I recall about twenty years ago now, I was taking a law tute in Legal Theory. The lecturer was pretty awful and spent huge amounts of time in his lectures explaining why his side of a particular debate – with H.L.A Hart the opponent as I recall – was the right side of the debate. I happened to agree with him about his criticism, but it wasn’t a particularly edifying way to teach. And he went on and on flogging a horse which, if he hadn’t nailed it to the racetrack would have been pushing up the daisies.
Conversation on whatever the topic was was skittish and it gradually drifted to what a terrible course this was. I didn’t resist this drift with any great strength, and so we ended up in this tute with pretty much every student united in the view that this was an awful course. I was having a mild out of body experience – which is to say that I was just observing all this, thinking that it wasn’t particularly my job either to defend the lecturer, or to insist that we study the tute question. Had any of the students wanted to do this I guess I might have done so.
So we had a problem. And there was a kind of silence – because all this stuff had come out. Now what? I didn’t say anything. Eventually through the small talk or whatever was going on someone said “So what can we do?”. Then, in a dangerous moment of insight I said “Well you could blow up the building”.
This surprised my students at least as much as it surprised me. But I went on to clarify my meaning saying words to this effect.
Whenever things are not satisfactory, people can do things about it. Often there are procedures open to express dissatisfaction. If you’re on the phone to a business you can ask to speak to complains, or if you’re in a shop or a restaurant you can ask to speak to a manager. You can write them a letter. In all these cases a clear pathway has been set down for you to follow. In this however, no pathway has been set down for you. This isn’t surprising because your view is that you’re dealing with some failure of the system. So it’s not that surprising that the system hasn’t got a box ready for you to tick.
So you have to choose what you want to do. You can do nothing which is usually a worthwhile strategy to consider. You seem to have chosen that strategy thus far. At the other extreme you can blow up the building. If you do this, you may kill or maim some people. In other words, registering your complaint will have consequences. They are likely to be quite nasty consequences, for others and for yourself. But it will certainly make your point that you don’t like these lectures.
You could complain to the lecturer, but then he might not like you for it. It will be tense, and who knows you might not do as well in the course for all sorts of reasons. Ditto if you want to complain to the dean. But I can tell you that, while this kind of situation has existed before, there is no box to tick. You are free agents and you have to decide what it is you want to do. And because there’s no box to tick, it’s quite likely that complaint might end up costing you something – in equanimity, in time, in frustration. Who knows even in marks. But at least you can rest assured that in the past people in far worse situations than you have been placed in this position, and it’s because of their actions then that things are a fair bit better for you now. So best of luck with your deliberations and your choice as to what you want to do.
I thought of all this when I read this fine column by David Brooks on the time when social protest was a profound expression of the Christian idea that the meek will inherit the earth; before the time when social protest, often for very worthy causes, became overshadowed by moral vanity and posturing.
As we commemorate the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, it’s worth remembering . . . that while today we take marches and protests for granted, the tactics of the civil rights movement had deep philosophical and religious roots.
The leaders . . . wanted a set of tactics that were at once more aggressive and at the same time deeply rooted in biblical teaching. That meant the tactics had to start with love, not hate; nonviolence, not violence; renunciation, not self-indulgence. . . .
At the same time this tactic was not . . . just turning the other cheek, loving your enemies or trying to win people over with friendship. Nonviolent coercion was an ironic form of aggression. Nonviolence furnished the movement with a series of tactics that allowed it to remain on permanent offense.
It allowed leaders to stage relentless protests, sit-ins and marches that would force their opponents to do things against their own will. Nonviolence allowed the leaders to expose the villainy of their foes aggressively, to make their enemies’ sins work against them as they were exposed in ever more vicious forms. . . .
The whole point of this philosophy is that you defeat your opponents with superior self-discipline. These days, protesters from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street like to be fully demonstrative, expressing their rage or whatever. But the early-1960s civil rights tactics demanded relentless self-control, the ability to step into fear without ever striking out, to remain calm and deliberate in extreme circumstances, to exercise emotional discipline.
As befitting what was largely a religious movement, the idea was not only to change society but to work an inner transformation. They clung to this in a way that is humbling for the rest of us, who stumble and fall in far easier circumstances. . . .
King argued that “unearned suffering is redemptive.” It would uplift people involved in this kind of action. It would impose self-restraint. At their best, the leaders understood that even people in the middle of just causes can be corrupted. They can become self-righteous, knowing their cause is right. They can become smug as they move forward, cruel as they organize into groups, simplistic as they rely on propaganda to mobilize the masses. Their hearts can harden as their enemies become more vicious. The strategy of renunciation and the absorbing of suffering was meant to guard against all that.
In short, the method relied upon a very sophisticated set of paradoxes. It relied on leaders who had done a lot of deep theological and theoretical work before they took up the cause of public action. Nonviolent protest, King summarized, “rests upon two pillars. One, resistance, continuous military resistance. Second, it projects good will against ill will. In this way nonviolent resistance is a force against apathy in our own ranks.”
And yet it worked. And sometimes still does. . . . A study by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth in the journal International Security found that between 1900 and 2006, movements that used nonviolent means succeeded 53 percent of the time, while violent resistance campaigns succeeded only 26 percent of the time.
So that’s what we are commemorating: The “I Have a Dream” speech, of course, but also an exercise in applied theology.