Jayne: Protesters must learn to choose their battles carefully

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Editor

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Greg Jayne, Opinion page editor

There are, it seems, some immutable rules that define the demarcation between childhood and adulthood. Things like adults have to pay bills instead of believing that Legos grow on trees, and adults can’t just walk around the house in a Jedi costume while carrying a lightsaber without looking weird.

And as we make this inevitable transformation that leads us to grown-up status, one of the most important lessons is thus: Choose your battles. It might sound simple; it often is impossible. As much as we would like to pick up that cigarette butt from the ground and throw it at the person who discarded it, some fights simply are not worth picking at that particular place and time.

This lesson is especially relevant in our current political climate, where no decision and no statement from the “other” side is free from scorn and derision. So it is that a planned speech last week at the University of California in Berkeley by a right-wing provocateur resulted in protests that devolved into a riot and culminated in the cancellation of the appearance. Fires were set, windows were smashed, and objects were hurled at police.

The actions would be shameful anywhere. But they were particularly poignant at Berkeley, one of the world’s great universities and a setting that is regarded as the birthplace of the free speech movement during the 1960s. Oh, how times have changed. A leaflet circulated at the protest claimed that the speaker has “no right to speak at Cal or anywhere else” because he is a “tool of Trump’s possessive fascist government.”

Which brings up an obvious point: If you claim that somebody else is a fascist, it is best to not act like one yourself; it kind of diminishes your argument.

Not that Berkeley is alone. Protests accompanied an appearance by the same speaker at the University of Washington, and a confrontation outside the event resulted in one man being shot.

Now, if you’ll notice, I have no interest in naming the speaker, who undoubtedly is reveling in his prominence as a lightning rod. He isn’t worthy of the attention. But the notion of free speech is, indeed, deserving of discussion; it is, after all, sacrosanct enough to be included in the First Amendment.

As Berkeley administrators rightly said in declining to initially cancel the speech long before violence erupted: “The courts have made it very clear that there is no general exception to 1st Amendment protection for ‘hate’ speech or speech that is deemed to be discriminatory. Our Constitution does not permit the university to engage in prior restraint of a speaker out of fear that he might engage in even hateful verbal attacks.”

In that regard, I suppose, some protesters likely are pleased with themselves. Their uncivilized display eventually resulted in the cancellation of the speech. But that brings us back to the notion of choosing your battles.

Crying wolf

You see, one thing that too often gets lost in this age of ultra-sensitivity is that decrying every action from the opposition ultimately hurts your cause. It reduces you to the boy who cried wolf.

In the case of violence at Berkeley or elsewhere in an attempt to quell free speech, such violence is destined to overshadow the message you are trying to share. In the case of protests that block interstate freeways, such as those in Portland, the protesters do little other than annoy a majority of the public. The court of public opinion eventually will provide the ultimate judgment, and such actions simply remind a lot of people why they voted for Trump in the first place.

Protests are necessary and can be valuable. The women’s marches of Jan. 21 around the country were remarkably powerful and meaningful. They reflected American activism at its best and at its most important. But when protests turn away from being for women’s rights or for gay rights or for immigrant rights and focus upon being against something, say, free speech, then they lose their way.

And it is then that they become a battle that was not wisely chosen.