We Could Try “Nice”

Sylvia Estrada-Claudio is a doctor of medicine and a doctor of philosophy in psychology. She is Director of the Center for Women’s Studies and Professor of Women and Development Studies, University of the Philippines and a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms. This piece was published in the April 12, 2010 edition of the BusinessWorld, pages S1/4 to S1/5.

It isn’t nice to block the doorway,
It isn’t nice to go to jail.
There are nicer ways to do it.
But the nice ways always fail.

It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice.
You’ve told us once,
You’ve told us twice.
But if that is freedom’s price,
We don’t mind.

Malvina Reynolds

On  March 24, 2010, students from the University of the Philippines (UP) and the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (PUP) undertook simultaneous protest actions against tuition fee increases.

At UP,  students from the Diliman, Los Baños, Baguio and Manila campuses held a rally to block the UP Board of Regents from approving additional fees in the university, including a P100 hike in PE fees and a P1,000 to P2,500 per unit hike in graduate classes.

In the course of both rallies protesters destroyed chairs (and tables) and used certain other methods that have caused a furor, mostly in UP where I teach.

This controversy is about whether the group of protesting faculty and students were right in painting slogans on walls; lobbing paintballs at one of our chancellors and destroying some chairs.

I sent our Faculty Regent a song for those who believed the actions were justified. I have loved this song for a long time, and I would urge people to look up Malvina Reynolds’ “It isn’t nice.”

The impulse to send the Faculty Regent the song comes from years of being an underground propagandist during the Marcos dictatorship. I have criticisms to make of those who used paint and destroyed chairs. Yet the song is a perfect vehicle to express their sentiments.

Only a few lines need be said about those who stood up for their beliefs in ways that were branded as impolite, improper, barbaric, unwise and criminal. Apart from those who took up the protests against the Marcos dictatorship, there are those who fought against apartheid, those who joined the civil rights movement in the US— I could go on and on. I will add only that these movements were started by small groups who were initially vilified, only to be supported later by millions.

My criticisms have to do with why I have become a pacifist, though an angst-ridden one. Anyone who supports violent tactics and strategies needs to reflect on whether that particular form of violence (say, armed struggle) can be justified. I am still convinced that there is a moral basis for violence. I am just setting the bar very high for when violent acts can be moral.

I think that using violence to defend oneself, one’s loved ones and those in the immediate vicinity, against battering, sexual violence, torture, mutilation and attempted murder can be justified. I would not say that violence is only justified for these grand instances. I once slapped away the hand of my eldest son with enough strength to make him wail. At the time he was a toddler, trying to insert a pair of tweezers into an electrical outlet.

I do not think the methods used at the rallies in question were justifiable. It is not just the University’s officials who are condemning the methods. Several faculty members and researchers have also expressed their disagreement.  I am also told that as the slogans were being painted on the walls, rank and file employees in the building were upset because the University would need additional funds to repaint. In their minds, the very people who had made an issue of the state’s budgetary neglect of education, were squandering the very resources they wished to augment. The discussions have now become about the methods of protest and not the issues of the protest.

I disagree with those who have tried to justify the violence by essentially taking the line that there is violence in society that is far more immoral than the case at hand. One cannot justify bad practice by stating that worse things have gone unpunished.

Furthermore, I do not condemn these actions just because these were impolite or bad-mannered. Even the genteel may be roused to cussing when unduly provoked. I also urge the reader to look into the book entitled “Miss Manners Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior,”  to find out how and why a person should deliver a social snub—of which there are several varieties. The lack of politeness in the protest is self evident. The proposition that bad manners per se are condemnable is put to rest convincingly by the sentiments expressed in Reynolds’ song.

The protesters have every right to go beyond the formal or sedate ways of handling dissent (more Board of Regents meetings, administrative cases, court proceedings, forums, petitions). The history of revolutions and transformations shows this to be a necessity. But to use non-formal methods is not necessarily a decision to escalate to violence. The methods of Gandhi and Martin Luther King are but two examples of this.

The question about tactics that should be answered is whether the wrong that is being protested justifies the slogans on the wall, the throwing of paint and the destruction of chairs. I have tried my best to follow the issues and believe that the protesters have very legitimate concerns. But I do not believe the tactics were just.

I believe this is why confrontational tactics are being rejected by many ordinary citizens. We have too often planned protest actions that have resorted to minor forms of violence when, in the minds of a significant number, the moral basis for proceeding to violent action had not been met.

I am one of those who ascribe to the political ethic that the means must be justifiable in themselves. On a very practical level, questionable tactics are a barrier to revolutionary change. I am not the first to note that the Left has been unable to provide the disgusted majority with tactics that evoke widespread action.

If we are to be so arrogant as to call ourselves activists, we must come up with creative methods that can harness these passions in ways that do not trade off the future of activism for present gains.

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