In 1773, a group of people, upset that they were not being listened to by their government, dumped the modern equivalent of a million dollars’ worth of tea into the Boston Harbor. Almost 150 years later, a group of women fighting for voting rights picketed outside of the White House six days a week for the summer of 1917. Martin Luther King wept in 1957 as he described his vision for a desegregated America. Several years later he was jailed for leading a sit-in in Birmingham, Alabama. In more recent memory, a group of gay men and women carried the bodies of lost loved ones through the streets of New York City, outraged at the federal government’s indifference towards the AIDS epidemic.
In an op-ed published in the Orient this week, former Bush advisor Larry Lindsey ’76 H’93 critiques those who attempted to persuade Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) on her Kavanaugh vote, writing that “Loud volume, chanting, name-calling and physical intimidation are merely suggestive of a lack of rational argument. If rational argument existed, why the emotion?”
We believe that the Revolutionaries, the Suffragettes, MLK and ACTUP would have disagreed. Emotion is an integral part of making a strong argument capable of changing hearts and minds. Had these groups played nice and just made polite, ignorable speeches, they would not have achieved political change.
Calls for civility are almost exclusively calls for the preservation of the status quo. Don’t be too loud, don’t make me uncomfortable, don’t inconvenience me in any way. You can speak, but do not expect your elected representatives to hear you. Take it slow, go through the proper channels, wait your turn, don’t turn this into a news story. Do not exercise your political voice in a way that might actually draw attention to your concerns or motivate your representatives and fellow citizens to foment change.
Such calls for civility coming from those who are on the opposite side of the protesters are often indicative that protest is working. They don’t like the noise. They wish protesters would quiet down. They’re not comfortable with having to confront the people their political decisions hurt. And that is a very good thing. Protest is not supposed to be comfortable for the person being protested against. It is supposed to be so loud, so uncomfortable, so impossible to look away from that onlookers have no choice but to pay some kind of attention.
Being civil is a privilege. People act up when all civil attempts at political change have failed. Incivility is the next rational step when you have been ignored. Emotion demonstrates that people have been pushed to their limits. As humans, we cry when we are overwhelmed by the significance of a situation. This does not indicate weakness or irrationality, but rather how deeply we care, how frustrated we are, how hard all of this can be.
Of course, there are lines. There is a difference between being uncivil and being violent. We’re not advocating for death threats or assault, but we believe that taking up space, refusing to move and demanding to be heard—even if it takes shouting, chanting and harsh words—are important political tools that we should make use of.
So, in light of recent events and contrary to what Lindsey has written, we encourage Bowdoin students to embrace the less civil aspects of political action, to get emotional and to keep demanding to be heard. It worked for the Revolutionaries, the Suffragettes, MLK and ACTUP. These groups had their own critics, their own “Larry Lindseys.” Where would we be if they had listened?
This editorial represents the majority view of the Bowdoin Orient’s editorial board, which is composed of Nell Fitzgerald, Dakota Griffin, Calder McHugh and Jessica Piper.