Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Is Protest Always Negative?

I ask this question specifically because I'm talking to people about whether or not protests about Dick Cheney being invited to give the commencement at BYU would be appropriate, helpful, and good. But I'm really surprised by some of the viewpoints I'm discovering. I was concerned about a Cheney protest for two reasons: (1) would it be disrespectful of the BYU Board of Directors? (specifically the members of the First Presidency that issued the invite) and (2) would it be disrespectful of the students graduating? (you have to be fair about this one . . . maybe you didn't go to your graduation, but for a lot of families this capstone commencement thing is a big, happy, important deal – and obviously the students had no say in this last minute controversial speaker brouhaha).

After lots of thought and discussion, I've decided that for (1) "No. They simply graciously accepted an offer by a sitting Vice President of the United States. There was no announcement of a new revelation that exercising our constitutional rights to disagree with our political leaders is now bad or wrong. Quite the contrary, if you look at the past few First Presidency proclamations on what we should be doing politically. So I think – as long as you're not tying the First Presidency to Cheney's politics on your protest placard and/or trying to bodily tackle the man in the middle of his speech –there are a number of ways you could 'protest' and still be on the side of right." Number (2) [respecting the graduation ceremony and students themselves], however, troubles me a little more and so I'm hoping that any physical protests the days of graduation are off campus . . . somewhere in the "miles between the airport and the Marriot Center" suggested by the Daily Universe editorial board. I like the old BYU campus at the Provo Library so far.

But man, what a hornets nest the expression"protest" is! My gut concerns were just the tip of the iceberg. On one listserve I've been checking out, you've got people that believe "protest" is always intended to "silence" a viewpoint that is disagreeable (and, therefore, really bad on a college campus). I've also seen the argument [quite eloquently presented] that protests are always negative and never do anything but reinforce stereotypes on both sides. Then you've got the people that think "protests" are just rude, boorish, and disrespectful spectacles for the vain self-important publicity seekers of the world.

I always kinda respected protesters. Even the ones I have to deal with at General Conference and the Hill Cumorah Pageant, etc. On my mission we did "streetboarding" at parks sometimes. And although I really feel we were more polite than a lot of "protesters" I've dealt with at the places I mentioned, I've always figured the gumption and motivation were simliar and I oughtta try to respect that.

But beyond that, I always thought some of the most important changes in our recent American history occurred because of "protesters". Wasn't the whole civil rights movement which helped break down our racist laws and attitudes fueled by protests? Or was that mostly "marches" and "demonstrations" and are those different somehow than traditional "protests"? If they are, should we start using those terms?

Is it just the protest of war that is ineffective? Is it just protest in Utah County that is ineffective?

I don't want to do anything that causes more harm than good. I do want to get a message across to many people I know who might just take Cheney's invitation as tacit (or even overt) approval of everything he politically stands for that there are other valid and fair ways to see this invitation. Like perhaps the Board of Directors were just being polite and gracious in receiving the sitting Vice President of the United States of America. That is, in fact, the claim. I think it is dishonorable to take that claim at less than face value. And if that is the case, then all those whose only problem with expressing dissenting opinions about Cheney's policies is that they believe the First Presidency approves of them . . . what possible basis could they have for that?

I am stunned by how little discussion of who Richard Cheney is and what he stands for has taken place on this campus before the invitation. There are a lot of people that are like "Whoa, why would it be so bad for any United States VP to come to BYU? What's the deal?" I find it incredibly positive that because "protests" are being planned there is a lot of discussion and research going on. So planning the protests, I think, is doing a world of good.

But is actually carrying through with them going to be bad? . . . What if a peaceful and informative rally were held on the old BYU campus – the Provo Library – that didn't mess up graduation? Is there another, totally different way to get the message out and not have negative effects on the graduation ceremonies and / or reinforce negative stereotypes? What do you guys think?

1 comment:

Alyssa said...

By the way, I really enjoy your blog and glad you've picked up writing again because I appreciate your insights and empathize with your political sympathies.

When I was a brand new freshman at BYU, I remember being invited to a protest organized by some Humanities students. The protest was about the decision to remove The Kiss and other famous sculptures from the Museum of Art's Rodin exhibition. The students who protested were issued Honor Code violations. But perhaps even more significantly, I remember that President Hinckley commented subtly about the protest in his devotional address that year, stating that LDS students at the University of Utah were more well behaved than some of the BYU protesters that he had seen on the television. I read it as a sort of grandfatherly slap on the hands to those who protested.

This has lead me to feel vaguely unsettled about participating in protests myself. I think you nicely capture that same ambiguity in your blog entry. Is it appropriate for members in good standing to protest---especially, say, in light of the 12th Article of Faith? What is our civil responsibility when we feel that our leaders are acting inappropriately?

For my part, I think it's good to remember that a formal protest is not the only way to express dissatisfaction and to try to bring about change. I'm in favor of protest by through Visual Arts professor Joe Ostraff calls "occupying discursive space." He calls that the space between full compliance and complete rebellion, the space where you are still abiding by the formal rules, but are expressing your dissension. He used the example of Christ's statement in Matthew 5:39-41. If a Roman compels you to give him your coat, give him your cloak too. You have kept the "rule," but humbly expressed your dissension too. It's an interesting concept, in my opinion. But could it be seen as passive or cowardly?