I cannot recall if I have written anything about this previously. I intended to do so during the BLM protests which kept a mall from operating last year, as well as shutting down an airport. There are several topics to cover in relation to this, as well as in relation to the recent riots in Milwaukee.
First, I do not object, on an ethical level, to the use of force in politics. By ‘force’ I mean here quite broadly ‘physical coercion or the threat thereof.’ To paraphrase von Clausewitz slightly, ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means.’ However, to be ethically acceptable, the force involved should follow certain guidelines, which apply regardless of whether the group using force is a government, a protest movement, or a group of rebels or anything else.
- Force should only target the guilty parties and those who are using force to protect those guilty parties. In war, this would mean targeting the guilty government, together with those soldiers who are using force to protect that government.
- Collateral damage is almost always nearly inevitable, but reasonable precautions should be taken to avoid harm, including disruption, from coming to innocent parties.
Let us give some examples. I oppose the use of animals in laboratory tests. I would consider it perfectly ethical (which is a separate issue from legal of course) to take direct action to rescue animals from a lab. I would not consider it ethical to go block a road with a group of protestors, thus preventing random citizens from going about their business without actually affecting the laboratories in any substantial way. On the other hand I would consider it ethical to block a capital building. This would primarily be targeting the politicians responsible for passing laws to protect the animals while taking precautions that most ordinary citizens would remain unharmed. Of course, in a very indirect way, making it harder for the government to function might eventually inconvenience ordinary innocent bystanders, but this falls within the purview of the second point.
Similarly, in protesting the Keystone XL or some other pipeline, I would consider it potentially ethical to sabotage the work itself or take other direct action to block the building of it, but not to protest by blocking random roads or public areas. Note that this does not mean I object to protesting in public areas. The objection is only when such protests severely disrupt the ordinary business going on in those areas. Protesting on the sides of a parking lot and on the way leading into a mall is fine, as long as cars can get through and people can walk without being blocked; the moment people are blocked, it becomes unethical.
Should I be involved in a violent conflict, I would consider it ethical to block a road or building for tactical purposes, but only for such purposes. Blocking a road that would be of no use to the enemy anyway, thereby heavily inconveniencing innocent parties without targeting the enemy, would not be ethical.
On both counts, many protests aligned with movements such as BLM fail miserably.
Let us begin with the peaceful protests which shut down the mall and airport. First, although classified as peaceful, these protests exhibit a use of a certain kind of force; the protestors were physically blocking access to the mall and airport. Physically blocking is just as much preventing access as any other kind of force, so it must be considered a type of force.
Which brings us to the second point. Neither the protests nor the riots target the guilty parties or those physically protecting the guilty parties. Neither the mall nor the airport were responsible for the issues which the protestors were opposing. They were solely inconveniencing innocent bystanders.
I have been told, when I point this out to others, that ‘That is what you are supposed to feel with these protests that block roads and the like: helpless. The protestors have felt helpless, and they’re now making you share that feeling.’ But the fact that a person feels helpless and like the authorities will not listen does not justify violating the two rules given above. You do not have the right to make a third party feel helpless, just because you feel helpless. You have the right to make the authorities feel helpless by directly targeting them, but not to do this to third parties. Doing so is nothing more than hostage-taking, and the authorities should respond to it just as with hostage-taking: ‘do not negotiate with terrorists.’ It is not dissimilar to saying that if I am the victim of theft, I have the right to steal from a third party so they ‘feel what I feel.’ Whether or not person A has harmed you gives you no rights whatsoever to harm person B, though it may give you the right to harm person A.
To give another example: I would not necessarily find it unethical to ‘steal’ money from an overpaid CEO for screwing the rest of us over. But only from these overpaid executives. I would not necessarily think it unethical to take money from Donald Trump, but I would find it unethical to steal from the middle-class doctor down the road. Robin Hood, in other words, was only ethical insofar as he targeted solely those whose gains, while technically legal, were ill-gotten ethically. Had he stolen from random people, he would no longer have been ethical (note that he might have done this in some of his stories; the Robin Hood stories are quite varied).
In the case of the riots in Milwaukee, where protestors are running around screaming condemnations of white people (‘Fuck white people’) in general and even shooting an innocent 18 year old just for being white, in addition to looting from random stores and destroying random property, (Reporter Tim Pool pulls out of Milwaukee because of ‘racial tensions’ – Business Insider), the same applies, but even more strongly because of the increased use of force. Ironically, the leftist tendency to excuse this kind of behavior is itself rather racist, a ‘racism of low expectations.’
It should be noted that I do not consider the 1960’s ‘sit-ins’ of segregated bars and the like to violate the above principles, because in those instances, such protests targeted the bars that were engaged in the immoral behavior (segregation) directly, rather than targeting third parties. Similarly, Rosa Parks disrupting the bus is acceptable since the bus itself was engaged in the unethical discriminatory behavior. On the other hand I take issue with any marches done in the ’60’s which shut down whole streets and the like, for the reasons outlined above.
There is one other point I feel is relevant here: if you are going to use force, you have no right to expect the government not to crack down on you with force.