In the last twenty-four hours, I have heard and seen various condemnations of the protests that took place at John Ashcroft’s lecture on Tuesday. I have heard our actions called immature, disrespectful, and rude. While I do not agree, I am not going to debunk any of these allegations in this column. Rather, I would like to remind those focused on the politeness of our protest (rather than its message or its target) of two things: that politeness is not a universal standard, and that just acts are not always polite.
It is a grave mistake to treat politeness as absolute, static, or unquestionable. Politeness has a history of silencing those without power and maintaining the structures that oppress them. It was once improper for women to hold jobs, illegal to help slaves escape to Canada, unconscionable for a queer people to be open about their sexuality, and a personal affront for a woman of color not to give up her seat to a white man on the bus. If the activists who broke these social norms had been more worried about what was polite than about what was just, our society would not enjoy the benefits of the freedom they fought for. While these examples are beyond comparison with our protest, it is hypocrisy to tout Knox’s abolitionist roots and egalitarian values while condemning our actions as impolite.
With this point, I do not mean to justify using any means necessary in the name of justice. There is a significant difference between violating a social norm and violating another person’s rights. I believe that John Ashcroft has a right to speak at Knox. I am glad that the protests directed at him did not interfere with that right. I also believe that we as protesters have a right to free speech, and that as long as we do not violate others’ rights, neither Dean Breitborde, nor Mr. Ashcroft, nor the discourse section of this newspaper should assume any authority in determining the form or content of that speech.
I close with a corollary to my previous thought: that polite acts are not always just. It may have been socially acceptable for Mr. Ashcroft to ignore my question to him because of my appearance, but it was not just. Neither is Mr. Ashcroft’s polite infringement on the rights of Guantanamo detainees. Why is this community still politely ignoring the injustice that Mr. Ashcroft has perpetrated? Neither conformity to (nor enforcement of) social norms will do anything to stop that or any form of injustice.