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Israel Hamas WarOpinionAustralia

Untangling the ethics of campus protests

When is protest a right and when does it breach the right of others to safety and compassion? The Ethics Centre chief considers the validity of the demonstrations over Gaza tearing at Australia's social fabric.
Simon Longstaff
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Signage and tents are seen at the Pro Palestine encampment at the Deakin University Burwood campus in Melbourne (Image: AAP Image/James Ross).

The pro-Palestine encampment at the Deakin University Burwood campus in Melbourne (Image: AAP Image/James Ross).

Published: 13 June 2024

Last updated: 13 June 2024

I wish our world was one in which values and principles were arranged in perfect alignment, without any risk of conflict. But that is not the world in which we live. Too often values of equal importance pull in equal and opposite directions. Too often the choice is not between “good” and “bad”.

That would be far too easy. Instead, we find ourselves having to choose between, say, “truth” and “compassion” – as when we are asked to answer a question – all the time knowing that that a truthful response will devastate someone we love. Too often, our best choice is nothing better than the “least bad” option before us.

The increasingly heated debate about the scope for legitimate protest, on university campuses, in response to the war between the State of Israel and Hamas, is a case in point. Those protesters who invoke the right to freedom of speech and political action to justify their conduct rely on an important principle.

But so do those who claim the right to pursue their studies free from persecution due to their identity and without fear for their physical, psychological and emotional safety.

So, if both “sides” of the argument have legitimate grounds for asserting their position, does that mean that there is a type of “ethical stalemate”?

Not if we take the claims of each group seriously.

Let us begin with those who wish to protest. Whether “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestine”, in a liberal democracy, like Australia, protesters have a legitimate expectation that they will be able to exercise their civil and political rights in conditions of safety. That is one reason why there is an almost visceral public reaction whenever police or other authorities use either indiscriminate or disproportionate force to bear against protesters.

I have argued for many years that there should be a rebuttable presumption in favour of a maximum degree of freedom of speech.

However, the right to protest, in safety, gives rise to reciprocal obligations. Specifically, protesters must accord to others the same measure of liberty and safety that they claim for themselves.

This reciprocal obligation imposes limits on the means available to protesters in the pursuit of their cause – both in terms of word and deed. For example, I have argued (for many years) that there should be a rebuttable presumption in favour of a maximum degree of freedom of speech.

However, there are two clear restrictions that I would impose. First, it should be forbidden to deny the intrinsic dignity of any individual or group (e.g. by implying that they are less than fully human). Second, it should be forbidden to incite violence against any individual or group.

It follows from this, that protesters should not be permitted to engage in violent actions – neither threats nor acts of violence. But what of language that does not threaten violence but is experienced by another as being “threatening”? Should such language also be proscribed?

This is a far more difficult matter to determine – largely because of the subjective nature of what one person or another might feel to be “threatening”. For example, some people can feel threatened by words that others would ignore as irrelevant or innocuous. Yet, for the person feeling threatened the emotion can be both real and severe.

The conflict between the State of Israel and Hamas has left many people of Jewish and Palestinian heritage feeling especially vulnerable to hurt. Both communities are in a state of heightened sensitivity in which current events resonate with the echoes of history. In these times, an otherwise innocent glance can be taken the wrong way and be experienced as a threat.

What of those who seek to “weaponise” their words and deeds; who deliberately seek to cause as much harm as they can inflict … without contravening the law? Such people deserve our condemnation – whatever cause they serve.

What of language that does not threaten violence but is experienced by another as being 'threatening'? Should such language also be proscribed?

They are no longer protesting a wrong, they are participants in wrongdoing. The wrong they do is not merely indexed according to the hurt they cause. They also undermine the legitimate purpose bound up in the act of protesting. A protester is someone who stands alone or, with others, to present or represent a point of view. Its purpose should not be to silence others – either by intimidating them or drowning them out.

To do otherwise is to reduce protesting to a mere contest between opposing forces rather than competing ideas. Those with the largest numbers or loudest voices will prevail – irrespective of the justice of their cause. Perhaps that is realpolitik – but might we not hope for something better – especially on our university campuses?

In the end, protesters and those they oppose are united by at least one thing - their humanity. It is not defined by any flag or symbol; not by religion or nationality. The intrinsic dignity it confers is neither made nor unmade by the things we say or do. We are each as susceptible as the other to folly, joy, misery, hurt and healing.

Protesters (on any side of the question) have a right to express their truths. However, I would hope that all would temper their approach with a dose of compassion – recognising something of their own vulnerabilities in the experience of the “other”.

About the author

Simon Longstaff

Dr Simon Longstaff is a philosopher, lawyer and Executive Director of The Ethics Centre in Sydney.


  • Avatar of Jo Thomson

    Jo Thomson14 June at 10:05 pm

    It would be helpful to know what language the writer refers to. The ideas make perfect sense as all parties should communicate respectfully. But if some language is construed as threatening, does that make it so?

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