Monday, April 04, 2005

On the Limits of Pacifism

As the old saw goes: "I'm a pacifist by physique." Despite a certain physical weakness and because of ideological commitments, I am not actually a pacifist. Previously, I would have thought this position would diminish any chances I might have at becoming a Quaker. After reading this, however, I am beginning to have my doubts.

Of the few things one generally learns about the Quakers, Philadelphia's nicely organized street grid, church without preachers, that sort of thing, the one characteristic of the faith most likely to stick in my mind is their commitment to peace and opposition to violence. (Interestingly, I learned this and am reminded about it by hearing about Richard Nixon's willingness to serve in the Navy during WWII, despite his membership in the Society of Friends.)

It seems that William Kristol, the neo-conservative editor of The Weekly Standard, was pied in the face by a student of Earlham College who was protesting a school group's decision to invite Kristol to campus--a campus of a college which, as it turns out, was founded on Quaker principles.
Pledger-Shinn [founder of group that invited Kristol] was "shocked and horrified" by the pie-throwing. "We had invited Kristol, hoping that Earlham students, being passionate, idealistic and articulate as they are, would give him a run for his money." But not a physical attack.

The college leadership concurs. Earlham issued a statement condemning the pie-throwing, although some faculty have asked for tolerance for Medlin -- who has been suspended indefinitely. Others on the faculty questioned why a pacifist school would welcome Kristol.
I'm rather "shocked and horrified" that a student from a Quaker-principled school would resort to a stunt that is rooted in violence. Granted, throwing a pie is not quite the same as throwing a punch, but, to a certain extent, it is about force and the physical demonstration of it. That this type of action occurred on a Quaker campus is surprising and a type of negative enactment which suggests a disconnect between the student and the school's principles.

In a rarefied space like a lecture-discussion, where an emphasis in rightly placed on deliberation--a much appreciated and necessary alternative to decision-by-force--a symbolic protest seems like it ought to respect and adhere to the principles of debate. In as much as the space this incident occurred in invites a connection to the school's principles, it seems reasonable to expect students to attempt an adherence to the values and traditions their school symbolically comes from. Since the school is especially founded on principles of non-violence, one would hope that symbolic gestures would also refrain from the image of violence. Of course, this type of admonition requires a much broader dedication to the cultural norms and principles of our institutions.

Yes, certainly it's possible that the student throwing the pie wasn't a Quaker, just as much as it's true that the majority of Northwestern students are probably not Methodists. But what also seems true--and unsettling--is that the student is not committed to the principles and traditions of his school--a place founded on Quaker principles. This sort of thing, of course, is not unique to Quaker schools. Despite adorning university seals and viewbooks, a university's mission and principles are hardly the stuff that visits and takes up a space in our minds as we go about our educations. I would guess that the vast majority of us don't even know our schools' mottos or the principles upon which our university buildings symbolically rest.

I, of course, do not know much about the history of schools and students. But, it seems to me that at one point students might have learned their school song and could be expected to cite some sort of liturgical phrase expressing a dedication to some sort of truth or value. Kennedy's most famous line, after all, is indebted to his recalling of a Choate headmaster's request that students ask what they could do for their school. Losing the ability to argue from values and principles enshrined in institutions seems like it takes away a nice source of argument and evidence.


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