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Jonathan Haidt and Understanding First Nations Protesters

(Chris Helgren / Reuters)

In the current Canadian context, I think the protestors are justified in blocking railway tracks and highways to make their point.”


In recent weeks Canadian politics has been dominated by the blockade of railways and highways by protestors opposed to a national gas pipeline, which is proposed to extend across Northern British Columbia. Members of the Wet’suwet’en First Nations claim that—while some indigenous groups and politicians consented to have the development take place on their land—many did not. They are joined by a variety of other activists and groups who protest either the subordination of First Nations’ sovereignty or the potential impact of the pipeline on the environment. Many have called these blockades illegal, insisting that while protesting is a constitutional right blockading rail tracks and roads is not. Some conservative commentators like Rex Murphy (the Abraham Simpson of Canada) have even gone further in describing the protestors as “zealots” and “radicals,” enmeshed in the “doomsday cult of global warming.” However, where figures like Murphy, whose educational background is in English and law and who has taken money from the oil industry, reach such hyperbolic conclusions about First Nations and environmental issues remains a mystery fit for Prospero. For its part, the Canadian government has expressed concern about using force to break up First Nations protests over how their own land is used, particularly given the country’s dark legacy of violent colonialism.

Order and Justice 

One of the major psychological differences between conservatives and progressives, as discussed by Jonathan Haidt, is that the former tends to place greater emphasis on the importance of authority and in-group loyalty, while the latter prioritizes principles such as fairness and ameliorating suffering. Consequently, conservatives will be more likely to tolerate a degree of injustice if that is necessary to prevent a—perceived or real—slide into chaos and uncertainty, while progressives are willing to disrupt the status quo to correct what they consider—rightly or wrongly—an injustice. This, of course, in and of itself tells us nothing about which perspective is morally superior, though Haidt himself emphasizes that some balance is likely required. But the mere fact that someone is psychologically disposed to favoring the existing order or to rallying against unfairness doesn’t indicate they are correct. The order in question may be tyrannical, or the means used by radical activists could be cruel and counter-productive. Almost everything that matters about these issues outside providing an accurate psychological description depends on examining both the theoretical principles underpinning an action—and the context in which they’re applied.  

In cases of civil disobedience, we see a clear conflict between these two inclinations. When conservatives look at these protestors and the disruption they cause, there is often a visceral and oppositional reaction. This is because the protest hits many buttons, which are currently taboo on the political right. Environmentalists protesting the oil industry? Check. First Nations and their defenders discussing the colonial heritage of Canada and undermining its grandeur? Check. Vacillation from Justin Trudeau, an often-despised figure who frequently presents himself as the global spokesman for “woke” culture? Check. But more foundational than any of these is a deep resentment that the protestors are breaking the law by blockading transportation and causing a disruption. For many conservatives, protest and political activism are to take place in an orderly manner. The alternative is the specter of disorder and lawlessness.

The problem with this standpoint is relatively easy to point out. A specific law or even a legal order as a whole may be just and vital to the preservation of a good society, whether for realist Hobbesian reasons—or because they generally promote correct behavior. However, both specific laws and—in many circumstances—an entire legal order may be so unjust and even wicked that it warrants resistance. Indeed, from even a moderate contemporary standpoint, most of us would argue that the majority of political and legal regimes throughout history were—at best—unacceptably authoritarian and—at worst—transparently tyrannical and unjust. While the advent of liberal democracy in modernity improved things, problems persist. Few would now argue that while American law as a whole was reasonably just throughout the 20th century, the Civil Rights protestors who marched against Jim Crow in South were more than entitled to break those laws in the pursuit of justice. In a more extreme case (such as that of Nazi Germany), we would even say that revolutionaries were entirely correct to seek to bring the whole rotten structure down, even if millions voted for the NSDAP in 1933. Canada in the 21st century is, of course, analogous to neither of these societies. But presenting these paradigmatic instances can help clarify the issues at stake.

The Importance of Civil Disobedience

Put simply, there is a continuum that exists between a just society which warrants our uninhibited fidelity and a tyranny which needs to be destroyed. Running alongside this continuum of legitimacy are situations where various forms of resistance or push back against state authority might be warranted, even if that involves breaking the law or operating in a legal gray area. Recognizing this fact was one of the great achievements of liberal democracy. It is why we praise figures like the American and French revolutionaries, down through Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. for resisting unjust laws and systems. This, of course, generates disorder, and also does not justify taking any action protestors feel is necessary to achieve their objective. But the price of not engaging in civil disobedience may also be extremely high.

