Letter to the editor
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 7 October 2014


I have always valued your paper’s editorials for their clear thinking and frank messages, whether I agreed with them or not. Your editorial of Sept. 26 (“Not a dinner party”) was unique, however, in leaving me perplexed.

It seemed to take issue with the statement signed by some University of the Philippines economics professors—among whom I am pleased to be counted—deploring the Sept. 17 assault on Secretary Florencio Abad on the grounds of the UP School of Economics. In the process, however, it imputed views to us that we never held and picked arguments where no dispute existed.

First, your editorial agreed that “[t]he acts committed against [Abad] were deplorable. And if the mob had actually seized him? That would have been downright criminal.” From this, one gleans it also found that a line had definitely been crossed by the protesters. That is exactly what we said. No dispute there.

But then your editorial leaps inexplicably to the imputation that our statement was an objection to protest in the university in general (“But the students’ critics also owe us a coherent account of what makes campus protest illegitimate.”) For the record, we have nowhere suggested that campus protest is illegitimate or unacceptable. Indeed, protest and disputation are part of the diversity we want to encourage and preserve.

Preserving that diversity is also the reason we could not condone the protesters’ action of assaulting and threatening an invited speaker.

Otherwise, there would be no protest in the university, simply because few would venture to come and express a contrary opinion. Or alternatively, controversial visitors would dare to set foot on campus only with heavy security, thus turning the university into an armed camp.

If we agree that campus protest is legitimate, the real question is where to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Between shouting slogans and invectives at a guest—something we said was “par for the course” for UP and therefore acceptable, if indecorous and unimaginative—and manhandling a person—which almost happened to Abad and which your own editorial agrees “would have been downright criminal” if it had succeeded—there must be some clear boundary drawn.

Our statement suggested that that line had to be debated within the university itself. I myself believe such a boundary is crossed at any point physical contact occurs, movement is restricted, or projectiles are launched (paper, coins, placards, and, yes, Hermogenes Esperon’s eggs and tomatoes). Invited guests to UP should come to expect sharp disagreement and cogent arguments at best, and shouts, insults, and invectives at worst. At no time, however, should they feel physically threatened or restrained.

In quoting Mao (“a revolution is not a dinner party”), however, your editorial seems to imply no such line should be drawn, no behavior proscribed, and that if protest was allowed, it should be allowed in all forms, and at any place. (Here you contradict yourself, however, since you were already willing to call some acts “downright criminal.”) This view unfortunately proceeds from a false principle.

The forms of acceptable protest do in fact depend on the contexts in which protest occurs. This is evident everywhere. For visible and well-announced demonstrators occupying public streets to throw a papier-mache coffin at an abusive president is “par for the course” for a parliament of the streets—but not for a university. For committed activists to take up arms and engage their chosen adversaries in open armed conflict is also a valid form of protest—in a revolution, but not in a university.

Conversely, a line is crossed when police and the military treat street protesters as armed combatants—as they did in the First Quarter Storm and the “Diliman Commune”—therefore justifying the latter’s resistance. Armed combatants are bound by rules even in war: no torture, no mutilation, no harming of civilians and noncombatants; no recruitment of children. Rules of engagement are evident everywhere and vary with every institutional context. Your editorial’s implicit dilemma—allow all forms of protest or none at all—is a false one and weirdly naive.

If humanity can grant even war the privilege of demanding norms of conduct, then why not also the university? That strange and wonderful institution is, after all, a crucible of ideas in whose existence the entire society has a long-term stake. To protect diversity and preserve itself, the university has the right—no, the duty—to demand special behavior from those who claim to be part of it. One might agree: A revolution is not a dinner party—indeed the university itself is not a dinner party. But the university is not a revolution either. It would be a grotesque misapprehension to confuse the two.


professor, UP School of Economics,