Grabbing the Microphone Is a Violent Act…

…and therefore should be considered as such when it comes to the ethics of “direct action” in activism.

Some of us are discussing the recent seizing of the microphone at a rally in Seattle by women on behalf of #BlackLives Matter. Yes, even from my relatively distant vantage point across the 49th Parallel, I can understand and sympathize with those who want the American election to pay much more attention to the ongoing agony of race relations. I claim very little knowledge about this vast and vastly important zone, but even only a couple of years living on the South Side of Chicago, while I was studying American culture, raised my consciousness a bit.

The legitimacy of #BlackLivesMatter and of the larger issues it evokes, however, is only part of what’s going on here. And the seizing of the floor by these two motivated women seems to me (as it seems to many others) dangerous indeed.

It’s the playing with fire that scares me here, the resort to a (small, but genuine) form of violence. And this incident is part of a larger pattern of increasing freedom many North Americans seem to feel–and especially those in their 20s (on university campuses especially, but now in other spaces as well)–to commandeer or shut down political speech they don’t like.

That scares me. Not just because this has been the tactic of reprehensible movements in the past. (Let’s just acknowledge Godwin’s Law and move on.) But because this kind of shouting is becoming increasingly the norm: at political rallies, yes, but on MSM “news” as much as on social media. How are we going to convince anyone who isn’t already convinced, let alone mollify our opponents, if we just throw fire at each other?

Worse, these activists are trading on the good will of people with whom they can understandably feel impatient, as MLK did…but by riding roughshod over those people (“I have decided what we will all do now…because I happen to be black and feel strongly about BlackLivesMatter…and that trumps everyone else’s agenda here”), well, what do they accomplish?

Sure, they might prick the consciences of some of those very people they annoyed, and those people might come ’round. But boy, that’s a long shot to play. You’re paying a very high moral compliment to those people, in fact, and I wonder if you want to treat people for whom you have such high regard in such a bullying way.

Whether you convince any of those white liberals to take up your cause more fully, however, what you certainly will do is fuel the fire of your opponents and of your more radical comrades. Sometimes, yes, that’s a desirable political outcome: fierce polarization and all-out war. But that doesn’t seem to be what these women were seeking, so I’m questioning the tactic.

Furthermore, by resorting to naked power (“I’m seizing the floor, I will not yield, and you’ll have to force me away unless everyone does exactly as I say”) one nicely legitimates the use of force by people who are well versed in its use and have no compunction about applying it.

And where does that leave us?

The next black person who starts to make a move toward the microphone at a political rally, with entirely innocent motives, may well fall victim to force entirely undeserved but also entirely understandable now that the protocols of civil exchange have been flouted in this way. The next “Muslim-looking” or “Jewish-looking” or “gay-looking” person (!) simply trying to improve his or her spot in the crowd may be tackled (or worse) by someone else to prevent another hijacking of a rally…only to set off a horrible mêlée.

And I’m not just idly fantasizing: I recently froze while a large white man stood up to prevent a black man from approaching me on stage at a public event during this last year. It frightened me to think of just how quickly what had been a frank and spirited exchange of views on some delicate subjects could have turned into a brawl.

So I really can’t agree with these activists–not when there are so many ways to urge Senator Sanders and his kind to take more seriously the very serious proposal that #BlackLivesMatter. Engaging in power plays like this have to be a last resort, when all else has failed. And even then, they are a desperate, risky expedient indeed. I hope, I pray, that we’re not at that point yet.

3 Responses to “Grabbing the Microphone Is a Violent Act…”

  1. Iain Benson

    John: You are right to raise this. The two women (I watched the video) were rude, ignorant and sad. It was all very depressing. The reek of “entitlement” and lack of any nuanced capacity to turn their frustrations in life into appropriate political action is the mark of our times and it is most worrying. Iain Benson (Prof.)

  2. Mike in Pennsylvania

    Your mention of “naked power” reminds me of the message-actions of the prophet Isaiah. They were risky, a last resort, and unfruitful even under the command and providence of God. What has been more fruitful is the longer process of writing his actions down, passing them down, reflecting on them, and so on.

  3. Paul

    John, you are addressing a symptom rather than the root cause, post-modernism, where evidence and rationality are of no consequence, just the exercise of raw power. To the extent one is a post-modernist to that extent they are an ally of this and much worse.

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