What Are These “Protests” You Are Talking About?

by Jason Arvak

League members Scott Payne and Mark Thomspon have recently engaged in a debate over the value of protests.  In one sense, I agree with each of them.  Like Mark, I am skeptical as to the value of protests to move the ball of social change in any meaningful sense.  Like Scott, however, I am mindful that protest movements can have benefits beyond the merely instrumental.

There is, however, somewhat of a disconnect between Scott and Mark in that they have left a persistent ambiguity regarding what they are talking about.  To put it punchy: who are protesters?  If we conclude that they are merely actors seeking particular changes, then Mark’s critique holds much more bite.  But if we are to conclude that they are merely expressing what sociologist Robert Bellah called an “American civil religion” that values participation in its own right and views apathy as the primary threat to the health of democracy, then Scott’s defense of protesters becomes much more persuasive.

I would argue that modern protest movements encapsulate both elements at the same time and, as a result, undermine their own effectiveness even at the same time that they enhance their ability to recruit new participants.

Social movements since the 1960s and particularly since the advent of the internet as a publicly-accessible resource in the 1990s are very loose and free-flowing groups.  Pretty much anyone can show up to a protest, add their distinctive signage, and thus shift however subtly the outside perception of what the protest is about.  Unlike conventions and conferences, there are no guardians at the gate to prevent incursion by discordant or distracting elements.  Indeed, given that the media will usually report only the numbers of attendees rather than present a substantive discussion of the issues raised by the protest, the more the merrier.  And the power of the internet and modern media as a mechanism for spreading the word means that just about anyone can find out about a protest and, using modern transportation, get to a protest site as well.

What this means in practice, however, is that substantive messages from protests will inevitably be diluted and reduced to a lowest-denominator level.  Flaky Code Pink activists become the focus of mockery on “The Daily Show” and costumed Ron Paul fans make a “tea party” into a laughingstock on Colbert.  Protests are, in short, very poor environments for detailed, well-informed, or elevated debate.  As vehicles for promoting specific changes, therefore, protests are manifest failures.  Anti-war protests from 2003 to the present have done little or nothing to shift the public debate and, given the excesses of some of their flakier elements, have even possibly strengthened the pro-war side.  Similarly, the “tea party” protests have done little to coalesce latent public fears about government overspending and have instead become an easy punch line for comedians and ideological opponents wielding “teabagging” wisecracks.  Because of their internal incoherence and inclusion of bizarre elements, protests are a poor vehicle for promoting social change.

What protests excel at, however, is making their participants feel a part of something larger than themselves.  The mass chanting of slogans, the movement as part of a crowd, the feeling of shared danger as they see the assembled police forces make protesters feel they are “speaking truth to power” of otherwise fulfilling a destiny that is morally transcendent and potentially even historically significant.

Also, protests are places to meet and make new friends in a society that is increasingly atomized and where interactions too often feel clinical and contrived.  It is no accident that “activist” – a content-free description of an activity that is indeterminate as to ideology or issue – is a category included for self-description on any number of internet dating sites.  And as Timothy Leary is reputed to have said when asked why he joined the protest movement against the Vietnam War, “that’s where the chicks were”.

Protests as a social environment do an excellent job of bringing together existing activists and new recruits.

But to leap from this observation to the claim that protests are exclusively expressive and non-instrumental would be a bit too far.  While the social appeal of protest movements works to bring in sufficiently large and diverse participation as to undermine the movement’s ability to appeal to non-participants, the ability of the social movement to inculcate its members both old and new with beliefs about issues is potentially very powerful.

It was interesting to note, for example, how rapidly anti-globalization groups in late 2002 morphed into anti-war groups with largely the same membership and leadership.  The coherence of protest-based social movements around a shared identity as “activists” makes it possible to very rapidly refocus attention on a new issue as well as to spread a new set of messages and slogans to the membership.  Because protesting is “an end in itself”, these new social movements do not suffer from the problem of demobilization that plagued the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.  When a new issue arises or an old one declines in salience, movement leaders (informally defined) can simply switch and rely upon the continuing mobilization power of “activism” to keep the movement going on the new track.

This means that political pressure for change on a new issue might still face serious barriers, like the anti-Iraq War movement has, but it also means that the movement will be much quicker to form and more likely to persist over time.

So are protests a waste of time?  It depends on what you think the purpose of protesting is.  If the purpose of protesting is defined as to “win” by forcing rapid change in a given policy, then protesting is likely to be seen as a waste, since it is unlikely to be capable of mounting a challenge that is coherent and broad enough to alter pre-existing lines of political support.  But if the purpose of protesting is instead defined as to influence broader public discourses over a longer period of time, then the new identity-based models of protest “activism” are likely to be seen as much more powerful than critics may suggest.

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