Focus, People, Focus!

Cornell law professor Michael Dorf has a great take on the hilarious NYU student “takeover,” and its utterly pathetic ending that actually makes an interesting point about activism in general.

Noting the rather bizarre disparate demands of the students, which included such items as “Annual scholarships for 13 Palestinians,” “NYU library access for the general public,” and of course, the very first demand (no kidding) “Amnesty for protesters,” Dorf writes:

My main point is that the muddle one sees among activists on the American left is not principally a result of a large organized effort. Rather, it reflects a kind of parochialism that assumes that people who share some of your concerns share all of them. An example: At a January rally in San Francisco organized by ANSWER in protest of the Israeli offensive in Gaza, some protesters were simultaneously demanding full equal rights for LGBT Americans and expressing solidarity with not just civilian Gazans (fair enough) but with Hamas, a fundamentalist movement that would and does oppress people for what it regards as perversion.

That’s just one of many examples I could give. As a vegan, a progressive, and a civil libertarian, I often encounter people who share my generally liberal/left views on some issues and therefore assume that I must also share their views on everything. This assumption is off-base even for people who share basic values and the same socio-economic-educational background, so of course it’s wildly off-base across larger divides.

Dorf further assumes that you will encounter the same phenomenon amongst right-leaning activism (an assumption which I think is correct – in grad school I remember reading in the school paper about one anti-terrorism demonstration a few months after 9/11 where ‘Sore Loserman” t-shirts were a pretty common sight, even though the demonstration was intended to be non-partisan and was attended by many liberals). 

Dorf’s point jibes pretty well with my own experience – having once had my finals studying interrupted annually by World Bank protests, I consider myself something of an expert on radical activism.  One year, my Halloween costume even mocked this aspect of World Bank protesters, who always seemed to incorporate the need to “Free Mumia” into every one of their protests, amongst other irrelevancies.*

This tendency has a lot of really negative effects, though, that can even make the activism counterproductive.  The first, and more obvious, is that it distracts from your main point, which may or may not have some kind of broader appeal.  In the case of the NYU students, one of the random demands main points was that they wanted tuition hikes to be tied to inflation, an idea that probably has a lot of appeal to other students, and hardly seems like an outrageous demand to outsiders and alumni.  But they decided to tie it to all sorts of other stuff that in addition to being ridiculous, bizarre, and unachievable had exactly zero to do with the issue of tuition.  Now, in order for someone to come out in support of the comedy routine protest, that person would need to agree with all those other demands, which is unlikely to say the least.

The other problem that this scattershot activism creates is that it makes it really hard for those who do agree with you on one issue or another (especially the issues where your demands aren’t that outlandish) to make arguments on that issue.  Since the whole goal of activism is to get your issues into the public eye, activists have a tendency to wind up representing everyone who agrees with them on one issue or another.  This means that someone who was opposed to the Iraq War in 2003, in order to make any kind of public argument, often had to first find a way of dissociating themself from the views of International ANSWER.

Not that anyone important cares what I think, much less cared what I thought in 2003, but at the time I was pretty uncertain as to what I thought about invading Iraq (this was when I still was more a conservative than a libertarian).  I remember watching the biggest anti-war protest during the run-up to the invasion, which I believe was sponsored in part by ANSWER, but was attended by tens of thousands of people, many of whom were probably pretty much run-of-the-mill liberals rather than radicals. 

I also remember that, in addition to the obligatory “Free Mumia” banners, one of the speakers started rambling on about how there was no longer free speech in the US.  Now, claiming that the Bush Administration infringed on the First Amendment at various times is certainly not an absurd position.  But it’s not exactly relevant to whether invading Iraq was a good idea.  Not to mention that it is the absolute height of absurdity to argue that there is no free speech when you are standing, with a microphone, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, before tens of thousands of people who are also protesting, with no fear of getting arrested for making that speech. 

Needless to say, these protests failed to get me to come down on the anti-war side of the fence before the war started. 

All of which goes to say that although I’m not sure how effective protests ever are at advancing one’s cause, failing to maintain a focus on why you’re protesting in the first place is a pretty good way of making sure that you do more harm than good.

UPDATE: Thinking about this a little more….why would any self-respecting protester ever make amnesty for protesting a demand at all, much less the very first demand?  I mean, if you’re going to commit an act of civil disobedience, commit an act of civil disobedience and be willing to take a hit for your principles.  Hell, if you read the old stories, the protesters would even pre-arrange with the authorities who was going to get arrested and/or punished, and at what time.

