The election of Donald Trump to the presidency, unexpected by many who had strapped their political identities to Hillary Clinton as the inevitable winner, has raised protests across the country, ranging from marches to civil disobedience to acts of violence. The immediate motivations of the protesters concentrate around concerns about where the nation is headed with regard to immigration, the environment, and the identity of the definitive American.
That latter subject was at the core of Trump’s campaign — who among us stands in for everyone? Clinton’s slogan, stronger together, asserted a recognition that our success is dependent on many voices speaking together, often in an expression of a Hegelian dialectic of many answers debating with each other in search of a new synthesis. But among the GOP’s base, in contrast often with the party’s establishment, was the sense that white working-class voices had not been invited to the chorus.
However much we may wish to dismiss that feeling as some variety of bigotry, what has to be acknowledged is that people voting for Trump were in many cases casting what get called protest votes whenever they are made in favor of a third-party candidate. The Republican nominee this time was the candidate of protest against the settled order — as Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks has described it, an act of throwing a brick through a plate glass window. If I may extend his imagery, many Americans have been staring at the goods on display behind that window for a long time, knowing that the price was too high.
The back and forth of protesting now includes Broadway. Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr in the current production of Hamilton, spoke from the stage to Vice President-elect Mike Pence who was in attendance, saying:
“We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
Trump took to Twitter, his favorite medium for expressing his personal irritations, to demand an apology from the cast.
An apology for what, exactly, is not clear. Trump called Dixon’s comments “harassment,” which leaves me to wonder how Pence will feel when he is confronted by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor. How Trump himself reacts when criticized is common knowledge, given, among other things, his speculations about altering libel laws to allow him to sue news organizations that write “purposely negative and horrible and false articles” about him.
But the larger question that needs our consideration is that of the right to protest — its nature and limits. To what extent do we each have the right, individually or in groups, to express or to act on our displeasure?
Take as a test case the urban legend of the man — the father of a four-year-old girl, to add pathos to the scene — dying in an ambulance because anti-Trump protesters blocked the streets. Snopes.com rates this as unproven, but all right, consider it as something that could happen, though it has not yet done so. That would be an extreme end along the spectrum of possibilities that starts with the inconvenience to travels that does occur when marchers fill the thoroughfares. Is there a line along that spectrum beyond which we must not cross, or is it ever right to make others attend to our grievances?
In my discussions on social media with people of many different political, religious, and cultural stances, I am often told that while we all have the right to speak, we do not have the right to be heard. This is repeated often enough to be a cliché or at least a talking point. It is said by those with whom I disagree, and in the moment, I flatter myself with the thought that it is an admission of defeat. Or it could be exasperation. In any case, the right to protest does ram up against the right to ignore.
On what basis can we defend each one of these rights, and how can we reconcile them? The right to decide what we will listen to and in what degree derives from the concept of personal autonomy. What separates our current reality of omnipresent media from dystopias like 1984 is the power of the off switch — if we are willing to use it. I am grateful to say that I have yet to see someone claiming that I lack the right to silence the voices of radio, television, and the Internet within the boundaries of my own home, though the incessant advertising that deposits packets of code on my computer makes me wonder. For now, though, if I do not want to see pitches for automobiles, anatomical enhancements, or Asian women looking for American men to marry, the choice is mine.
But that is my private life. In public spaces, the situation is different. Protest is not merely about selling a point of view or a product. The protester is not akin to the fellow with a sandwich board mumbling about the end of the world — however much that guy’s message is sounding sane these days.
This is not merely theoretical, considering the examples already given and the recent and current cases of the Bundys and the resistance against the Dakota pipeline. In both of those, public and private interests have clashed, and while opposite sides of the American political spectrum are likely to be sympathetic with only one of these two groups, the charitable view recognizes that both of them, whether right or wrong, are doing what they see as necessary to be heard by the people who exercise official power over them.
And thus the question of balance between the various interests is still with us. In the exercise of any right, the Hippocratic principle, first do no harm, is a good guide, though at times the advice has to be, “do as little harm as possible.” The worn-out court case that comes up in these discussions — Schenck v. United States, supposedly banning the declaration of fire in a crowded theater when no such emergency exists — has been misunderstood and was overturned decades ago, and the remark was an off-handed one rather than being a part of the ruling anyway. But as a principle, we can see some truth in it: Free speech protections do not exend to malicious statements that pose an immediate danger to innocents.
Protest, though, is precisely something that we must not dismiss so easily. The difference is that protesters are speaking out against speech that they have been made to listen to. They face the expectation of society to obey the law and the force of police and other government agencies to compel that obedience. We are all obliged to accept the results of elections once they are certified. In other words, having been offered no choice regarding hearing the speech of the powerful, protest is about making them hear us.
The right wing makes the frequent claim that America is a Christian nation. This makes a good deal of parsing necessary, since demographically, it is a true statement, while the assertion has no basis in our secular constitution, but buried within the claim is the fact that of the Christians in this country, a majority of those are Protestants. The root meaning of this label is one that escapes our consciousness by being ubiquitous, and it bears a fresh look. The origin of Protestantism is found in protests against a church that was seen as corrupted by its own power. And though America’s political sensibilities come from the English tradition of personal liberty, we have enough of a strain of religious individualism in this country to make protestant — as an adjective and not an organized ideology — a useful description of who we are.
The essence of the American spirit is protest — sometimes to excess, sometimes to the detriment of those who are the bystanders in the conflict or its victims, rather than the combatants. Protesters do have the obligation to tailor their actions in proportion to the perceived wrongs that they object to. But as a reminder to those who would govern us, as a reiteration that power flows from the people and is loaned out on set terms, protest is something that we cannot do without.
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