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The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Op-ed: Approach nonviolent protest with love

Michael Long is an associate professor of prevention and community health at the Milken Institute of Public Health.

University leaders would be wrong to conflate physical safety with order, compliance, and optics at the cost of protest. Individuals who protest are not allowed to protest because of their right to free expression. Instead, the natural duty to justice creates a responsibility to protest, a duty that obliges them to give GW community members their due. But what are we due?

Nonviolent protest has long been viewed as an act of love. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about the centrality of the love ethic to effective nonviolent protest at the General Assembly of the National Conference of Churches in 1957. “When we rise to love on the agape level, we love men not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but we love them because God loves them,” King said. “Here we rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed that the person does.”

We are due the radical love of the students, staff and faculty who are protesting at GW so that we may reconnect with our own sense of justice. And how is this accomplished?

The radical love of nonviolent protest is not easily accepted by society. The more people heard about King and his nonviolent protests, the less popular he was. In a 1966 Gallup survey, 69 percent of white U.S. adults reported holding an unfavorable view of King. Paulo Freire wrote in “Conscientisation”: “Often I am violently assailed because many people, when they hear me, start to despise themselves — and their almost immediate second reaction is to strike back at whoever made them do that.”

At this university, there are students, staff, and faculty who are opposed to the goals of the GW students who are protesting in the encampment at University Yard, who are offended by their speech, who are frustrated by their presence in the center of campus and the resulting disruption. Some of these community members may be angry. They may find reflecting on the causes of this anger to be clarifying.

To what extent is the anger about the behavior of the people protesting unrelated to the content of their protest? What part of the anger is caused when we are called by the protest to hold ourselves accountable for the deaths of the 1,200 people living in Israel on Oct. 7, including 36 children, and the estimated 45,000 people living in Gaza who have been killed (with an estimated 10,000 buried in rubble), including more than 13,000 children?

In the same 1957 speech, King explained that the goal of noncooperation in the context of nonviolent protest is to “… awaken the sense of moral shame within the opponent.” Shame is caused when one realizes that their behavior does not measure up to their own standards, leading to a decline in self-respect. King believed that this experience of shame would eventually lead to reconciliation.

I don’t believe that shame alone will lead to the beloved community that King saw. The central change process offered by the protest is to create a transformational place and time in which we may come to see the other as human. Of course, we avoid this opportunity. We essentialize the other as a behavior — “protesters” instead of people protesting or GW students protesting. We fail as a community at GW when we reject the humanity of those who are protesting at the same time that we accuse.

If we go to the protest and remove these filters from our eyes, restrain from the objectification and totalization that limit our understanding, we may see in the face of the “Other,” the humanity and the connection to the infinite that we cannot see when we only look at ourselves. Because we recognize a humanity that cannot be contained within us, before we think or speak anything, we are obligated to care for this Other more than we care for ourselves.

In the momentary interruption of the face-to-face encounter with the Other — the widow, the orphan, the stranger — philosopher Emmanuel Levinas argues that we experience transcendence outside historical time. He wrote, “History is worked over by the ruptures of history, in which a judgment is borne upon it. When man truly approaches the Other he is uprooted from history.”

We all have a deep desire to matter in a way that is unrelated to the broad sweeps of history. The answer to how we matter outside of historical time can be found in the face-to-face encounter with the Other. In the infinite space created by that relationship, the rupture in history that we make creates a new path forward.

We have the capacity to approach people who are protesting with love just as we can and should love those people hearing demands for change. This is the revolutionary spirit to which we at GW are obligated.

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