I’ve been thinking about the whole notion of “protest” lately – specifically the variety where a bunch of people gather together at some physical location to demonstrate their objections to policies or institutions that they disagree with. (I’m deliberately using “protest” to refer to this, not to individual acts or boycotts or other varieties of expressing displeasure.) We’ve had a lot of these hit the news this year: Greek austerity protests, the protest/riots in London, the “Arab Spring” wave of protests, and the Occupy movement, to name but a few. Gathering somewhere to publicly air grievances is a very old tactic, and obviously still popular. Still, I can’t help wondering about the efficacy and utility of this tactic in the context of your “average” Western society (if there can be said to be such a thing). I don’t have any concrete conclusions, but here is my thinking so far.

I think that the notion of a bunch of people gathering, maybe with signs, to yell and/or occupy a space works largely on a threat principle. Either the target of the protest is threatened with the possibility that the “non-violent” group of protesters could turn into a violent mob, or is “non-violently” threatened with a reputation hit for failure to resolve the issues that the protesters raise. Historically, this was somewhat effective when a group of people could gather outside the dwelling or halls of the person(s) with the power to resolve the issues with immediate action, usually the stroke of a pen or a simple proclamation, and shame or intimidate the target[s] into compliance with the demands of “the people.”

Secondly, these sorts of protests traditionally took advantage of the time it took for information to spread. What I mean by this is that if you, as the person with the power to effect change, were faced with a mob outside your door, you didn’t have immediate access to the counter-opinions of millions of people around the world arguing for the exact opposite. You only had your personal judgment and convictions, and whatever physical force you were willing to employ to maintain your position.

In modern Western societies, we generally face a different situation. First, the representative structure of our governments and the election cycle mean that protests are necessarily symbolic. In the US context, when you rally outside Wall St. or on Capitol Hill, you are not facing people with the power to effect immediate change. There is no one such person — not even the President. At best, you could set gears into motion to have someone draft a bill that might be passed into law if you are able to emotionally sway the bulk of 535 people to agree with you. More likely, you might generate some minor debate and perhaps have some subtle influence over events two or four years later – most likely insufficiently large influence, and not nearly soon enough if the issue is something causing enough discontent to draw out a protest group to begin with. In addition, even if you manage to rally a literal million people to show up in support of your cause, it’s easy to find ten million voices online criticizing your position and arguing the precise opposite. This, of course, is the perfect “out” for officials to say that an issue requires more study in order to find a “balanced” solution (since the search is for whatever pleases the largest percentage of an electorate, not for the solution that actually solves the problem at hand).

I realize that this is sort of a double-edged sword. The intent behind longer election cycles and the dual-house system is to deliberately introduce some delay in effecting change for the purpose of ensuring that more considered solutions prevail over knee-jerk legislative changes. This can be a good thing when the issues are purely cultural (e.g., do we really want to ban violent video games?), but a bad thing when the issues are technical and relevant to physical survival and well-being of some or all of a population. That said, the entire representative/democratic system is vulnerable to poor decision-making in the first place, because effectively the people making the decisions are the most popular, not the most competent. (No, I don’t pretend to have a better solution — but I am also not going to pretend that what we have is even very good.)

Moreover, the above comments only apply to government. When the target of your protest is an economic system as a whole — or even simply specific corporations — protest is largely useless. Unless you can generate enough public embarrassment, a corporation is unlikely to change its behavior. It is immune by law to direct violence, so attacking its property or its representatives brings the risk of direct criminal consequences. Its property is considered “private,” so there is no right to occupy its premises or disrupt its business – you’ll simply be removed for trespassing. If you’re protesting the entire economic system, then you are facing the fact that capitalism as we know it is woven into the very language we use, and it’s ridiculously hard for people to even sanely discuss alternatives as a result. In addition, instead of trying to convince one person or a small group of people to change, you’re literally trying to apply a “threat,” as I’ve defined it above, to millions of people with your protest — this tends to be laughed at, and I would suggest that to expect any other result is naive.

In the case of government, then, the implicit “threat” of a protest is limited – modern society is highly reactive to violence (you will be met with and dispersed by disproportionately larger force for even minimally aggressive or destructive behavior), and the representatives are beholden to their local electorates back home, not to the protesters outside the door of the legislative assembly. A vote by representatives against the interests that elected them is much more potentially embarrassing than ignoring a bunch of “hippies.” In the case of business, the threat is also limited – violence will not work for the reasons above, and the reputation risk is weighed in terms of the resulting media coverage: “does this make us look bad, or the protesters?” If the answer is the former, there might be some business motivation to change, otherwise the protest will simply be ignored. In the case of the “system,” you’re unable to bring even the hint of a credible threat to bear through a protest.

The only argument I can really think of in favor of protests is that they are capable of raising awareness; however, this almost always comes at the cost of protesters being abused. Awareness, in our society, comes largely through traditional media (papers, radio, and television – online or offline), and the media is drawn to sex and violence. If the protesters are merely ignored, they will fade into obscurity, as both supporters and detractors have observed in regards to the Occupy movement. If there is a hint of sex or violence, the coverage skyrockets and positive or negative awareness jumps.

I’m still trying to decide exactly how I feel about it all, but my instincts tell me that, while protests such as the Occupy movement’s are admirable and the need for change is real, the tactic is largely useless. Politicians look to home, and businessmen to their markets – neither looks outside at the protester waving a sign. The energy would be better spent creating real change on a local level, I think – in trying to organize people into participating in activities that reduce their reliance on distant corporations and governments, subverting the system instead of merely railing against its largely symbolic headquarters.

As an aside, at least one observer (John Robb) thinks that protests might simply become impossible in the near future. I completely agree that it’s technologically possible already to auto-disperse protests before they become entrenched, but part of the function of protest, from a cynical sociological perspective, is precisely to allow the most disaffected groups a harmless outlet for their frustrations — after all, nobody really pays attention to them in any serious way, and eventually the cops have an excuse to disperse them or they get bored and go home. Either way, things proceed as they were. I strongly suspect that the dystopian “crush the protests” outcome is unlikely — what’s more effective is to allow people their protests and just ignore them.

As a sort of postscript, I emphasize again that my thoughts only apply to the sort of largely non-violent “street protests” we’ve seen. When they cross the line into full-blown rioting, the threat scales and the implications change. There are also other types of protest, like boycotting and educating, that have much different dynamics, but I’m not really discussing those either. Not to say I haven’t been thinking about them, but that’s for another blog post.:)