Freedom of Speech

What’s Right and Wrong About the Columbia Protests

Can we have an intelligent conversation about what’s going on at Columbia University? Probably not. I’ll try anyway, although a conversation requires willing and sincere participants.

Ostensibly, the protests at Columbia University are about defending the rights of Palestinian people in Gaza. No doubt, for some people, it is about that, but for various reasons, other people with various agendas have latched onto and hijacked this particular protest. The corporate media, politicians, and other bad actors have eagerly sensationalized and exploited the situation. The situation is now, for good and bad reasons, about far more.

I’m not going to “wade into” the controversy over speech and dissent because I have been hip-deep in it for a very long time. As a professor, as a philosopher, as someone who gives a damn, and as someone paying attention, I’ve been immersed in, thought about, and written about injustices and dissent against injustices.

First, the Anger Part

If you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention.


Not sure who first said that, but in it is a nugget of truth. The problem is that the more you pay attention, the more you see, and if you care about anything beyond yourself, the angrier you will get. Anger is an energy, and righteous anger has been the driving force behind many movements that have increased social justice and freedom. People should be angry and should protest against injustices.

That connection between attention and anger is why some people—okay, many people—choose to not care and not pay attention. Tune out, drop off. Caring is too much effort. It’s easier to be lazy.

Some people also choose simply to be angry. A lot. Anger is an energy, and like all energy, anger can be used constructively or destructively. Some people prefer to be destructive.

Second, the Dissent Part

When anger at a perceived injustice turns to action, then it is dissent. Dissent includes speech acts and physical acts intended to voice opposition to a perceived injustice and hopefully stop it. With good intention, a just cause, and proportionate speech and actions, dissent can produce positive change.

The problem is that not all dissent is energized by positive motives and tactics. Much of it is energized by destructive anger, selfishness, and bigotry.

One question we need to ask is one I have written about before. Are the protests at Columbia University punching up or punching down? There is a larger ethical issue worth discussing.

The Ethics of Dissent and Protest

Everyone has a right to speak their mind. No one has a right to silence or otherwise persecute others. Those who think that their cause is so just that it allows them to deny the humanity of others need to rethink their cause.

Third, the Hijacking Part

When I was a university undergrad, I participated in dissent and action to protect women’s rights, including clinic defenses. The woman who led the student group in which I was involved taught all of us participants a simple truth.

Everything’s fine at a demonstration until the anarchists show up.

We saw that truth played out time and time again. Anyone who’s been involved in activism has seen it. We are seeing it play out now at Columbia University. There are anarchists who gravitate to protests, hijack the situation, and make it about them.

Political action is about power, as I explain in my book, Left Wing, Right Wing, People, and Power: The Core Dynamics of Political Action. Actions of dissent are either attempts to circulate power to more people or to concentrate power in fewer people. Actions to silence dissent and speech are always attempts concentrate power in fewer people.

Right-wing politicians use their institutional power to further concentrate power in themselves and their surrogates. These politicians will use law enforcement violence and the media to hijack the situation and the narrative about it. Their goal is to silence people and speech with whom and with which they disagree. That’s what we are seeing at Columbia University.

Anarchists use their personal power to further concentrate power in themselves. They use personal violence to hijack the situation and the narrative about it. Their goal is to silence people and speech with whom and with which they disagree. That’s what we are seeing at Columbia University.

Wait, Stop, What About Gaza?

It would be nice if the protest at Columbia University was about Gaza and the people being killed there. Is what is happening at Columbia University about the people of Gaza? No, it’s been diverted into a battle of bigotries.

Those shouting hatred at Jewish people aren’t doing it to help people in Gaza. Those bigots are diverting public attention away from the people of Gaza to their own bigotries. And those bigots and their violence become excuses for right-wing politicians to use their institutional power to divert attention away from the people of Gaza and demonize anyone who wants an end to the killing. It’s why one has to wonder how many of these anarchists and bigots are agitators sent to discredit peaceful dissent. The FBI has done so in the past.

So, what exists now at Columbia University is a sensationalized fight of anarchists and anti-Jewish bigots versus right-wing politicians and anti-Muslim bigots. The plight of the people of Gaza is lost in the competing narratives.

House Speaker Mike Johnson has announced he will go to Columbia University out of “concern” about public safety. I suspect his actual concern is to silence the discussion about the killing of Palestinians in Gaza. The useful idiots punching down instead of punching up at Columbia University are giving Johnson and other right-wingers cover for that agenda: “See? Those opposing the killings in Gaza are a danger to the public.”

Can We Talk Reasonably About the Unreasonable?

Well-behaved women seldom make history. – Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

True, but that idea isn’t blanket cover for acts of disrespect and violence. Ulrich was referring to women who were open-minded scholars and didn’t keep silent and defer to men’s opinions. Ulrich was not referring to people shouting bigoted slogans and throwing rocks at police.

It’s not easy to discuss atrocities. It’s easier to either look away and not care or to demonize others to excuse more bigotry and violence. Hatred is the opposite of understanding. Discuss atrocities we must, and, more importantly, we must discuss the causes of atrocities. Only then can we understand and learn to prevent future atrocities. Only armed with understanding can we constructively use what proportional force is necessary to stop atrocities.

No doubt, there are some people at Columbia University and elsewhere who want to have strong but reasonable dissent and action against the atrocities being committed against the people of Gaza. Those people have been drowned out by those who prefer anger and violence. Yet again, the unreasonable have silenced the reasonable to promote furtherance of the unreasonable.

Meanwhile, no one talks about the real issues surrounding Israel and Palestine. That’s exactly what the right-wingers want.

Freedom of Speech

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