Life, liberty, and protest.

If the Australian government were to reintroduce the death penalty within my lifetime, then like many others, I would take to the streets. I would blog about it here, I would express my outrage on social media, I would sign petitions. I would make people uncomfortable by talking about it, I would argue with people who supported it, and I would use strong language that they would find objectionable. I would do this because I believe that capital punishment is murder, and that it is all the more repellant for being pre-meditated and committed by a greater power against a completely defenseless victim. Protesting would be a natural consequence of that belief, and implicit in it is something I only ever see referred to in derogatory terms – protest is an attempt to impose your ethics on others, either by convincing them of your own position, or by seeking legislative changes consistent with your beliefs. We don’t normally talk about it in those terms unless we vehemently disagree with the protestors in question, and I find that quite interesting.

“Civilised” society functions through the imposition of ethics on non-conformist minorities. There are people in our society who believe that rape, murder and theft are acceptable behaviors. Most of us disagree, and (at least in theory) the state legislates based on that commonly held belief, criminalises those activities, and punishes those who engage in them. If you see an old lady being mugged, you do not (I presume) think to yourself, “Gosh, that’s unfortunate, but I’d best not impose my ethics on that gentleman in the balaclava”. Assuming you have the courage of your convictions, you intervene, either directly or by calling the police. We impose social consequences on people who engage in unethical activities even when we don’t involve the state – if a friend confides that they mug old ladies in their spare time, I presume most of my readers would reassess their friendship with the person in question, and give them a clearly worded explanation as to why. Most people would not think this untoward. Your friend engages in an activity you consider reprehensible, and as a human being with a moral compass, you make your disapproval known.

This all sounds perfectly normal, as far as it goes, but I’ve noticed it flies out the window when people are confronted with non-majority ethical positions. This makes no sense to me at all, since majority support itself does not, in my opinion, give a position legitimacy. Slavery wasn’t ethically sound a century ago, and denying asylum seekers permanent protection isn’t ethically sound now. In fact, we lionize people who had the courage to defend principled positions in the face of a majority objection, provided they were later shown to be on the right side of history. If the civil rights movement had stalled, or god forbid failed entirely, would Rosa Parks’ actions be any less laudable? Of course not. If one is an anti-abortion protestor or a vegetarian, though, suddenly the ethical imperative is no longer to stand up for one’s beliefs and attempt to dissuade those who would do what one considers to be the wrong thing. Quite the opposite. Suddenly the holder of the strong ethical position is obligated to quiet down, regardless of what they see going on around them, or how deeply they object to it, and indeed, any piping up is considered unacceptably antisocial.

I can’t help but feel this reaction stems from a failure to give the other person’s position serious consideration. What else explains the exasperation of the omnivore who wishes those pesky vegetarians would “just stop shoving it down their throats”? “It” in this case being the conviction that you have been paying someone to commit murder on your behalf every day for your entire adult life. An awkward conversation at the dinner table is actually an astonishing accommodation, once you fully grasp the seriousness of that position, and the ethical obligations it would seem to entail. Would you sit down for a friendly meal with a mob boss? A mercenary? Laugh politely at their “jokes” about how they’d consider giving their work up, but the pay is just too good? “I just couldn’t live without bacon, haha!” Oh, well, that’s alright then.

The vegetarian / pro-life connection probably isn’t one you’ve seen made often, but I think the same principle operates in the majority responses to both groups. In both cases you are dealing with someone who believes it’s imperative that we expand the protections we take for granted to another group, one which you don’t recognize as having rights. They think what you are doing is grossly, appallingly wrong. Not shoplifting as a teenager wrong, not cheating on your taxes wrong, but wrong in the most fundamental sense. That is a pretty challenging thing to hear, and it’s hard to find common ground once it’s out there, so I think a lot of people just reject it out of hand. That rejection, though, leads to a host of consequences in the way we regard protest on those issues. We don’t treat it seriously as a political expression, and often we don’t even recognize people’s right to engage in it.  As the civil rights example shows, this is profoundly conservative – we (hopefully) wouldn’t deny people the right to protest because their viewpoint was that of a minority, and if the only people in our society who are entitled to protest are people who agree with us, well, then we’ve gone through the looking glass.

So, “How dare they oppose decriminalization and picket clinics?” Very easily, once you recognize their premise. Indeed, what type of people would they be if they didn’t? If abortion is murder, then failure to oppose it would be a renunciation of one’s obligations as a decent human being, and “my body, my choice” would be irrelevant. If capital punishment is murder, then the choices of the hangman or the victim’s families are not my primary concern. Murder is categorically unacceptable, and as a consequence, you cannot ever be entitled to commit it. It is simply not your choice to make about the life of another, no matter how horrifying the circumstances. Opposing abortion even in the case of rape, then, although such opposition is absolutely abhorrent to me, is simply the logical extreme of considering a fetus to be a human life. I would oppose capital punishment even if it were Julian Knight being lead to the chair, because no matter how terrible his crime, how deep the grief of his victims’ families, and how total his lack of remorse, I cannot countenance murder. No matter how heart wrenching the circumstance, there can be no special cases.

