Let’s have a civics lesson.
Actually: First, let’s start with a journalism lesson. I’m one of the editors-in-chief of The Brandeis Hoot. This means that I write in two different voices for this paper: One as an editor, influenced by my views as an individual citizen, like when I help write editorials, and one as a private citizen, influenced by my work on the paper, like in this article. This means that, while my opinion is often reflected in our editorials because the editorial board writes them collaboratively, this article does not necessarily represent the views of the rest of the board—and, in fact, I know that some of my fellow editors will not agree with everything that I write or the voracity with which I write it.
Let’s move on to the civics lesson. I know it’s kind of tacky to quote a well-known text to make an argument, but I’ve been increasingly struck with the misinterpretations I’ve been met with of the founding documents of our country. The text of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
There are two points I’d like to make regarding this text. Firstly, despite some opinions to the contrary, the First Amendment does not protect the right to say whatever you want with no consequences. I have been told that refusing to listen to someone speak is limiting their First Amendment rights. As someone who is not the physical embodiment of the U.S. government, I have no power to limit someone’s First Amendment rights; the First Amendment protects only the right not to be silenced by the federal government, not the right to be listened to by everyone else. To apply this concept to current events: There are some who would argue that for private citizens—college students, perhaps—to protest a speech given by a bigot, to the point that the bigot is not able to speak, is violating that bigot’s First Amendment right to free speech. Private citizens refusing to give platform to another private citizen is not a violation of a First Amendment right. (Quick reminder: Hate speech is not a protected form of speech, but protest is.)
Secondly, the First Amendment protects the freedom of the press. I’ve been told, as an editor of this paper, that to not publish a piece is to refuse someone their First Amendment right. Even under the institution of a newspaper, I am not able to affect someone’s First Amendment right; and, in fact, the right of the press to choose what they print is explicitly protected by the Constitution. I am able to refuse to give platform to hate speech and hateful speech, and the U.S. government cannot force me to print anything without violating the First Amendment themselves, nor can it stop me from printing articles that it disagrees with, even articles that are explicitly contrary to the work of the current administration. (Whether Brandeis University can force me to print or not to print something is a different argument.)
For my next piece of this civics discussion, I’d like to invoke the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We still think he is an embodiment of American values, a figure to lead us in our struggle against tyranny, a martyr of a just cause? I know liberals, and especially white liberals—and even some conservatives—like to tote out MLK quotes to argue against the righteous violence of oppressed peoples, but I’d like to quote some less popular King.
In the wake of the recent presidential election, there has been a sometimes violent outpouring of opposition to the Trump administration, and a parallel support of the people he is most likely to negatively affect. People have protested, and protests—with or without the support of the organizers or the protestors—have occasionally turned violent. Notably, protesters have used the “black bloc” tactic of anonymizing themselves, typically in black ski masks, and, for example, punched Nazis and Nazi sympathizers in the face to force them to stop talking.
And in the wake of this response, there has been an outpouring of opposition to violence in all of its forms. I have been addressed with arguments that assault is wrong—even assault of Nazis, even assault of oppressive forces—because it is illegal. This is a circular argument, unless you believe that illegal actions are immoral due to their illegality. If you believe that laws are inherently moral (and therefore lawmakers are inherently moral) then you would agree that, for example, the so-called “Muslim ban,” for the period of time that it was enacted—which was done legally in an executive order, which Presidents are permitted to enact—before it was halted by a federal judge, was a just law: because all laws are just. Therefore, those who refused to comply with the travel ban were acting unjustly.
My response to that reasoning is to quote King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” Martin Luther King, our paragon of civil action, from a jail cell in 1963, lauded action taken in opposition to unjust laws. Now, in 2017, upon the resurgence of racially motivated discrimination in the form of neo-Nazis given voice and power in our government and an administration that is peculiarly interested in keeping members of a racialized religion out of our nation, I and countless others will parrot the sentiment: We do not need to protect laws that harm us.
Similarly, there has been opposition to protests that have turned violent, also often at the hands of black bloc-ers (I’m going to ignore the—many—cases of non-protestors joining protests and turning them violent because they want an “excuse” for violence). People call these instances riots, to which King says, “The riot is the language of the unheard,” several times throughout his career. People do not riot when they have a voice in their government; they riot when they have followed every legal, safe, nonviolent channel available to them to make a difference in their community, and their community still wants to kill them.
I’ve gone on too long, but I’ve got one more point to make regarding violence. I’ve had people tell me that we, the people, must not be violent because we have the government to be violent for us. We cannot establish vigilante justice, because that’s what the police are for. We do not decide who is to be punished, and how. To some extent, this is perfectly accurate; no one reasonable is advocating for murdering any Republican one finds on the street, just because of the crimes against morality of the Republican Party, which allows Nazi loyalties to enter their political arena unchecked.
I apologize—I’m going to do the tacky thing again and quote another Amendment—but I promise I won’t take you through all 27 Constitutional Amendments numerically. The Second Amendment reads, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This Amendment endows us with the right to bear arms for the purpose of self-protection—against an authoritarian regime. The point of this Amendment is that we are allowed to use violence against the government, when it is “necessary to the security of a free State.” In other words, the government does not have a monopoly on violence, and our founders fought specifically to prohibit the government from being the only dispenser of violence.
My point, in this article, is to ask you to be an active participant in your own governance. To do this, you need to know your rights. You need to read the founding documents of this country, and the more recent but no less important additions to this foundation. “Click through” to the sources of your news articles. Read survey procedures, how data was collected, how it was analyzed. Ignore clickbait. Google is your very best friend. Watch the Congressional hearings of the people who will be in charge of the workings of our country in virtually every arena for the next four years; know what they’re going to do. Get all the information you can about topics that—whether you want to admit it or not, for those of you who like to say that you “don’t care about politics” because it “doesn’t affect you”—have a significant bearing on your life.
I know this is an incredible commitment to make, especially as college students, and I know that not everyone is able to make this kind of commitment to being informed, and I know that some of us are much more privileged than others in the areas that allow this kind of commitment, but I hope you will do your best. We are, all of us, privileged to be at an institution where we have academic journal subscriptions paid for us by the university, so use the hell out of them. And, after you have done all this incredibly difficult work, this thorough research and ultimately this soul searching? I hope that you will come to an opinion that wasn’t spoon-fed to you by your media outlet of choice. I hope you find beliefs that resonate with you. I hope you are proud of these beliefs, and I hope you can stand behind them and stake your name on them.
And, once you have determined your beliefs and your opinions on these issues that are crucial to our nation in this present moment, if you find your beliefs align with mine? This is a call to action. Stay informed—even though, I know, it’s hard both emotionally and practically. Share your knowledge with others, and argue with those whose minds you might change. Don’t listen to bigots, and don’t give them a platform in whatever media you control—be it a veritable publication, or your friend group. Call your representatives, or write them if you can’t call. Vote, even when it seems hopeless and useless, and help those less able to vote. If you’re able, consider running for office. Make your opinions heard; it’s our country too. And, yes, punch Nazis. In short: Do your civic duty.