Monday, May 7, 2012

Rights & Responsibilities: Finding Democracy’s Balance

Civil Society

“Freedom is the right to be wrong, not the right to do wrong.”
John G. Diefenbaker, 
13th prime minister of Canada (1957–1963)

Tuition protest March 22, 2012
Students in Montreal demonstrating against the Quebec government’s proposed tuition hikes. Many students say that education is a right, and thus ought to be free. Taxpayers hold a different view. One of the fundamental strengths of democracy is that persons and groups can hold opposing viewpoints, and freely publicize these. It is also essential that society find the right balance between rights and responsibilities; the latter strengthens the former.
Photo Credit: Andy Riga; Montreal Gazette, March 22, 2012

Many persons understand that democracies tolerate protest and dissent of government policies, both those already enacted and those considered for legislation. Protests, if done peacefully and with a coherent message, can send a powerful signal to the government leaders that something is not right, and some changes are needed in the balance between rights and responsibilities.

One can argue rather persuasively, I suspect, that in a democracy, individuals can amass together and demand changes to the state's program, and this considered an individual responsibility under the aegis of participatory democracy. After all, democracies want citizens to engage in the democratic process, and have been encouraging us to do so for years. Equally important, protest has rightly led to the downfall of immoral authoritarian regimes.

Yet, protest alone is not a sufficient enough form of responsibility, particularly if it leads to nothing but protest and demands that are absurd and irresponsible. A good example of this are the recent student protests in Montreal over the provincial government's proposed tuition fee hikes of $1,625 over five years, an increase of $325 a year. The students took to the streets en masse. So, then the government agreed to an adjustment of $254 per year for seven years. Again, more protest; the students demanded more offsets. So, this weekend, after a 22-hour negotiating session, they got what they wanted—in a sense no tuition fee increase. Both sides are claiming victory, but it seems that the students got the better deal.

With the full increase, the average tuition in Quebec, my home province, would have been less than $4,000 a year, making it among the lowest fees in Canada. [see here, herehere, and here]. Currently, Quebec university students pay the lowest tuition fees in Canada. Liberal Premier Jean Charest initially said that he would be holding his ground, saying raising the tuition fees was fair and was needed to defray rising educational costs. So, the protests that have continued for almost three months achieved their purpose—except for the students only. Some of it was an excuse to vent some steam; some of it an excuse for anti-democratic anarchists to cause trouble.

A protest has to have an aim and a clear and justifiable fair message. This one might have one, to some, but it did not have the support of the public, who now will have to bear higher taxes or reduced services. No student wants to pay any extra cost associated with obtaining a university education, but the original fee proposals in this case were modest and fair. The student protests have been led with the intent to disrupt civil society, and only view the rights part of the equation without considering the responsibility part.

Tuition fee increases are not a moral issue by any stretch of the imagination; they might not even be an ethical or practical social issue, despite some socialists saying that education ought to be free. I highlight this example of the student protests for the reason to draw attention to a salient point. While it is good that students are protesting what they perceive to be an unfair practice—higher tuition costs—it has often turned into a violent protest that is grounded in the misguided view that education ought to be free. I don't agree. And then some students have the chutzpah to demand they not be penalized for all the classes and exams they missed while out protesting. Again, misguided energy. Misguided sense of entitlement.

The value of something is linked to what one pays for it. This includes the necessity of bearing responsibility for the cost of an education. It also means bearing the consequences of taking to the streets to protest, which includes having to make up classes and exams missed. Otherwise, no real responsibility is taken, and the protest becomes an excuse to cause destruction and inconvenience on the general public.

For students, this could have been a teachable moment, but given the current government's capitulation, student leaders will now consider their strategy and tactics as successful. But I will say it anyway, if only to reach the future leaders. In general, the freedom to protest comes with it a package of responsibilities that often often seem to evade young persons, and even the older gray-beards of my generation. In the exercise of a democratic freedom, including the freedom to dissent, by protest, the onus is to do right. This is the ultimate aim of all fair protests, to bring attention to a moral issue that affects the many—and not the few—while not engaging in violence of any form to achieve such in a responsible fashion.

Most protests, however, fail this test. This includes the student protests in my home province of Quebec.


  1. The most noble, orderly, and popular protest I ever was aware of was Beijing Spring in 1989. Local residents of Beijing brought food and water to the protesters, although some were on a hunger strike. When my daughter Miriam and I visited Tiananmen Square on May 19, we found some of our students there. They gave us headbands saying we supported the hunger strikers. On our way back to the Friendship Hotel, very far from Tiananmen Square, the subway system closed down. We found a pedicab and asked the driver what it would cost to go to the Friendship Hotel. "You were in the Square," he said, looking at our headbands. "You go free." At the end of the ride we gave him 10 yuan anyway, which he accepted.

    1. Thanks for your comment and for giving us some personal insight. In China, the students had a moral right to protest.


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