Apparently, some WordPress members posit a “Daily Prompt” each day consisting of a single word, asking those interested to write about what that word means to them. This post is in response to a posted prompt simply entitled “Protest”.
Some, including myself, would say that protest is at the heart of our (perhaps formerly) participatory democracy. Some fairly recent historical movements helped create the Civil Rights Act as well as apply pressure on the Nixon Administration to eventually withdraw our troops from Vietnam. But as can be clearly seen in the present day, very few of these “victories” had much lasting value: bigotry is as rampant as ever (especially since the two-time nomination of Barack Obama) and the military-industrial complex makes too much money from their global misadventures to have learned the slightest lesson about unnecessary and/or unwinnable wars.
I have a theory for why this might be the case. No matter what is at issue and no matter where on the political spectrum (or to be more accurate in our set-in-stone 2 party system, political magnet consisting of two interdependent poles) a protester falls, he or she is usually not understanding the psychology behind their ideals and even less so of the psychology of those with whom they disagree. Perhaps the following statement will make some cringe, but politicians are people and therefore like most of us, sometimes abandon their ideals for political gain. Politics is simply a word that defines more of a process than a group of people. Our rampant misunderstandings of one another arise from the fact that not just elected officials, but also idealistic protesters cannot see the forest for the trees. If you view a political opponent as an enemy, then you are almost certainly missing the point. Those on the left generally allege that they promote progressive ideals of peace, love, compassion, unity and equality. However, if your method for attempting to achieve such lofty goals is to throw Molotov cocktails at the police or hurl invective towards those with whom you disagree, you are playing a zero sum game. Those with no peace in their hearts and minds cannot give something they themselves do not have. Those with no compassion and empathy for those whose life experiences caused them to formulate differing sociopolitical opinions cannot practice compassion; they can only pay it lip service while secretly desiring a mere political or social “victory” more than a compromise that may be the basis for improved communication on the issue in the future. In other words, rioting, threats, insults, and refusing to communicate with the opposition will simply exacerbate the us vs. them mentality that leads to dangerous stalemates and increased animosity. This is because too many of us identify ourselves with our political ideologies. Most “progressive Democrats” view themselves as different animals than “conservative Republicans”, and vice-versa, and therefore refuse to even attempt to compromise or at least understand the differing backgrounds of their opponents to gain perspective on why they feel the way they do.
So yes, protest is an important thing and has real potential to be an instrument of major change. But I would suggest something closer to Mahatma Gahndi’s method of “Ahimsa” or non-violence, in the practice of trying to negotiate change. Of course, non-violence is meant literally, but it also implies a mindset that does not view opponents as enemies, but as fellow human beings worthy of respectful discussion and debate. Hatred for those with differing viewpoints is precisely the problem. I know that it is difficult to develop understanding and empathy in the midst of a passionate debate, but it can be done. Not everyone will drop their habitual tendency of drawing battle lines, but one must understand that such people have not applied introspection to their politics and probably see anything less than the full force of their anger and frustration as an inadequate and weak response. It is anything but.
I fear for the fate of legal protest and free speech in the upcoming years. Perhaps if a more radical yet human and humane approach to our differences became more pervasive, we would be more capable of compromise, peaceful protest, and above all, unity.