This past Monday, Fisheries Minister Gail Shea, was on the business end of a tofu cream pie. Protesting the Conservative government’s support of the seal hunt, PETA activist Emily McCoy deftly deposited a pie on Ms. Shea’s visage just as the latter was about to speechify.

Ms. McCoy has been charged with assault – not the first and likely not the last pie wielder to be charged.

Shea, a Conservative MP from PEI, was not threatened: “I can tell you that this incident actually strengthens my resolve to support the seal hunt. If this is what it takes to stand up for Canadian sealing families and this industry I’m certainly very proud to do it.”

But the award for ludicrous overreaction goes to a Liberal MP from Newfoundland and Labrador. Gerry Byrne wants PETA investigated with the possibility of having it declared a terrorist organization.

Byrne seemed to delight in imagining the possibilities of PETA as a terrorist group. “It would be illegal to make funds, to contribute funds, to what is termed a terrorist organization,” he said.

“It would also severely restrict the movements between borders, between Canada and the U.S., of PETA members, especially their executive, and it would cause a matter of surveillance to occur of PETA members who would be labelled as members of a terrorist organization.”

While considering pie-throwing as an act of terrorism is patently absurd, and Byrne is best left ignored, we should use this moment to go beyond the sensationalism of the act and explore its motives.

Protest and Civil Disobedience

Last Saturday’s successful and peaceful anti-prorogation rallies serve as an interesting juxtaposition to pie hurling, and asking what are the limits of protest, of civil disobedience, could yield a much more engaging discussion than the knee-jerk comments babbled by Byrne. And allow me state here that what follows is not a synthesized argument but a piece to provoke thought.

Let’s briefly look at the charge of assault. Ms. McCoy provoked a number of Canadians, demanding that she serve time in jail. But what about Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi who famously lobbed footwear at George W. Bush? Mr. Al-Zaidi served time in jail but was celebrated around the world as a hero.

Shea is accused of propping up a seal hunt that many see as barbaric. Bush was called a war criminal. Because some may see the actions of Shea and Bush as occupying different moral planes, is one action justified and one condemned? Or are both actions the result of pent-up anger?

Is assault acceptable in some situations and not others? The recently-departed and profoundly-missed Howard Zinn said that the point of civil disobedience is to upset people, to trouble them, to disturb them. But he also said that we must eschew violence. Could a pie in the eye be considered violent? It certainly invades one’s personal space in a humiliating way and fits the legal definition of assault. Is it ever justified?

Or perhaps that’s not really the point. We exist in a realm of rules and laws and this incident should prompt us to probe the difference between justice and law and how to effectively express dissent. Ms. McCoy’s actions were unlawful, but were they justified in these circumstances? Back to Zinn, who noted that of course laws aren’t infallible; they’re made by people and many of those people have agendas and serve special interests.

Law and Morality

Lawrence Kohlberg devised a scenario where a perceived injustice is challenged by breaking the law. Let’s look at the case of Heinz and his cancer-stricken wife.

Heinz’s wife needs a specific drug to keep her from dying, but the drug costs $2,000. Heinz manages to scrape together $1,000 and asks the pharmacist for a deal or if full payment could be deferred. The pharmacist stands to make quite a bit of money from this drug and even when told about Heinz’s wife’s condition, the pharmacist denies him the drug. Heinz, in an act of desperation, breaks into the pharmacist’s shop and steals the drug. Heinz breaks the law to address a situation he sees as unjust.

At the level of pre-conventional morality, usually practiced by children, Heinz is wrong to steal the drug because it’s wrong to steal. No explanation or rationalization, just the Manichean simplicity of good versus evil.

Those who practice conventional morality see good behaviour as necessary to fostering interpersonal relationships and maintaining social order. Many in Canada are stage four conventional moralists, where actions concern society as a whole. While the opposition to theft is similar to a child’s notion of good versus bad, the stage four moralist provides a rationale; that laws exist to protect society.

Post-conventional moralists are a rare breed and they ask what makes for a good society. These people would support Heinz’s actions because life is more important than property (an argument frequently made by animal rights activists). We are more than the sum of our laws; rather, we must ask what our society should value. At the upper-most end of post-conventional morality are those who see the principles of justice applying to everyone. And if a law is not just then it must be met with civil disobedience.

Maybe invoking Kohlberg, and perhaps Zinn, has taken this whole discussion into meandering directions. After all, we’re talking about a tofu cream pie in the face to protest what is a legal hunt in Canada.

Perhaps the point I’m making is that we should examine Ms. McCoy’s action in the greater context of protest and justice and morality and the values of our society. Mr. Byrne’s suggestion of terrorism is a distraction, an unfounded invocation of fear, politics practiced at its cheapest and most base. It does nothing to further our national discourse on creating a just society.

So let’s see if we can use this moment, even compare and contrast it with the anti-prorogation rallies, to probe our society’s sense of justice, limits of protest, and how we should express outrage.

Eric Mang

Eric Mang

Eric Mang served as a political aide in the Harris government in Ontario and the Campbell government in British Columbia. His politics have since shifted left. He works full-time in health policy, part-time...