Creating Apathy by Fighting Apathy

Scott (and, by implication, Freddie) has put together a challenging retort to my arguments that most large-scale political protests are inevitably undermined by the unpreventable introduction of irrelevant issues into the protest and are thus exercises in futility.   At the risk of beating a dead horse, Scott’s riposte really deserves a full response.  Scott essentially concedes my basic point that the introduction of irrelevancies makes the protests incoherent to the general population.  BUT, he says, there is another part of protesting that maybe is served by carrying an Anti-Illegal Immigration sign to a government spending protest:

…[I]n some cases the lack of clarity in protest messaging could be indicative of a group of people who are grappling with the articulation of a future that is novel, bold, and sincerely innovative. One doesn’t always necessarily have a fully-formed image of the different state of affairs that one thinks ought to be the case and the act of trying to articulate that vision, building it as you go, is an important and worthwhile endeavour. That our political discourse only takes seriously, to ape on Freddie for a moment, those articulations that are perfectly put together and nicely packaged is part of its problem. Such requirements stifle real creativity and debate, more often than not.

Scott further argues that, at its root, protesting is about discouraging apathy, and whether the protesters stay on message misses that point:

There is something to be said for average citizens having the motivation and wherewithal to take to the streets to comment on what they perceive to be the wrong direction in which their country is generally headed.

There is, no doubt, quite a bit of truth in these statements.  Certainly, there is something healthy about a group of people willing to take to the streets to express their collective outrage.

But what if taking to the streets winds up increasing, rather than decreasing, apathy in society as a whole even as it creates a sense of a passionate united community amongst the faithful?  What if, indeed, it winds up destroying a nascent movement united on a single issue?  I think this is exactly what happens when more and more non-germane elements are introduced into a protest.

In the case of the Tea Parties, to quote myself, “I’m very much anti-spending orgy – passionately so, actually – but I’m not terribly interested in being so publicly if it means that I also have to be a Birther who opposes gay marriage, supports a strict closed-borders policy, and thinks that the Republicans are in some way less bad than the Democrats.”  For me, the introduction of all those non-germane elements has very distinctly and personally decreased my interest in opposing massive spending* because it inextricably links an opposition to government spending to all those other beliefs, which I actively do not want to see advanced. 

Similarly, Stephen Gordon (who I’ve quoted far too often this week) writes of what happened when more and more non-germane elements were introduced into the 2003 Alabama state Tea Parties:

The successful Tea Party in Alabama was the rallying point which turned into a major defeat of the largest tax hike (proposed by a Republican, no less) in our state’s history.  Some organizers tried to hold similar events in later years.  However, the rallying cries became more about issues like abortion and especially immigration.  Not surprisingly, the movement fell apart.

(My emphasis).

Nor is this a problem that is exclusively the province of protests on the political Right.  Liberal legal scholar Michael Dorf wrote in February of this same phenomenon:

…[T]he 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….  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.

So in a sense, yes, introducing all of these ideological assumptions is relevant to creating a community as Scott suggests, at least in the sense that “parochialism” is interchangeable with community.  The trouble is that by making these assumptions, which are implicit when one carries a Free Mumia sign to an anti-war protest or a pro-life sign to an anti-tax protest, one effectively defines people who don’t care about Mumia or who are pro-choice out of the community.  Obviously, the more someone is defined out of a community, the less willing they are going to be to remain part of that community. 

The result – and here I’m not talking just about protesters but about the assumptions implicit in unified ideologies more generally – is an increasingly apathetic population, or an increasingly “silent majority.”  These are people who may be against the Iraq War, or against domestic wiretapping, or increased government spending, and may even be people who have been willing to protest against these things, but whose willingness to express themselves has waned upon coming to the realization that doing so requires implicitly agreeing to all these other beliefs that you either don’t care about or simply don’t agree with the “official” community position. 

Meanwhile, the rump that remains committed to this unified cause may become ever more of a tight-knit community and may even become ever-more activist – but is this a good thing?  Such rumps epitomize the group-think and echo chamber that Scott rightly says protest groups need to be careful to avoid.  Moreover, why should we be concerned about the apathy of people who are interested enough to protest in the first place? I’m far more concerned about the prospects that it may cause apathy in people who otherwise would not be apathetic. 

Again, though, this isn’t solely an issue of protesting, but of almost any form of grassroots ideological activism that extends beyond a handful of issues.  However unintentionally, the more you define active (rather than passive) support for issue A as presumptive active support for issues B, C, D, etc., the fewer people are going to want to remain part of your community of active supporters for issue A.  At worst, many will turn against you; more likely, though, many will simply stop caring enough about issue A to do much about it.  I can think of any number of personal anecdotes where either I or someone I knew or read simply gave up on their activism because they were just unwilling to go along with issues B, C, or D: my short-lived involvement with the Ron Paul grassroots; a friend’s involvement with the local chapter of the GOP because it was obsessed with the SSM issue in the middle of an economically depressed region; another person’s decision to turn tail on a “Support the Troops in Afghanistan” rally shortly after 9/11 because of the excessive number of Sore-Loserman T-shirts and anti-abortion signs; and another friend’s involvement with the World Bank protests. 

“Us vs. Them” can be a powerfully unifying theme.  But if you define “Us” as being people who are passionatly anti-[laundry list of items] rather than just people who are passionately anti-[war or spending or taxes, etc.], you’ll quickly find that your community of “Us” has dwindled quite a bit.

A final note – there is, I think, an unaddressed issue here as to whether pure political beliefs can form the basis for a meaningful community in the first place.  I have admittedly mixed feelings on that question – but it would seem to fall well within Mr. Kain’s ambit (hint, hint). 

*I’m generally uninterested in debates over nominal tax rates because our federal deficit pretty well proves that the “starve the beast” theory is wrong and thus spending represents the real bill to the taxpayer.  At best, we’re talking about who bears what share of the burden we’re willing to pay for up front, and that debate is usually over a handful of percentage points for each bracket rather than anything radical.

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