The very purpose of protest is to disorder an unjust order. Those who refuse or are unable to look injustice in the eye will not see in protest a righteous defiance but rather an apparently needless assault on order, a creeping and aimless threat with no obvious limit. Such a bare assault need not be tolerated and its speakers may be safely cordoned away into free speech zones in which their words can be uttered but their efforts to change minds foiled. We preserve only their right to speak, but not their right to disorder our world in any way, not their right to affect us.
If, instead, we do see injustice, then we perceive the disordering of our neighbors’ routines as essential and at the heart of the First Amendment. The opportunity to defeat injustice through the power of words and presence is what constitutes our very self-governance.
If all that is correct, it explains why some might wish to protect the sacred rights of “sidewalk counselors” and yet support tear gassing the residents of Ferguson. At bottom it’s about a failure of empathy and not about whether our First Amendment requires toleration of risk and disruption, which it clearly does. And so the pattern of professional and amateur punditry is all too predictable. Thugs are not protected. Counselors are. Looting is the norm for “these kinds” of protests and attributable to all. Abortion clinic violence and murder is not. (The ready assimilation of muslims with terrorist groups and the steadfast separation of white, American terrorists and their faith or social groups provides another, similar contrast.) When you see a demonstration, do you see individuals and a struggle against injustice or a more or less undifferentiated group and “counterproductive” mayhem? Judging from my Facebook timeline, there are many of us – and really all of us – who could use a healthy booster shot of empathy in this regard.
Where empathy fails, perhaps a little reason could help. Is it so difficult to understand that all successful movements in the past were tarred as disruptive, counterproductive, and injurious to the very cause they espoused? Their leaders were questioned in terms of motive and character. Every incident that could possibly be used for the purpose was trotted out as proof that the movement itself was silly and incoherent. Today’s thugs, yesterday’s “communist sympathizers.” What was yesterday a silly and immoderate cause has been recognized today as a moral triumph. But today’s upheaval, of course, is only in the service of a silly and immoderte cause. The message, always, is “pay no attention to these disordering others, these fork-tongued people who are fundamentally unlike you and who will always revert to type.” The question for you is whether you will believe this. You can always choose to see in others, no matter how outwardly different, a temporarily separated instance of your very self. Maybe then the tear gas will sting.