Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D.
The Ethics Guy, BusinessWeek.com
The fear that as many as 30,000 protestors will disrupt the 2008 Democratic National Convention this week has led to preparations for an unprecedented turnout by federal and local authorities, according to the New York Times. The city of Denver has spent over $2 million on protection equipment for police officers, and millions more from the federal government will be tagged for Secret Service, FBI agents, and others charged with maintaining law and order. It’s quite possible that protests planned for the Republican National Convention, to be held in Minneapolis-St. Paul from September 1-4, will be even larger and more intense.
With such a hefty price tag for keeping the peace and the logistical nightmare of doing so, wouldn’t it be better if the protesters just kept their mouths shut? Isn’t it unpatriotic to voice dissent about political matters? What good does protest do, anyway?
The correct answers are: no, no, and a lot.
A HISTORY OF PROTEST
Our country was founded on the twin platforms of dissent and protest. Dissent is thinking or feeling differently about something, and protest is taking action based on dissent. It’s easy to dismiss protests as the undertakings of zealots and kooks, but the history of the United States is largely one of protest: the Boston Tea Party, the Revolutionary War, and the Declaration of Independence are quintessential examples of protest and the reason why we have the freedoms we do.
“What does this have to do with me?” you might ask. “I’ve never protested anything in my life.” This isn’t true, at least if you’ve ever voted. Voting is the most powerful way you can make your voice heard, and it is often done as a form of protest. Don’t believe it? How often have you said, or heard someone else say, “I’m voting for candidate X not because I like him or her, but because I like the other candidate even less”? Not only is there nothing wrong with using your vote this way, but it would be wrong if you were truly bothered by what a candidate represented and did nothing about it.
A CODE OF ETHICS FOR PROTESTING
Yes, we have a responsibility to speak up when we are upset by what’s going on in the world, but there are better and worse ways to do it, from both ethical and practical perspectives. The goal of any protest is a moral one: to make things better. However, this concern must be balanced against the ethical obligations to do no harm, respect others, and be fair. With these concerns in mind, I propose the following code of ethics for those on both sides of the forthcoming protests:
- Obey the law, or be willing to accept the consequences. Civil disobedience has an important role in democracy, but those who break the law, even in the name of a higher moral good, may have to pay a significant personal price. Rosa Parks rightly protested the Jim Crow laws of the segregated South but was arrested, went to jail, and received death threats. Those who take issue with any aspect of either convention should keep the law in mind at all times and recognize that the failure to do so may lead to civil or criminal penalties, or both.
- Be tolerant. It is great to be passionate about your point of view. It’s also great to recognize that others may not share it or even be passionately opposed to it. Yes, let others know what you think and feel, but remember Newton’s third law of motion: “For every action, there is an equal, but opposite, reaction.” Tolerance is a necessary condition for respectful protest. We should embrace diversity, not wish it away.
- Being respectful increases the chances that you’ll get you what you want. Respectful protest doesn’t guarantee that you’ll achieve the result you’re hoping for, but disrespectful protest almost certainly means you won’t. This is where ethics meets practicality: by honoring the ethical principle of respect for others, you increase the likelihood that your voice will be heard rather than ignored.
- Accept that fairness is a bedrock of democracy. Winston Churchill noted that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried,” and fairness is one of the distinguishing characteristics of democracy. To be fair is to give to others their due, and in the context of protesting, this means that everyone deserves to be heard. Some cable news hosts and pundits seem to believe that yelling makes one’s argument stronger, but all it does it make it louder. Shouting someone down may make for entertaining television (for some), but at a political rally it is coarse, rude, and unethical.
- Recognize that our eyes are on the same prize. Judging by what each candidate says about the other, you’d think that one person stood for all that is right and good, while his opponent wants the exact opposite. But of course that’s nonsense. Both want what every rational person wants: a stable economy, a safe country, a livable environment, affordable housing, and the freedom to pursue one’s dreams. Yes, the two sides differ about how to get there—with such complex problems, that’s to be expected—but demonizing those who hold a different point of view isn’t just deeply disrespectful; it is a distortion of the truth, which is just as bad.
- Spend your money. Whatever side of the fence you’re on, if you go to either convention, you owe a debt of gratitude to your host city. The best way to pay this debt is the old-fashioned way: with lots of your own cash. If Denver is your destination, go shopping at Larimer Square or LoDo, or drop by the Tattered Cover, one of the best independent bookstores in the country. If you’re heading to Minneapolis-St. Paul, check out the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Children’s Museum, or the shops and restaurants on Grand Avenue. Most of all, spend, spend, spend! Not only should you not feel guilty for taking some time for yourself, you ought to indulge—for yourself, and for the town that is making your all of this possible. Even in a flagging economy, sometimes there is an ethical obligation to splurge, and this is one of those times.
- Above all, take the high road. Whether you’re going to protest or to represent your party, you will encounter insults, nastiness, and other forms of hostility, and it will be easy to give in to the temptation to respond in kind. Don’t. You are there to advance your cause, and the best way to do this is to keep ethics front and center in all that you do. Besides, cameras will be everywhere, and the whole world will be watching. How do you want others to see you?