Sometimes Protests

You don’t often hear about protests that fail, but sometimes they do. Sometimes people protest something they don’t like, and sometimes it works; it can be fierce and impressive, the cause can be honest and true, and the outcome can be widespread and revolutionary. Sometimes it doesn’t quite come off. Sometimes protests are quiet or disappointing, and sometimes they don’t reach who they intended to at all.

Sometimes protests are disappointing because they’re condemning something that doesn’t need to be condemned. Some people don’t believe in certain pharmaceuticals or medical procedures so they protest against them, which is in essence protesting facts. Protestors can be fighting for honourable causes regarding equality or education, but people who don’t know anything sometimes protest too. Not every protestor is well-researched, or pellucid, and the protest is occasionally a mess of misinformation and fanaticism. Anyone is allowed to denounce anything they want, and I think it’s good to stand up for what you believe in, but sometimes protests get in the way of common progress.

Sometimes protests are disappointing because they don’t quite reach their goal. Last year my friend Aamir didn’t shave or bathe for two months in order to protest the gender pay gap or something. People started complaining and he eventually had to stop, but I think his heart was in the right place. Sometimes inaction can be as effective as action. Rosa Parks didn’t give up her seat when she was asked, and now they have a black President, so passivity can definitely work. If you think about it, Aamir saying no to hygiene for a good cause was like the lady saying no to giving up her seat. Maybe it’s not the same, I don’t know- his protest was a little disappointing, but we’re here talking about it, and so were the people that got upset. What he did was enough to percolate some attention around the issue, which is admirable. Failure can be a success in and of itself.

Sometimes protests are disappointing because they’re a little confused about their actual cause. A friend of my father’s has never worn a wrist-watch as a rejection of linear temporality. He says that if he ignores clocks, he’ll lose track of time, and maybe get a few extra seconds somewhere so to put off death by a little way. It’s awfully morbid talk, and I’m not sure the logic is quite sound, but I cut him some slack because he’s a paediatric oncologist, which by all accounts is a rough job. Doing something like that professionally for a good reason is sort of like an isolated protest against disease. In many ways I think it’s more effective than any organised, political remonstration- more at the source, if that makes any sense. Perhaps his wristwatch abstinence has such an inexact goal because when you’re up against death, it’s easy to tell whether your protest was effective or not.

Sometimes protests are disappointing simply because not enough people are willing to make the effort. I’m part of the problem, to be perfectly honest- I don’t much like the idea of protests, so largely a means to inconsequential commotion. Students often find the idea of wild, unruly demonstrations against an oppressive higher power exciting and mysterious, but sometimes the narrative isn’t so clear-cut. The ‘oppressor’ being attacked might not be as dreadful as has been made out, and even if they are, performative protesting is rarely the right approach. Contemporary western democracy facilitates civil debate, criticism, and the progression of higher solution through Socratic dialectical engagement.

I know they aren’t all bad- in fact many of them make real change- but they seem more appropriate in maliciously governed countries where there are no alternative channels for critical social rhetoric or public debate. Maybe that isn’t exciting to say- I can certainly understand the romantic/heroic aspect of a protest- but I think in many cases the dry reality of procedure and conversation is simply more reasonable. The protest, in the modern civic environment, should be a last resort and thus a dying breed.

I’m not the type to ever stand outside and shake my fist, even if I did really believe in something. Maybe I’ll protest something one day, but I think for the most part I’ll leave it up to others, like Aamir. I think sometimes it’s good to focus on simpler, more basic personal causes, like drinking enough water or not littering too much or telling your mother you love her more frequently. It’s a selfish philosophy- a classic example of the bystander effect- most likely ingrained in me by a privileged upbringing and a lack of understanding of or sympathy with large, real world problems. I don’t know. I think sometimes the best things are a little disappointing anyway.

  • Harry Sanderson

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