In the current Canadian context, I think the protestors are justified in blocking railway tracks and highways to make their point. I will highlight three reasons for this position, largely eschewing the environmental questions here. The first is the long history of marginalizing First Nations, which is Canada’s cross to bear. Trudeau is correct to be reticent about sending in the police, given the uncanny parallels with the Oka standoff in 1990. This concerned a golf course to be constructed on a Mohawk cemetery. The result was a crisis that left many injured and one dead. To this day, the incident generates ongoing shame and anger. We do not need a repetition of such a national travesty, and avoiding it would be very wise. Secondly, there are serious questions to be asked about whether everyone who can lay claim to the disputed land was adequately consulted about the pipeline construction. Many Wet’suwet’en chiefs are opposed to the project and argue that they are both entitled to much of the disputed land and did not consent to its use for the pipeline. If this turns out to be the case upon further examination of the law and history, a great wrong would have been committed by allowing its appropriation. This is not even to mention a dangerous precedent being set, echoing Canada’s dark past. And thirdly, the relatively small scale and remoteness of these groups necessitates their use of moderate civil disobedience to agitate for their claims. When you boil it down, blockading train tracks and roads may cause some economic harm—but nothing which cannot be swiftly repaired. The alternative would be the protestors are effectively ignored and the project proceeds regardless of its appropriateness. For these various reasons, I think the government has made the right choice in not combatting civil disobedience and emphasizing the importance of dialogue and a closer look at the situation.

Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan. Matt can be reached at or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof

6 thoughts on “Jonathan Haidt and Understanding First Nations Protesters

  1. The incredible thing is the same argument against conservatives is for you, Mr McManus. You are only defending your ideological side, I am not judging just saying the obvious.

    Worldviews are part of politics and conservatives have a right to view issues according to their values. The fact that the protesters are using the discourse of environmentalism, colonial heritage and the fact that Trudeau is a progressive are the reasons why you are defending these actions, are they not?

    When conservatives protest something the media and progressives (in fact, they are the same) already prepare their “weapons” and classify everything as hate speech, white supremacy, fascists among other terms, they have no right to protest in a similar way. yes, only “sacrosantos”, “good guys” can!

  2. I have yet to read an article by Matt McManus that says anything even remotely interesting. Just a massive waste of time

  3. I really think the author should have done his homework here before writing about this. The fact of the matter is that, save one, all Wet’suwet’en tribal band councils (who are democratically elected) want the pipeline. Complicating matters, however, is that a minority of hereditary chiefs (who are not elected) are against it. It is to this latter minority that the protesters — who are overwhelmingly not First Nations peoples — are hitching their wagons. The lands claims and self-determination issues and discussions involving Canada’s First Nations and Canada itself are highly complex, especially since there are some 630 individual tribal bands This is not, as many seem to think, some homogeneous group that share the same concerns and visions about their future.

    Furthermore, the blocking of much of Canada’s rail system is now having its own set of repercussions, not the least of which is curtailing movement for many tens of thousands of Canadians reliant on trains (and who typically cannot afford air travel). One can easily imagine how quickly our Liberal government would have acted had protesters blocked Toronto’s Pearson Airport. Meanwhile, some 1,000 railway employees have been laid off as a result of the blockades. It should be noted that the vast majority of these blockades are not occurring anywhere near the pipelines projected route, something the author of this piece does not seem to be aware of.

    Finally, media reporting of the issues surrounding First Nations people and pipelines has been markedly inaccurate, presumably aided by ideological bias. The author of this piece, Mr. Matt McManus, has in my opinion just added to the confusion.

    1. Surprise, surprise. Another hastily written, sloppy article by McManus being called out. All great points by ilsemeyer. Too bad McManus spends literally 45 min per article just pumping out stuff he thinks might stick without even bothering to check the facts as he churns out surface-level article after surface-level article in an adderall binge haze. McManus has no attention to detail!

    2. This information is readily available elsewhere and it is a bit damning it is left out of his article. He is also painting a rather rosier picture of liberal morality according to Jonathan Haidt than Haidt would himself.

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