*And yes, this rather annoyed some small minority of my fellow students (including, unfortunately, the judge of the costume contest).  Which just made the costumes even more hysterical, since they had utterly failed to get the joke that everyone else in attendance understood perfectly well.

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5 thoughts on “Focus, People, Focus!

  1. Interesting piece, Freddie. The thing is, the entire point of a protest – any protest – is to convince people that you’re worth agreeing with on a particular issue. With so many of these protests, at least the ones I observed (I obviously don’t know about the protests with which you were involved), it wasn’t clear what they were trying to convince us to do. It wasn’t just an anti-war protest, or just an anti-World Bank protest, or for that matter just a pro-war protest; they always lacked any kind of focus whatsoever, demanding that observers not only adopt the nominal position for which the protest officially advocated, but also that they adopt all sorts of other positions. The idea that many/most people who were persuadable might have good-faith reasons for thinking that Mumia Abu-Jamal is a murderer, or that Communism is not really a good idea, etc. doesn’t seem to have crossed their minds. There was just this assumption, as Dorf identifies, that if you agreed or might agree with them on the Iraq issue, that you had to agree with them on all these other issues. That in and of itself makes people think twice about agreeing with you on the main issue, and thrice about being outspoken in that agreement.

    And again – I don’t think this is solely the province of liberal protests; indeed, I don’t doubt that many of the “Tea Parties” also included various pro-life banners and/or t-shirts, and I recall that the anti-terrorism protest I mentioned above also included a speech from one GOP congressman that ranted about the 2nd Amendment (or something equally irrelevant to the issue).

    The point is- if you want a protest to be effective, you have to keep it focused enough that people will: 1. know why you’re protesting in the first place; and 2. feel comfortable agreeing with you on that issue without necessarily agreeing to your entire worldview.

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  2. Mark, in the body of your post you say, “Since the whole goal of activism is to get your issues into the public eye, activists have a tendency to wind up representing everyone who agrees with them on one issue or another.”

    In your response to Freddie you say, “The thing is, the entire point of a protest – any protest – is to convince people that you’re worth agreeing with on a particular issue.”

    I think you are more correct with your first characterization, at least the words before the comma.

    Converting the opposition, bringing in the undecided, to particular cause is great, but as you say, “…the whole goal of activism is to get your issues into the public eye….” I think a big part of activism is just letting the like minded know that they have support. That is the first step. Later, if the cause has merit, say Civil Rights Movement, conversions will come.

    One last comment, it seems unfair to blame any particular group for a PETA supporter showing up at their pro-life rally.

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  3. “I often encounter people who share my generally liberal/left views on some issues and therefore assume that I must also share their views on everything.”

    I lived in Berkeley for two years and then the Mission (District) in San Francisco for eight years, so I feel like I’m up-to-speed on inconsistent belief systems and incomprehensible protests. My all-time favorite was a post-9/11 rally in Dolores Park that featured the following two comments by speakers at the mic: 1) “People are saying that Islam is bad. Well, Islam invented the number zero. Without Islam, we’d have no computers.” and 2) [in reference to weapons testing in Vieques] “On behalf of all the Latina Lesbians, I say ‘Bomb the Pentagon’.”

    If I can draw a broad generalization, the glaring inconsistencies in protestors’ world views originate in a general ignorance of the details and history of their cause beyond a bland presumption of Western white guilt. (Or, to put it bluntly, as I’ve seen all too often in San Francisco, it’s easier to oppose self-determination for Israel if you think all Jews are the rich AEPi kids from college.) Interestingly, one thing that the far lefties share with the far righties is paternalism – they both know what’s right for others.

    Another thing you see on the far left at least is a deep impracticality resulting from never having had any power. If you look at legitimate Socialist governments or politicians in North America, you see incredible compromise: Bernie Sanders is popular because he gets things done, not because he attends the Socialist International. Successful Socialist governments or politicians in Canada (Saskatchewan, Manitoba, to some extent B.C., and Ed Broadbent) have succeeded for similar reasons – economic growth and major policy achievements – not adherence to rigid doctrine. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has 7 of 11 members to the left of a mayor who introduced free health care and gay marriage, yet its members form necessary alliances with builder’s associations and the like to actually govern the city. But protestors? Not so much – they are so far from making a difference (a pardon for Leonard Peltier?) that they can adhere to whatever unrealistic ideology they feel like.

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