I was thinking about Jon Ronson’s book about public shaming and about recent debates about political tactics and something came together:
When making arguments about ethics, white men consistently ignore power as a lens of analysis. For many of them, actions are either right or wrong regardless of power differentials between the people involved, the stakes for those with less power, and the options they have available to them.
Protesting to have Milo disinvited from your campus therefore becomes *just as bad* as Milo’s own actions towards marginalized people, despite the vast disparities in harm done and options available. (This is not a strawman. When y'all say, “This makes you just as bad as them,” that’s literally what you’re saying.) That Milo’s talk, as planned, would’ve caused serious, measurable, and irreparable harm to specific students, and that protesters had exhausted all “proper” channels for months beforehand, doesn’t seem to matter in this analysis.
All that matters is the specific action taken. “Preventing a person from speaking.” “Destroying property.” “Public shaming.” These actions are seen as unethical regardless of who did them and why, what consequences they face if they do not take these actions, and what other options–if any–they have available.
I keep coming back to MLK’s quote about riots being the language of the unheard. For the most part, people resort to tactics that fall into ethical grey areas because other tactics are unavailable or have already failed. I’m sure that there are people who do so despite having better options, just as there are always people who act unethically in other ways.
But unfortunately, for an outside observer with no skin in the game, it’s very hard to tell whether or not that’s the case. I saw so many posts patronizingly chiding Berkeley students for not trying other tactics before protesting and/or destroying property (although most did not destroy property, and the oft-used phrase “violent protest” implies much more than that). They had no idea of the lengths to which the protesters went to utilize “appropriate” means to keep themselves and their community safe. It didn’t work. They remained unheard.
Any ethics that ignores the role of power will privilege the powerful. Our Republican members of Congress don’t need to riot, set fires, and block the streets in order to get what they want. They do appropriate, ethical things like draft policies and have debates and vote. Because they have the power to. The specific actions they take–drafting policies, debating, voting–are not seen as inherently unethical things to do. Yet they’ve destroyed lives, families, and communities. They’ve achieved a level of destruction that even the rowdiest masked protesters never could, not that they’d want to.