On Situational Ethics and Political Activism
Or, what the Washington Post gets wrong about the Kavanaugh Protest.
There’s a theme from my strategic political communication class that I keep coming back to this week. It’s derived from Saul Alinsky’s classic book, Rules for Radicals. My students read his chapter “of means and ends,” and we discuss how to apply ethical frameworks in the context of activist contestation over power.
Alinsky is an outspoken relativist when it comes to placing ethical guardrails on activism. He offers eleven ethical rules. (I teach a few addendums as well, but that’s a topic for another day.) To give you a taste of them, here are the first three:
One’s concern with the ethics of means and ends varies inversely with one’s personal interest in the issue.
The judgment of the ethics of means is dependent upon the political position of those sitting in judgment.
In war the end justifies almost any means.
Alinsky died in 1972, seven months before the Supreme Court decided Roe v Wade. But his words echo when considering the editorial stance taken by the Washington Post Editorial Board earlier this week, titled, “Leave the Justices Alone at Home,” in response to a weekend of peaceful protests outside of Justice Kavanaugh’s house in suburban Maryland. The Post Editorial Board wrote:
The disruptors wanted to voice opposition to a possible overruling of Roe v. Wade, as foreshadowed by a leaked majority draft opinion last week. What they mainly succeeded in doing was to illustrate that their goal — with which we broadly agree — does not justify their tactics.
Critics of the Post editorial (myself included) took to Twitter to voice variations on Alinsky’s first two ethical rules (The editorial board seems far more concerned about social elites’ Right to Privacy than the bodily autonomy of pregnant women. It also seems to place greater responsibility for civic behavior on the mass citizenry than it does on the members of a coequal branch of government). Defenders of the editorial offered cautionary variations on the third (We must worry about these means, lest civil society treat every fight as an all-out war).
The best defense of the Post editorial board that one could muster is that they are attempting to apply universal ethics to the context of political activism. They are trying to establish and normatively defend neutral boundaries for political speech — boundaries that can be applied to all causes, all circumstances, regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with them. There are strong traditions of universal ethics in law, philosophy, and debate.
What Alinsky is particularly useful for is drawing out the counterargument — in the context of political activism, all ethics are situational ethics. We cannot appropriately evaluate tactical decisions outside of the context, circumstances, resources, and power relationships involved.
Or, to state it more succinctly, Alinsky leads us to introduce a practical framing question: “You’re doing this for that?”
Consider another case from just a few months ago: the Canadian trucker blockade.
To refresh your memory, rightwing truckers in Canada staged a protest against COVID requirements that they provide proof of vaccination in order to cross the U.S. border. 90% of Canadian truckers were vaccinated, but a small minority latched onto this as the fundamental threat to liberty. They organized a “freedom convoy” that shut down traffic in Ottawa and jammed the Ambassador Bridge for almost a week, imperiling hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity.
If we apply universal ethics to the “Freedom Convoy,” then there is effectively no grounds to criticize their disruptive activism. There are circumstances where I think civil disobedience and is justified and appropriate. There are circumstances where causing a racket, being a nuisance, and creating economic harm ought to be celebrated. So, if we are to be universally morally consistent, it follows that the truckers’ activism is just as legitimate as anti-apartheid activism, civil rights activism, climate activism, etc.
But we can, instead, systematically treat all activist campaigns through a situational ethics framework. “You’re doing this for that?” And doing so gets to the very real, legitimate critiques of the stupid trucker protest. You’re shutting down traffic, causing real harm to bystanders daily lives, and wrecking business unconnected to the government you are targeting, and you’re doing it to protest a vaccine requirement that 90% of truckers already meet?!? That seems… excessive. Almost as if the real point of the Freedom Convoy was contributing to an extreme-right narrative whose real goal was to radicalize supporters and spread disinformation.
Evaluating the tactics without ignoring the goals and the power structure leads to a more serious, fundamentally honest critique. Adopting a veil of ignorance and neutrality makes it harder to understand the strategic logic of the protest.
Now let’s consider a case of campus activism. Let’s say we have a student group that is advocating against raising the student activity fee on campus. And let’s say they decide that the best option is to stage a sit-in, occupy the President’s office.
