I’m actually happy that the McGill Daily exists. This isn’t to say that I’m happy with the usual content of the paper, but the default perspective the paper approaches the world from is certainly rare in the media and occasionally results in pretty sharp journalism. However, great stories like that recent piece illustrating the faults of America’s border control system are very much the exception; pieces like the might-as-well-be-satirical “Tuition Hikes are Sexist” come much closer to the usual output of the paper (especially its opinion section). Mercifully, some of the news articles manage to make their opinions less than blatant.
So it was unsurprising when I awoke today to posts on my Facebook feed of the Daily opinion piece, “Resistance is Not Violence”, by Mona Luxion. (Full Disclosure: I interviewed the author of this Daily piece for an unrelated edition of my Tribune column on Queer McGill a month or so ago). This article basically argued that because police have exercised levels of force that have been questionable, acts that could be considered violent by protesters are justified as a form of “resistance” to “oppression.”
An argument couched in such rhetoric is basically guaranteed to repel those who don’t already view the world through a certain prism, but let’s go through it. The author begins by praising the rather mealy mouthed denunciation of physical violence issued by the CLASSE student union, the largest and most radical of the 3 agglomerations of CGEP and University students on strike in the province. The piece then claims that the images of violence in last week’s protests, especially on the CBC, were not accompanied by sufficient reminders of police conduct. This claim might be an interesting idea of the “false equivalence” game played in reverse.
The author then sets up a strawman by bringing up the “tone” argument, saying that the cause of the strikers is justified despite the acts of the protesters. In fairness, most of the people raising hackles about the violence are against the strike to begin with, but let’s consider the point implicit in the idea that the justness of the cause justifies the acts of the protesters. This argument would work if the violent actions of the protesters actually advanced a socially desirable goal instead of simply being an act of violence. The destruction of property is less a deliberate attempt to sway public opinion to the reduction of tuition, and more a primal expression of rage.
To that point, the author argues that in our society, “no protest will ever be peaceful enough, docile enough, non-threatening enough to suit their [the ruling class’s] wishes. Expressions of anger against the status quo will always be called disruptive, even violent.” To the contrary, the massive protest on March 22 went off without a hitch; no violence, no police reaction, simply a peaceful expression of dissent with government policy.
Of course, the strike advocates would argue that the lack of government capitulation in the face of the protest justifies violent reactions (“resistance”, as they would have it) because the government “did not listen” to a peaceful protest. The argument implicit in the justification is that the government is obligated to actually fully fulfill the demands of protesters. The government certainly should consider the demands, and democratic governments should allow robust and visible venues for the airing of grievances, but the mere presence of a protest, or rally, does not mean that government policy should be changed. The most obvious way to change the policies of the government, of course, is to vote in an election for a candidate that represents one’s views. Ironically, the impending election may be giving the government more cover on the tuition hikes issue than one would think; public support for the student position is dropping.
But I digress; back to the Daily piece. the author seems to argue that the negative aspects of the status quo justify the destruction of property. The author writes,
However, beyond the distinction between property damage and physical harm, we must recognize that one is an act of resistance, which seeks to open up new spaces of possibility, while the other is an act of oppression reinforcing and upholding the unequal status quo. Moving beyond the idea of violence as an individual action allows us to focus on the systemic oppression perpetrated by policies such as the proposed tuition hikes.
This sort of rhetoric stretches credulity, to put it charitably. Do the admitted problems with the status quo justify violent reaction? To use an example close to home for myself, does the fact that the New York Police Department insists on engaging in its notorious “Stop and Frisk” policy, a policy that is at best unfair and at worst discriminatory, mean that I have the right to smash the window of an NYPD cruiser? Clearly not.
The next question is the “new spaces of possibility” idea. I truly struggle to figure out what is meant here. If it’s the idea that violence against property draws attention to injustice, this is clearly wrong; look at all the media coverage of the violence as opposed to an in depth examination of university cost. While some of the blame for this lies with media outlets themselves, protesters would do well to adopt better techniques of influencing public opinion than destroying such symbols of “oppressive power” as a parked vehicle, or a small business.
Lastly, I want to flag the last part of the quoted passage, that which claims that “Moving beyond the idea of violence as an individual action allows us to focus on the systemic oppression perpetrated by policies such as the proposed tuition hikes.” This seems to argue that the entire idea of “violence” is a social construct. Secondly, and perhaps worse, the very phrasing of the piece relies on a rhetorical sleight of hand; ignore the “violence” because the reasons I ascribe to the violence are more important. In other words, two wrongs make a right. I fundamentally disagree with Luxion’s representation of the hikes as “oppressive,” but the question remains: if we accept that violence in the framework of a democratic society is valid recourse for disagreeable government decisions, when is violence not justified? I doubt this is an answer we’ll see in the Daily anytime soon.
Next Post: something refreshingly different.