01 January 2008|
Since the 1970s and up until recently, there had been a relative decline in mass protesting as a popular method of political activism, at least in America. Many took this decline to indicate the public's enlightenment as to the modern pointlessness of the public demonstration.
But alas, it was not so, and the world now finds itself in a sort of protesting renaissance. The ultimately unsuccessful protests against the Iraq War (an empirical example of their political impotence) were hailed by many a burnt-out hippie nostalgist as the reincarnation of the Vietnam protests. Now protests are fully coming back in fashion, with even the Lebanese recently offering their own demonstrations, unintentionally satirizing their own state of affairs. (The Lebanese president, Fouad Siniora, remarked that the displays of pointless outrage made him "proud of our democracy." How valuable is a democracy with public protests but without a government capable of even controlling its own territory, you ask? Answer: Not very.)
Even conservatives have joined the nascent ochlocratic movement, organizing their own counter-protests to the anti-war protests. Their protests, however, ultimately tended to underline the foolishness of their decision, as the conservatives wound up grossly outnumbered by the parading pacifists. But nevertheless, protesting by various groups for various subjects of political interest, recently immigration in the United States, continues apace.
Protests and demonstrations may have been legitimate in the past for groups with otherwise few legal rights (e.g. the Civil Rights Movement), or those facing severe threats to personal liberty (e.g. Vietnam draft protests). But the protest as a form of political activism has now become worthless in twenty-first century political society. The conditions for the necessity of protesting no longer exist, and with myriad alternatives for political expression, the protests end up being nothing but irksome political distractions.
1. They have no logical argument
Presumably, the well-meaning protestor expects a positive, persuaded reaction to his demonstration. If he is demonstrating for the sake of demonstrating, that may be his choice, but we can safely assume he expects his activity to serve a purpose, that is, to affect public opinion. What does such persuasion look like?
"Gee, I was really on the fence about this issue," says the hypothetical persuaded passer-by. "But now that I've seen all of these people I've never met on my local street, holding signs, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with bald partisan assertions, and generally shouting loudly various angry refrains about the alleged motives of our elected leaders, I am definitely convinced that the legislature should attempt to pursue alternative action, per the requests of these fine protesters."
Of course, it never works that way, simply because a) political persuasion is not facilitated by a 50 mph drive-by of community activists, and, more importantly, b) the protest makes no attempt whatsoever at forming a reasoned, principled political argument.
Political reform shouldn't arise from a demand that one group of citizens see a contentious issue the same way as another group of citizens, simply because one group of citizens has signs, banners, and pithy chants in the form of rhyming couplets. Reform should arise from lively debate and the positive contentions about why a policy is wrong or right for the nation. Protesting, as a method of ipse dixit assertion, automatically precludes the possibility of doing so. Volume should never persuade, and outrage should never fuel public policy.
2. Protesting creates a suffocating environment of extremism and irrationality
Even those protesters who disprove the stereotype of the angry activist, shouting axioms of political philosophy and public policy recommendations instead of vile obscenities, are still victims of the protesting environment in which they find themselves. Calm, reasonable voices will always be drowned out in a sea of impatient, angry voices, and protesting serves as no exception. In fact, the very point of protesting is to loudly call attention to collectivist outrage.
More than this, many protests suffer from a structural disadvantage: the fact that they are often planned, promoted and bankrolled by extremist organizations. This has no logical effect on the protest itself, and is certainly not the fault of the more moderate participants, but serves to cement the public perception that the protesters are nothing but crackpot activists, shattering the political effectiveness of the demonstration.
This perception has a strong effect on the policy markers who are, after all, supposedly the very target of the protests. While these officials are likely to already harbor negligible concern for the whims of public opinion, the medium of hysterical protests translates this flippancy into utter contempt, steeling the resolve of politicians against the very position the protesters hope to forward.
Tony Blair, for example, responded to the recent Lebanese protests by saying, "I've got used to demonstrations in my own country and demonstrations elsewhere, as well." By "used to," of course, he means "used to completely ignoring." Anyone want to hazard a guess about how much George W. Bush cares about your protest?
3. Strength in numbers is not true strength
Hysteria and extremism notwithstanding, the protest doctrine also forwards another troubling feature - that large numbers of people equate to ideological correctness. Protest organizers often gloat about their high turnouts, supposing without justification that said turnout somehow enhances their political viewpoint itself.
Unfortunately, the popular viewpoint is often an incorrect one. One can view the Billboard pop charts for musical confirmation of this principle. In politics, the principle has shown public opinion to be quite reactionary. Many new, innovative and ultimately beneficial policies were at one point rabidly resisted by masses averse to change. The French now serve as Exhibit A of such aversion, but the Americans are far from immune to its effects. One among many examples of reactionary American public opinion was the widespread public opposition to the legalization of interracial marriage, as well as desegregation itself.
It is wise to recall Eleanor Roosevelt's apothegm that what is popular is not always right, and what is right is not always popular. Unfortunately for the protesters, the Constitution agrees: it doesn't require legislation to be approved by the street mob.
4. There are many enlightened methods of activism available in lieu of demonstration
Outrage is not exclusively expressed through mass protest. Methods of expressing political displeasure without sacrificing reason and rationality involve speaking through the civilized media of the 21st century. Methods for doing this include the use of televised debate, advertisement, newspaper column writing and/or letter writing, internet blogging and publication, magazine publication, legal challenges, organized boycott, and many more. There is no excuse for protesting as the only option for activism. Put down the "Bush is a War Criminal" sign, activists, and pick up a pencil and paper.
5. Any success of the protest could be achieved otherwise; the protest itself is superfluous
The only conceivable benefit of public demonstration, although a commonly-mentioned one, is that protests can raise public awareness of issues. This is almost always a positive development, obviously, and thus is cited by protesters as one of the civic advantages of a protest-happy citizenry. (Giving MoveOn.org activists something to do on the weekends is the other advantage, one supposes.)
But public awareness, while desirable, does not require a public protest, nor is public protest even the best way to achieve public awareness. Protesting bundles the benefit of awareness, which could be quite easily achieved through a variety of other aforementioned media, with a slew of counterproductive techniques that delegitimize the cause itself and inhibit the function of enlightened democracy.
The above work is the opinion of the author, and not necessarily that of the Prometheus Institute.