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Opinion: When protesting is productive– and when it’s not

When Western’s chapter of Students for Life of America brought Kristan Hawkins, the president of the national organization, to speak on campus, her talk was fraught with controversy. Days before the event, a poster advertising the event, titled “Lies Feminists Tell,” was lit on fire. A group of community members organized a direct action against the event, making educational handbills and protesting outside the Communications Facility. They said Hawkins was there to spread hate under the guise of the pro-life movement.

The next week, two pastors came to campus to proselytize in Red Square. Their convoluted views and contradictory statements drew a crowd, as they usually do. Nearly a hundred students, university police officers and several members of Western’s upper administration watched these two men tag-team to share their views. Their ideals and opinions were met with blatant and loud disagreement from the students watching. The students screamed at the pastors, danced around them and even kissed in front of them. A few feet away,  Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights displayed their Apartheid Wall, which was largely ignored in favor of the pastors.

When is a protest productive? When does it make a situation better?

The First Amendment protects people who come to our campus and allows them to say almost anything, even if it’s inaccurate, hateful or confusing. It also protects the people who disagree, no matter how they choose to express that. Is it productive to scream “God loves hentai” at a pastor who’s trying to rationalize gender inequality? No. Does it feel good when you do it? Obviously.

After “Lies Feminists Tell,” the organizers of the counterprotest held decompression spaces for people who may have been affected by the things Hawkins said. They prioritized the feelings of the people who Hawkins fundamentally disagreed with, as well as educating people at the event about the pro-choice side of this debate. That sounds pretty productive.

At the same time, the idea of “civility” says that you’ll only be listened to and taken seriously if you rise above. It leaves a space for oppressors to do or say anything, and no space for those oppressed to react however they see fit.

It’s unfortunate that inflammatory people who come to campus often want to elicit an overblown reaction from students. They provoke our campus community so they can go home and tweet about how there’s no such thing as "the tolerant left."

When the “Lies Feminists Tell” poster was burned to a crisp, Hawkins was overjoyed. She used it as a part of advertising for her event. Eric Bostrom, who notoriously taunted students with his hateful views would do so with a GoPro camera strapped to his chest, filming videos that he would post on his Facebook page.

So it goes. After seeing a few Red Square hate circles on campus, it becomes apparent that the pastors in the center are getting the exact reaction they want out of the students. If they’re going down, red-faced and hoarse from their screaming, at least they can take down the mature and rational image of the college-educated people around them at the same time.

Screaming at these people, arguing with their flawed inflammatory claims, gives them your energy for little reward. Sometimes it even validates their views, which would otherwise be a joke. Sometimes it draws the attention of people more willing to hear out the hateful views on display. A better use of your energy might be outreach to the people affected by the bigoted views brought into the campus community.

So it’s up to you. Give these people your energy, but know that you won’t convince them that you’re right. If you need to scream in the face of oppression, do it. Do it for you. But don’t expect anything to come of it.

The Western Front Editorial Board is composed of Julia Berkman, Laura Place and Stella Harvey.

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