The last few weeks at Boston College have seen a laudable rise in political engagement and a salutary increase in the number of students actively voicing their opinions. Students’ genuine commitment to progressive social action is evident in both issues of local significance and those of national importance. As exemplified by the demonstrations following the Ferguson and Staten Island grand jury decisions, the Dec. 5 “Rights on the Heights” rally, and the recent FACES statement—to name just a few instances—it is clear that Boston College students truly care about the civic issues facing our community and country.
As our university moves toward what will hopefully be a new “culture of engagement,” it is important to pause and reflect on the virtues that characterize constructive protests and activism. While I’m certainly no authority on the subject, I have a few suggestions to offer.
The first virtue I think we ought to consider: respect for those with whom we disagree. Even in the heat of conviction and in the flame of righteous indignation, we do well to remember the words of protestor par excellence Mahatma Gandhi, who famously said, “Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding.” The moment we are most sure we are right—and most sure the other side is wrong—is the moment when respect for one another, despite our disagreements, becomes most important.
The second virtue, which follows from respect, is that of dialogue and reasoned discussion. Especially on a university campus, coercion should not replace argument, and passion should never fully replace logic. For ultimately, unbridled emotion will not create change; a new consensus will not be molded without well-reasoned arguments to back it up. Certainly, passion and emotion play vital, animating roles in any movement for progress, and I do not argue that they should be sidelined. Rather, I’m suggesting that room be left for communication between disparate viewpoints. As Rev. Martin Luther King said, “People fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.” Our nation today is polarized and divided, full of the fear and lack of communication Rev. King warned us about. Let’s make Boston College an exception to this climate—a sanctuary where we live up to his legacy of passionate, yet reasonable, dialogue.
In the past few weeks, our university has seen examples of both the constructive discussion championed by Rev. King and the negative invective he denounced. A model of the former can be found in a Dec. 12 Facebook message by UGBC President Nanci Fiore-Chettiar. “The answers are not simple,” she wrote with reference to Ferguson and Staten Island, “but we have to explore them together—whether you believe the grand juries’ decisions were right or not.” By extending an invitation for disagreement in a message that nonetheless exuded passion and conviction, Fiore-Chettiar demonstrated the virtue of constructive protest. Sadly, her leadership has not been imitated everywhere.
The Dec. 9 “die-in” in St. Mary’s hall was animated by a laudable drive for social justice, but ultimately delivered a confused and counterproductive message to the community. The first problem with the protest was the manner in which some participants of the die-in equated Eric Garner’s death with issues faced here at Boston College. As The Heights reported, “demonstrators…mentioned the die-in was meant [in part] to challenge University policies on free speech.” One student stated that part of the protest’s rationale was to criticize “censorship that is happening on campus, and the rules and the hoops that we have to jump through to actually make some sort of change on campus and actually be the activists that this University wants us to be.” This is certainly a valid perspective, one that was represented at the Dec. 5 rally and is driving ongoing UGBC advocacy. However, by conflating Boston College’s policies with the practices that led to Garner’s death, protestors injected unnecessary and uncalled-for acrimony into a students’ rights conversation that had been relatively respectful. Moreover, by implying that students face problems comparable to Garner’s, they displayed an enormous—if unintentional—lack of sensitivity and respect toward our nation’s recent tragedies. The second problem with the St. Mary’s die-in was the protest’s venue. In choosing to target Boston College’s Jesuit community and prevent them from moving into their new home, protesters attacked a group that has actually been very vocal in the movement for racial justice. To say nothing of the many prayer services they have led nationwide—including one in O’Neill plaza on Dec. 1—Jesuits have also participated in drafting a statement that calls for “a serious examination of both policing and racial injustice in the US.” Over 370 theologians at US Jesuit universities, including Boston College’s James Keenan, S.J., David Hollenbach, S.J., and Kenneth Himes, O.F.M, signed the statement. By choosing to ignore this fact, protestors falsely accused the Jesuit community of indifference to our nation’s racial injustices. Accordingly, they removed respect from the conversation and sabotaged further communication—actions that ultimately hurt the cause for which they advocate.
This letter is not intended to stymie or curb either the battle for justice or the protests it inspires here at Boston College. Rather, it is a reminder that if protests are to have their desired effect, we all have a duty to remember the virtues that characterize constructive activism.
Featured Image by Arthur Bailin / Heights Photo