Not everybody has such black and white views on either issue, of course. We are talking here of people at the extreme, as I am at the extreme end of opposition to capital punishment. The very existence of diverse views on the ethics of these issues highlights my own premise, though – there is no one objective answer. In the absence of an external arbiter (presumably God), then even if some things are “just wrong”, none of us have any way of knowing whether we have come to the correct conclusions about which ones. The fact that the majority positions on torture, slavery, and women’s emancipation have changed so radically in the past centuries shows that simply being in a majority does not confer ethical correctness. If you believe it does, that is it’s own form of relativism – did capital punishment become unethical in Australia in the middle of this century, while it remains ethical in Texas today? I don’t believe that, and I doubt I’m alone. There are of course entire libraries devoted to this issue, and I’m hardly the person to expand on it. Let’s take it as given, for the purpose my argument here, that there are no objectively correct ethical positions, and move on (or if that’s beyond the pale, you can bail now, I won’t be offended).

And so, recognizing that there is no one “correct” position, the only meaningful discussion which can take place between the opposing sides is an attempt to convince them of your own position, that is, whether the act at hand is murder or not. Any argument on a point further down the chain of reasoning, such as on the acceptability of their protest, assumes a first principle which they do not share. Vegetarians and pro-life activists are not obligated to “live and let live”, any more than anti-capital punishment activists are. Someone who believes you are committing murder probably doesn’t care about your rights, your freedom of choice, or your dietary preferences, because they probably aren’t interested in you, except as a perpetrator. They are concerned with the rights of your perceived victim, and they are presumably behaving in a manner consistent with that being their primary concern. Whatever you would consider it reasonable for me to do in a society with the death penalty, they should be entitled to do here, however uncomfortable it makes us and however repulsive we find it. Likewise, whatever you would not consider acceptable forms of protest for them, such as physical violence, I would expect you to censure me for engaging in, even if you shared my beliefs on capital punishment.

Ultimately, of course, debates on whether abortion or killing animals constitutes murder are likely to be unfruitful from your perspective, if you’re the person in the majority position.  Someone who vocally supports a minority position on a given issue has already discussed it with people who disagree with them a hundred times. They’ve thought it through really carefully, because they are surrounded by people who disagree with them. Unless you’ve been thinking way outside the box, you’re unlikely to change their minds. Thankfully for you, if you’re an omnivore, vegetarianism is unlikely to be enshrined in law in Australia any time soon, and believe it or not, almost none of the conversations about vegetarianism which took place at tables I was sitting at were started by the vegetarian. If you wish to avoid having someone’s ethics “imposed” upon you through an awkward conversation, then frankly, my only advice to you would be to enjoy your position at the top, and quiet down yourself.

Obviously the abortion issue is harder fought, and the pro-choice legal position is far more tenuous. I would still argue, though, that debating the ethics of abortion is likely to be effort wasted unless you actually have a compelling theological case against personhood at conception. I certainly don’t, so I probably can’t argue with religious anti-abortion activists in terms they’d consider meaningful. I’m not even sure I would know where to start with people who had a non-religious objection, because the logic is equally alien to me. I do not consider embryos to be alive in any meaningful sense, and as a consequence, I don’t believe they can have rights. We simply disagree on first principles, and so although I supported decriminalization, I recognize the right of others to have objected to it. Pro-choice activists are of course equally entitled to support providers and agitate for the protection of abortion services in law, because that is the logical consequence of believing that women’s rights are paramount. We’re all entitled to make ourselves heard.

It’s too easy to demonise people who have thought hard about something and come to a different conclusion to you, and to assume that they’re senseless monsters or brainwashed lunatics. They’re just people, and when we refuse to recognize that, it’s far easier to betray our own ideals and become militant ourselves. If tolerance and integrity are lofty ideals, and I believe they are, then that tolerance should surely accommodate people with genuinely opposing viewpoints and the need that they feel to speak out against the injustices they see. Expecting people to quietly lay aside the obligations that come with their deeply held beliefs is simply unreasonable. If I want to protest for the protection of Julian Knight’s human rights, I expect to be allowed to, no matter how sick it makes the families of his victims. And if someone wants to picket an abortion clinic, then no matter how sick it makes me, I can’t in good conscience say that they should be prevented.