A universalist is left with little to say here. There is a long tradition of campus sit-ins. It is an aggressive tactic, but certainly not an unprecedented tactic. (And who are we to say that student activity fees are less important than ending Apartheid in South Africa?)
But applying situational ethics (This for that?) surfaces the obvious critiques. The tactic wont’t work because you will look ridiculous. If the story is covered at all, the frame is going to be terrible. You’ll have trouble recruiting people to your cause because the tactic won’t be proportionate to the harm you are addressing.
Here’s another thought experiment: the January 6th insurrection.
Imagine an alternate universe where the speeches John Eastman, Rudy Giuliani, and their co-conspirators delivered on the stage that day were actually true. A world where one party had, in fact, seized control of the voting machines, installed software that fixed the vote so they could never lose, and were just hours away from installing a permanent government.
(It’s quite a bizarro world, since the party would have pulled this off in states like Georgia where it had no control over election administration. I am not suggesting that the Big Lie is, upon even cursory examination, the least bit believable. I’m just asking you to let your mind travel through the multiverse to a world with totally different circumstances.)
Under such circumstances, the insurrection that follows is morally justifiable. Just as Facebook has made an exception in its “no calls for violence” rules for Ukrainians calling for violence against invading Russian soldiers, the insurrectionists’ attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election would be justified if the election had, in fact, been revealed as a massive fraud. (That’s why I have publicly advocated that the largest consequences should fall on those who knowingly peddled the Big Lie, rather than punishing those who acted on it while the ringleaders remain in Congress and keep their cushy gigs in media and public life.)
There is a place for universal ethics. But there are also boundaries where universal ethics ought not be applied. In the context of activism and political contention, we are better off being Alinskyites. All ethics are situational ethics. We can only effectively analyze political activism in the context of a power structure, asking, in effect, “you’re doing this for that?”
Which brings me back to the Kavanaugh protests over the weekend. The activists disrupted the normal daily routine in Kavanaugh’s suburb. (It is worth noting that the protest was apparently organized by Kavanaugh’s own neighbors, but I think that’s ultimately immaterial. They’d be just as defensible if they weren’t.) The activists were peaceful — a bunch of people chanting and holding signs. But still, the Post editorial board fretted that it represents a slippery slope, writing, “What begins as peaceful protests can degenerate into violence.”
I’ve seen plenty of this sentiment in my Twitter timeline. Well-meaning liberal intellectuals and civility-minded columnists openly fretting that, though overturning Roe is a radical act of judicial extremism, it ought only be opposed through the appropriate channels. (Apparently there is a right to privacy, but it only applies to powerful public figures.)
Some of this fretting is situational — concerns that it will do nothing to move Kavanaugh, but will prompt violent backlash that will do more harm than good. I disagree with those concerns, but I think it’s appropriate to raise them. Effective activism ought to be self-critical, and ought to consider medium-term (what will our choices today set up tomorrow from us, from our targets, and from our opponents).
But most of it has been couched in universal ethics, and has been a rehash of longstanding “civility” debates. It sets aside the radical nature of Alito’s leaked opinion and focused instead on whether the response to the opinion meets our ideals of how citizens should engage in public life.
The appeal of universal ethics is it allows us to talk about means without arguing over the ends. There’s an air of fairness and neutrality that comes with insisting that, if one would applaud a tactic from your side, then one must condemn it from the other side. But the lesson Alinsky imparted over 50 years ago is that universal ethics is ultimately a shallow mirage when evaluating political activism.
Abandoning the pretense of universalism means keeping the political context and power structure firmly in mind. The Supreme Court is undoing 50 years of established precedent to overturn Roe v Wade. This is the endpoint of a 50 year campaign that stretched from administrative capture to outright terrorism. Women in the United States have just been told that their bodies are no longer their own, and that this state of affairs will not change unless multiple Supreme Court seats are added or vacated.
It isn’t just that the neighborhood protest tactics are justified. When we consider the power dynamics, the context, and the stakes, they are exceedingly mild.
One of the underappreciated reasons why situational ethics is the more effective lens is that it permits us to take the context and the ends seriously when evaluating tactical means.
It isn’t just that it’s useful to ask “you’re doing this for that.”
It’s also right.