Eric Gampel: To Pie, or Not to Pie


On April 21, some military personnel I invited to visit campus got pied — two students threw pies at them, at the end of a two-hour, tense discussion about the war in Kosovo. What are we to make of this event?

"Pieing"is a new form of political protest, targeting such figures as Bill Gates and and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. As those cases suggest, the aim is to pie someone who is otherwise "untouchable"—a prominent leader, protected by bodyguards and assistants, someone whom political activists could never manage to argue with in a public forum. Unable to challenge Gates's corporate power grabs or Mayor Brown's policies on the homeless, activists throw pies, expressing their contempt in a highly visible way.

I know the people who got pied on campus felt the contempt. They were lieutenant colonels and colonels from the U.S. Army War College, who despite their eighteen or more years of military experience, were visibly shaken by the pieing. They spoke to me afterwards of their reactions; it was clear that a pie in the face works somewhat like sneering or spitting at a person—a direct affront to the person's sense of dignity, an unanswerable insult.

Did the pie throwers make a point they could not have made in any other way? Well, we all could tell the pie throwers were not fans of the war in Kosovo. But then most of the 200 audience members were also highly critical of the war, and expressed their views through articulate questions. Indeed, the pie strategy arguably backfired: after the pieing, Lt. Col. Jack Summe stated that he was "a soldier who gets paid to fight for the right for what you just did," and the audience gave an emotional standing ovation in support of Lt. Col Summe and the panelists. This audience response was as much of a shock, I think, as the pieing itself, since it was clear that most in the audience were against the war.

As a teacher, as well as the organizer of the event, I'd like to think that everyone walked away that evening having learned something important. The panelists, I hope, got the message that most of their vocal critics, the ones they might read about in the papers as picketing and attacking military actions, are still capable of supporting and respecting them as people, and as public servants doing their jobs. In other words, most political critics can distinguish between respectful disagreement and underhanded insult. The pie throwers, I hope, learned from the audience reaction that the technique, if it is ever justified, has to be a protest of last resort, and is out of line when your targets are quite willing—indeed have gone out of their way—to take and try to answer your criticisms. In such a context, a pie thrown is just a mean-spirited attempt at publicity.

Is this entirely fair? I suppose the pie throwers could complain that the panelists were in control of the evening's discussion. I'm not convinced; there were over thirty audience questions, one from a pie thrower, and some of the questions took two minutes to state (I timed them). So there was a sufficient platform for critical perspectives.

But perhaps the pie throwers had an entirely different idea in mind. Maybe they were protesting the very idea of rational dialogue, under the suspicion that such discussions are "rigged," that the criteria for good arguments or perhaps "reason" itself are biased. So instead of participating in an "empty" exercise, they engaged in political theatre, an expression of passion and symbolic protest meant not to convince reason but to satisfy other, less rational needs and purposes.

As a philosopher, I find this a more interesting and provocative interpretation. There is a long philosophical history of questioning the power and bias of something called "reason." Indeed, philosophy was born with Plato's attempt to answer such challenges, and the debate has continued through Hume, Nietzsche, and the various feminist and post-modern critics of "Western" or "male" rationality. On the proposed view, no dispassionate discussion can lead reason toward the truth, for there is no Truth (with a capital "T"). Better, then, to simply acknowledge that passion and political power ultimately define what so-called "Truths" win the day, and make a joke, recite a prayer, or throw a pie.

A nice sentiment, but troubling in a political context. If the game is to go to the forces of passion and political power, then those with the armies are always going to reign supreme. A stu-dent protester, feminist, minority member, or other critic of the status quo cannot hope to prevail. Only if it's possible to appeal to rational standards of thought and argument can the weak hope to win over those with guns, by convincing them, or in a democracy the citizens who ultimately control them. A few pies are not going to do the trick.

So my answer is not to pie. But those who disagree should contact me, and we'll set up a CAPE forum (please, not a pie throwing event!) for next fall on the question.

Eric Gampel, Department of Philosophy


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