parents believe they alone should decide whether or not to expose their children to perceived harm—yet accept no responsibility for the possibility of harming other children through exposure to life threatening disease. Pro-vaxxers accuse their opponents of willfully placing their children in harm’s way and many would like to use policy and law to enforce mandatory vaccination in the interests of the public as a whole. In both cases, abortion and vaccination, the rights of the parent, the child, and the public are almost secondary considerations—lost in a miasma of religious, scientific, and moral dissension.

Given the enormous hurdles to a peaceful resolution of any of these contentious issues is there really a case for protest? The answer is emphatically yes, but the proof is not readily apparent. Protest, and even protest that rests on the knife’s edge of violence, is not an instrument for instantaneous change or societal upheaval. Rather it is the drop of water that over time wears away the stone. Humanity is not unchanging, but rather in a constantly evolving state of being. Our views, faith, beliefs and the rules for living we create embodying them reflect a generalized sensibility at a point in time—but one that is always subject to change. What was once anathema, considered immoral or unethical is not constant but neither does it change overnight—sometimes requiring generations to alter convictions. Consider the question of equality of rights for race or gender. While today these rights are ‘protected’ under law in our country—though certainly not the world over—those are relatively recent changes, that have been accepted (though not by all) in the last 150 years or less—a tiny fraction of the 90,000 years humankind has walked the earth.

When we look at the issues dividing us today, we benefit from understanding that notwithstanding our desire for immediate change no lasting change has ever been achieved except through the process of protest—the hastened discussion, the incipient conflict of opposing views. Violent opposition results in upheaval but never permanence. Much as we may wish for an easy or immediate resolution to our differences it is only when we as a human society reach a tipping point that we can begin the long and slow process paved by protest.

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