Many things that are legal are deeply wrong. Some things rightly protected in our constitutional order can also threaten it. We all know this. Marching around with blazing torches while chanting racist slogans is protected by the First Amendment. It is also morally repugnant.
The same goes for protesting at the homes of Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Samuel Alito and at the homes of elected officials such as Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and Governor Charlie Baker. Whether such protests are always protected by the First Amendment is debatable. Regardless, they are democratically destructive and ethically wrong. This is so even apart from their strategic foolishness and the way they fuel a potentially violent tit-for-tat cycle.
Why are such protests wrong? Why should we not protest at officials’ homes — even if “the other side” does it?
The wrongness has everything to do with deliberately violating a host of boundaries worth caring about. These boundaries help preserve our fundamental relations with one another as citizens and as humans. We disregard these boundaries not only at the peril of our democratic life but at risk to our own dignity and flourishing.
Consider, first, who and what protesting at a home targets. Unlike protesting at government buildings, it deliberately targets a person’s family. It says, “I will make your family suffer and pay.” Like threatening someone’s child, it wrongs the innocent, treating them as nothing more than means to our ends. In this regard, protesting at Mayor Wu’s or Justice Kavanaugh’s home is no different than protesting against these officials at their children’s schools. What sort of person, we should ask, does that? Worse, such protests target what is best in a person, using their deepest loves and relationships against them.
But we can take this point deeper. Protesting at a home targets someone as a person rather than as someone fulfilling a role. A judge or politician is a fellow citizen and more fundamentally a fellow human being. Protesting at someone’s home denies this reality. It erases any boundary between a person’s profession and the fullness of their humanity. It reduces that humanity to a partisan role. This is why confronting politicians at restaurants with friends or in restrooms also strikes most of us as wrong. Sharing a meal, tending to bodily needs, and making a home are all about vulnerability, intimacy, and communion. They unite us as humans. Protest that targets these things subordinates human relationships to political combat and reduces personhood to partisanship. It makes politics totalizing.
At the extreme, violating these boundaries creates a world and way of being in which every relationship at any time can be unilaterally reduced to a battle for political domination. It becomes impossible to set aside political rivalry because that becomes who we most of all are. This is what’s happening when “politics” destroys an otherwise healthy friendship or family, as we have seen so often of late. Our democratic republic demands and enables better. We as human beings, who give and receive love and recognition, need better.
Some will respond that the present crisis — abortion, COVID, racial justice, border security — is existential: “It’s an emergency. Our democracy is at stake!” But so believed the Jan. 6 insurrectionists. And one cannot destroy the fabric and norms of our democratic life while credibly claiming to save them. Democracy itself demands recognition of the personhood of fellow citizens, even when the recognition may not seem to be reciprocated.
Perhaps there are exceptions to these principles. Any I can think of involve wholly anti-democratic or tyrannical regimes. One reliable way to produce such a regime is to start living as though it has already arrived.
It is not lost on me that the political issues that tempt people to protest at homes — including abortion and vaccine mandates — themselves concern questions of boundaries, dignity, and personhood. Yet when it comes to issues like abortion, each claim that one side makes the other can counter: You say removing a right to abortion denies a woman’s personhood; they say allowing it is akin to permitting murder. Regardless, how could an opponent’s alleged violations of dignity justify one’s own violations of it?
What none of us can deny is that the law-abiding people who all too imperfectly serve our imperfect union as politicians and judges are persons, men and women with lives and loves like our own. If we lose sight of their humanity, we lose a grip on our own. And we are liable to bring our country down with us.
David Decosimo is associate professor of theology and ethics and director of the Institute for Philosophy and Religion at Boston University. Follow him on Twitter @DavidDecosimo.