December 02, 2014

MISSION MATTERS MANY VOICES: Protest Can Produce Progress

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President Fred Pestello's decision to allow a loose collection of groups connected to the wider Ferguson protests to occupy a part of campus for a week in October caused some displeasure among parents worried about the safety of their children and among students concerned that campus disruption might affect their performance on midterm exams.

The decision to allow protest, though, goes to the heart of SLU's identity and mission. At issue is whether SLU is a place dedicated to the pursuit of truth and the "dissemination and integration of the values, knowledge and skills required to transform society in the spirit of the Gospels," or whether it is just a well-manicured haven intent on insulating itself and its inhabitants from their immediate environment.

Protest makes people uncomfortable. That, after all, is its purpose. When people feel that their needs are well served by existing political and social structures, they do not tend to protest since it is easy enough for them to accomplish their goals through ordinary political processes. People protest to call attention to needs that have been overlooked, to demand redress from people and institutions which seem indifferent or hostile to their plight.

In that sense, the protests surrounding Michael Brown's death have been quite successful. They have brought to the forefront of our attention how identities and expectations affect the interactions between people in various communities, on the one hand, and political authorities including the police, on the other. They have made us more sensitive to the effects of institutionalized racism and structural inequalities. We need to be able to step into the shoes of those whose lives are different than our own if we are to ever to hope of living up to the mission's exhortation to develop "collaborate efforts to alleviate ignorance, poverty, injustice and hunger." Unless we can understand how our brothers and sisters experience the world, why their experiences and probably their notions of justice vary so much from our own, we cannot work with them to transform the world into something better.

Protest may be difficult for the people whose comfortable lives are disrupted by it, but it is worth noting that protest is also difficult for the people who take part in it. Most people never engage in any form of political participation more demanding than voting, if they even bother to do that. Protest requires a real dedication of time and usually demands huge steps outside one's comfort zone. Nobody sleeps in a tent in the middle of midtown during midterms for the fun of it. Protest also involves substantial risk. We know that protesters throughout St. Louis have been met by heavily armed riot police and tear gas; they have been arrested and detained.
When met with violence, protesters themselves may respond with more violence, increasing risks to themselves and others. It is very difficult for protest organizers to control the behavior of all their members and particularly to maintain nonviolence in the face of the violent reactions that protest often inspires. Nonviolent protest requires extensive organization and training; it requires, in short, the sort of developed political community often lacking among people moved to protest because they are ill-served by existing institutions.

In The Politics, Aristotle remarks, "That man is more of a political animal than bees or any other gregarious animals is evident. Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech." Talking is an intensely political act because it allows us to exchange ideas and experiences, to make proposals and to develop plans, and, in the best of circumstances, to find ways to act in concert to address issues of joint concern. By talking to protesters instead of pushing them off campus, people at Saint Louis University may have helped a little to encourage the growth of a political community capable of moving beyond anger to action.

More importantly, we learned uncomfortable lessons about ourselves and the world around us, and we found ourselves charged to find ways to diminish the effects of structurally-rooted inequalities and institutionalized racism, just as the mission calls us to do.

At SLU, we may often talk about "social justice" as though it is a clear goal on which everyone agrees. But in fact, our views of justice will often conflict; one group's promotion of what they see as just will sometimes seem wrong to others. The most productive way through this tension and contention is serious and thoughtful conversation, just as happened at SLU during that week in October and just as, I hope, will continue.

- Ellen Carnaghan, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Political Science

Higher purpose. Greater good.
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