Protest has grown as a part of public discourse over the last four years in America. The Black Lives Matter movement reawakened Civil Rights demonstrations around the country and, through social media, more people saw the truth of the violence indicted by the protests, as well as get involved with the movement. Trump’s election to office has since heightened protesting in America to another level. In a time where larger groups people feel abandoned by their government and innumerable amounts of their countrymen, there is endless value in protest.
Unsurprisingly, protest makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable. Not only does protesting something target those holding the beliefs or powers being brought into question, protest’s transgressive nature often makes “moderates” uncomfortable because it is seen as an inappropriate form of discourse.
Protests are supposed make people feel uncomfortable. If one feels attacked by the protest as a moderate, maybe they need to reevaluate themselves. For those in power being protested, realize that protest is a product of power failing people. In many cases, the status quo has failed millions in the United States on countless fronts. When those marginalized people no longer feel like they are being represented by politicians, they need to find a way to represent themselves, and loudly. As for transgression, it is a key part of successful protesting. Power has never worked in the interest of people without coercion. Power works for power when not contested. Transgression returns leverage to people and thus can force power structures to react in the public’s favor.
I am not here to argue for protest, however. That is a tired argument and it is ridiculous we must still ask the value of protest in a country born of it. However, the new reaction to this public transgression is this “Let them be heard” rhetoric from moderates and those whose views put them in the crosshairs of activists. Oh, don’t get them wrong, they have no interest in letting protesters be heard, just the people they are protesting.
The success of protest movements or any kind of Anti-Status Quo movement is impeded by those insisting on respectability in order to neuter the effect of dissenting speech. Today we hear on a daily basis that is inappropriate to shout down, walk out on or block out some of these speakers and writers “just because they do not agree with” those protesting. This insistence on respectability is incredibly obtuse at best and dangerous at worst.
For one, this never goes both ways. Those who insist protesters respect the views of those they are protesting will never and have never advocated the inverse. That in itself reveals the intention to shut down dissent rather than create an environment of “respectable discourse”. More importantly, the stakes are entirely different. Letting a handful of Black Lives Matters demonstrators speak has a wholly different effect than, say, letting Milo Yiannopoulos speak. Black Lives Matters protesters are arguing for compassion and equality while Milo is going around to college campuses and telling students to out undocumented immigrants to ICE. One message hurts no one and promotes a healthy social environment while Milo’s message is violent in nature.
In a different way, no one should have to read Bret Stephens rail on about how climate change does not exist and how we should respect those who feel that way. What an absurd notion. Climate change not only exists, but is one of the greatest threats this generation faces. Denial of climate change abets a certain ignorance that will hurt millions down the line. People like Mike Pence and Betsy DeVos have dedicated their lives to marginalizing people and there is no signal to suggest they want to stop. If they are speaking at a graduation, hell yeah students should walk out on them or boo them. These are dangerous public figures and there is nothing in either’s history to suggest otherwise. For them to claim a day as important as a student’s college graduation is ridiculous and the student, who the day belongs to, has every right to walk out.
The stakes in these conversations are entirely different. Often the difference is a dispute of existence. Mike Pence, for instance, is one of the most degenerative politicians in the last fifteen years when it comes to LGBTQ rights. Not only did he advocate for Conversion Therapy, which is torture, but he also caused one of the largest HIV outbreaks in the 21st century. There is a laundry list of reasons that people, especially among the LGBTQ community, should see Pence as a threat to their existence. No one should have to listen to Mike Pence speak.
Chiding the students for walking out on Mike Pence but not chiding Mike Pence for his regressive social stances is exactly the problem we have with discourse surrounding protest. People would rather live in a bubble unaffected by others’ struggles and only get upset when someone pops that bubble to let them know that these politicians are getting people killed.
Lastly, there is nothing new about what Mike Pence has to say. There is nothing new about what Bret Stephens or Betsy DeVos have to say. There is nothing new about the dog whistle bigotry, classism and ignorance that come from these people and their ilk. America has fostered these views for centuries and we have seen the result of them over and over and that result is never good. The reason people are protesting is because of the social and economic environment that those exact views have created. Listening to them for another second is in no way productive.
There are plenty of things that can be left up to debate in today’s world. If somebody came up to me and started talking about why hard shell tacos are so much better than soft shell tacos, I would have no problem listening to them. They are wrong, but their wrong opinion does not threaten my existence or that of others. On the other hand, if someone came up to me to say that America should be a White Christian Country and that Jews control the media, at the very least I would leave the premises so that I would not have to hear such speech.
While this is somewhat of an extreme example, the facts remain the same that not all speech deserves a listening ear and some speech is wholly unacceptable. Sure, people have the right to spout hateful vitriol under the first amendment, but there is also going to be a warranted reaction to it that the speaker may not like. Equivocating the value of speech between the dissenter and the dissented is dangerous in that it undermines the value of social progress, boosts oppressive/violent ideologies and works to silence the voice of the protester while amplifying the views of the protested. When the debate is on the equal existence of certain human beings, why would you want to hear the other side?