How College Protests Can Embrace Ethics
Thomas G. Plante
Can campus protests appropriately embrace important ethical principles?
In recent months, colleges across the country have erupted in protests mostly associated with the Black Lives Matter movement. Some protests have focused on other issues as well such as divestment. Remarkably, the top leadership at the University of Missouri resigned after protests included a hunger strike and threats from the football team that they would refuse to play (which would have cost the university millions). Protests at Yale, Amherst, MIT, Dartmouth, and elsewhere included hard to watch (i.e., aggressive screaming and swearing towards others) video footage that has gone viral. Certainly, protests on college campuses are nothing new but the frequency, intensity, and availability of smartphone videos make these events especially compelling and noteworthy.
Students are embracing important and just causes related to diversity, prejudice, equal opportunities for all, and so forth. But in their enthusiasm for these very important and noble causes they sometimes gravitate towards physical or verbal violence, as well as unethical behavior that can undermine the very causes that they wish to promote.
Protests in an ethical manner must embrace the values and virtues that they seek to highlight and endorse including respect, inclusion, openness to various points of view, compassion, and so forth.
As emerging adults, college students struggle with a variety of important maturation tasks including identity formation, independence, and impulse control, which all play important roles in the methods that they choose to engage in during campus protests. Protests in an ethical manner must embrace the values and virtues that they seek to highlight and endorse including respect, inclusion, openness to various points of view, compassion, and so forth.
In my book, “Do the Right Thing: Living Ethically in an Unethical World” I highlight the RRICC model of ethics (i.e., respect, responsibility, integrity, competence, and concern for others) that can be a helpful tool to discern how best to engage in campus protests. Respecting the rights of all, being true to one’s core values of inclusion, diversity, and so forth, and always being concerned for others (even those who hold different points of view) must be highlighted.
Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon articulated in a recent letter to his campus community the important balance between free speech and ethical behavior stating:
“As one of the great institutions of higher learning, we are committed to the open and energetic exchange of ideas. And as Dartmouth's citizenship pledge reminds us, we must treat each person with dignity and respect.”
Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, and Mahatma Gandhi all provide powerful examples of ethically-based and non-violent civil disobedience and protests.
Excellent models of protest movements exist. Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, and Mahatma Gandhi all provide powerful examples of ethically-based and non-violent civil disobedience and protests. Perhaps our current college students might take a page from their playbooks and model themselves in similar ways to assist in righting previous and current wrongs and to do so ethically.
Here at Santa Clara, I believe that our Jesuit education’s focus on values of competence, conscience, and compassion and ethics classes greatly help our students engage in ethical protesting.
*A version of this article was originally published by Psychology Today on Nov. 24, 2015.