Free speech is necessary on campus, but there are limits. Photo by Peter Stockland

Hope, not violent protest, is the answer

  • June 6, 2024

In 1972, I joined a group of students who occupied the Dean of Arts’ office at the University of Regina. Our goal was to win parity for students on all departmental committees in the Faculty of Arts. After one night of sleeping on the floor of a crowded room, I had to leave the protest. I became sick and returned home to rest and recuperate.

I am an introvert, much more so then than now, but I was discontented with many aspects of our society. Yet, I was not immune from figuratively poking my finger in the eye of those I deemed to be oppressors or establishment figures. Democracy and justice in all matters were goals worth fighting for.

I now see my youthful stand to be naïve and wrong-headed. Every good idea should have limits, and that applies to democracy. To say students should have equal say, for example, in deciding university curriculum or hiring professors is not a credible notion.

About 15 years ago, I was a Green party candidate in an Alberta election. My platform could be summed up in one word – limits. Society should respect limits on use of the environment, limits on government deficits as well as moral limits. I did all right in the election given the lack of popularity for the Greens in Edmonton. But when you say society should put a lid on its desires, you are flying against the wind.

The economy, culture and governments all depend on a free-for-all, with consumerism, the environment, libertarianism and profligate government spending all tolerated, even if they are seen as unwelcome effects of our riotous way of life. We seem to have not a whit of concern for how our lives will affect the quality (and quantity) of life in future generations.

All this shapes my view on the protests recently roiling university campuses across North America. I agree with the protesters’ view that university endowment funds – and even more so investments of the Church – should be accountable to moral standards. It is unconscionable that universities will not divest those funds which, even indirectly, support Israel and its war effort in Gaza. Even more unconscionable is the fact that some universities invest in the arms industry. North Americans established sanctions against Russia pronto after the country invaded Ukraine two years ago. Not so with Israel.

The way to enduring peace in Israel/Palestine is murkier than ever. These peoples have shown over the past 76 and more years that they cannot be peaceable neighbours. Anti-Semitism has been the most virulent source of discrimination and mass murder over the centuries, and the Catholic Church has contributed to that. But the State of Israel has become an armed camp, and the deaths of thousands of innocent Palestinians has been a result. And, yes, Israel is victim of terrorism too.

Free speech is necessary on university campuses. It is essential to inquiry that can lead society in new and more creative directions. Freedom of speech is one of the great achievements of Western civilization.

Sometimes cages need to be rattled. Conflict with authority is often necessary. However, the boundary between free speech and protests which verge on violence is blurry. When protesters delve into intimidation by hanging their political opponents in effigy, harassing university administrators in their homes and destroying property, they have crossed the line.

Protesters will defend those actions by saying their actions are of miniscule significance compared with that of Israeli forces in Gaza. But we are not here to determine whose wrongs are worse than others as though we hold a scoresheet to tote up all the wrongs. We only begin to progress toward lasting peace and justice when we halt polarizing behaviour and respect the dignity of all, even if we are persecuted as a result. 

That approach only gains momentum within a perspective of hope. When we try to force our solutions onto others, we have given up hope and begun grasping for power. Despite its many merits, liberal democracy involves a quest for power. There are winners and losers, and the losers will strive to turn themselves into winners. If power is all that matters, the means to achieving it may not survive moral scrutiny.

The Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper wrote, “Hope is either a theological virtue or not a virtue at all.” We only exhibit hope when we humbly strive for that which seems humanly impossible. But we still ought to hope, not passively, but actively working in peace to build bridges and bring injustice to an end.

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