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.:)
7 thoughts on “On Protest as a Tactic”
Interesting. Makes me consider a few other things:
What about the ability of digital protests to affect change? Countless online petitions have failed, yet even in the narrow range of Canadian tech policy in the past three years, you have big success stories like Fair Copyright for Canada and Open Media’s Stop the Meter initiative. These, I think, are similar to the street protests because they’re about a show of numbers and media attention in large respects, just the numbers are Facebook group membership or signatures on an online petition, rather than people in Queen’s Park. What’s the point of those tactics? With FCFC, it embarrassed the government into stalling the bill repeatedly, and while the follow-up still has serious problems with digital locks, a lot of things changed in the bill for the better. With Stop the Meter, every single party eventually spoke out against the ruling, even though it only affected the ~6% who are actually customers of indie ISPs. For some reason, politicians didn’t want to be seen as off-side on the issue.How was massive, system change accomplished in the past? (I don’t know my history well enough to answer this.) I mean, you have revolutions, which sometimes bring about new systems (American), and sometimes bring about new forms of tyranny with new faces (French, potentially the recent Egyptian uprising with the military exerting control now). There have been many countries that have swung between communism, democracy, facism, etc., especially during the 20th century… was systematic change affected through uprisings, protests, coups, foreign intervention? I’m just thinking of the question of how you might actually affect systemic change…What about social change, like say the street protests of the civil rights movement in the 1960s? That seems like a case where sustained street protests had a role to play in affecting systemic change, though it hardly happened over night or in a single decade. Then, your Arab Spring or SolidarnoÅ›Ä‡ movements fit somewhere in there as well…
I’m just raising some ideas, more than making an argument. To me, it seems like street protests are more effective when combined with other methods, e.g. having an educational campaign to inform minds, change hearts, and staging demonstrations in the streets to draw attention to the issue, build the movement, etc…
@Blaise: I guess I’m thinking that protests primarily work when the target is clearly defined and there is a credible threat. In the case of Canadian tech policy, I wonder if part of the “success” hasn’t been more about maintaining the appearance that the Canadian tech industry isn’t as monopolistic as it actually is, and that Canada maintains some degree of sovereignty over tech law? I mean, there are sort of common grounds from the smallest to the largest in those terms – if the big ISPs can argue that it isn’t really a monopoly, they look good, not bad, and no Canadian wants to feel like an American lapdog. The targets have been clear (ISPs, members of government, industry associations), the threat is there (reputation hits, boycotts, etc.), and the demands have been plainly stated.
As for revolutions and social change, I think that they’ve almost all involved actual bloodshed. When enough protesters get hurt or killed, my guess is that 1) it’s usually embarrassing to people in power that they couldn’t handle it more discreetly, and 2) there is a general sense of “it could happen to me” that spreads even among non-protesters that makes them more supportive of the underdog cause. ( I’m guessing you saw this article about the tipping point for the spread of ideas? They suggest that “[w]hen the number of committed opinion holders…grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.”) It’s not enough to simply have some portion of the population be uncomfortable, I think. People can live with uncomfortable but they can’t live with starvation or genocide or brutality , so I think these tend to be the breaking points. And, of course, I think change on that scale is a bit of a wild animal – nobody really knows what happens when it gets unleashed. There’s just madness for a while and a new equilibrium emerges. I don’t think that anybody planned out the French Revolution or the Arab Spring or the civil rights changes in the US, etc. But I’d still argue that the street protests were more symptomatic of a need for change than they were a mechanism for change in itself.
I agree. This is what I’m driving at. Especially when the “goal” of change is some idea that is deeply embedded in society, quiet education is going to be much more effective than protest in the long run. It’s hard to dismiss the idea as coming from a bunch of dirty hippies when it’s just encountered as rational conversation in a social context, or as simple practice in a business or community organisation. I think leading by example still works; while shouting about injustice is useful for getting ideas into people’s faces, that sort of direct confrontation is also a good way to get people to harden their positions. It carries risk,especially when the demands are diffuse and the threat scale and target (a few thousand protestors vs. tens or hundreds of millions in an entire population) is laughable. That’s not to say it should never be used, but it should certainly not be the only (and not necessarily the first) tool in the arsenal of change.
Ghandi’s protests were in a different era and focused on a specific target. Looking at it from the lens of threat analysis, the protests he led were able to focus Indian emotions and sentiment against a British occupier on a very large scale. Clear target, clear implied threat, clear demands (“leave!”).
As for Occupy, which I’m presuming you are referring to by “we,” there is no clear target and no clear demands, only a clearly identified “common grievance” where there is a recognition of inequality at the expense of the “99%.” This leads to the movement as a whole not really presenting (currently – I’m not saying that this can’t change) any credible threat and leaving many potential supporters uncertain as to whether or not they want to endorse a movement that could eventually turn out demands that they disagree with. When you say “win” – what exactly is it that Occupy hopes to win? What’s the end game?
If you read my prior post, you’ll know that I think this ambiguity is part of the brilliance of the Occupy Movement, and I am willing to admit that it has at least inspired dialogue. What I’m uncertain of is whether or not it will actually lead to change itself, or merely go down in history as yet another abortive attempt on the road to real solutions (or a collective lemming-leap off the figurative cliff). I think that the environment it exists in means that other, more local options are likely to prove to be more effective than hoping for the 1% (or the protesters who are out in the parks) to hand us anything that actually matters.
(Personally, I’m not really a huge Gandhi fan. His questionably racist attitude towards Africans and his odd sexual attitudes and practices and attitudes toward women, at least according to some sources, have left me with a less-than-heroic impression of the man. Time has been kind to him, I think.)
Won’t work. Gandhi said,
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
They went through the first two in less than two weeks. Now the elite are fighting. The fight will probably long and escalated. But the result will be the same – we will win.
Fundamentally, everyone just wants to be happy.
Let them have their protest. Better yet, order them some food and drink, play some funky music, and let them get their groove on. Eventually, people will get tired and go home. Sure, it’s placating them, but I’d much rather see that than the unreasonable force that’s often used to quell protests. All protesters really want is to feel as if their opinions have been heard (even if it isn’t necessarily the case).
That might sound as if I’m jesting and I don’t fundamentally agree with the premise of a protest like Occupy, but that’s far from true. I think the world needs to change drastically. I think we can find a better way to live so that no one is ever poor or a beggar. The problem is most people are afraid of change, and since I’m talking about drastic change here, well… it’s bound to be frightening for most (though I think less frightening for people if they’re actually involved in the process to bring about change).
Basically, I say let them protest (as long as it remains peaceful and not a health concern or a security threat for anyone) and let’s move on to addressing the issues that are at the core of why Occupy even started. Let’s start finding solutions that will help build all humans a better society for the future and continuing development of humankind. We need to start thinking progressively and outside the box. As humans, we have a long way to go, but so far all we’ve done is fight with each other on one planet in a huge universe. We’re all humans and we all live on this planet (which by the way belongs to no one and everyone), so maybe we should start thinking as one.
fundamentally, any society should allow maximum freedom to negate in any _new_ languages or theoretical frameworks.