Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Necessary Protests (2021-03-31)
As a general rule, we can probably take as given that any person who inveighs against protesting, however mildly, considers themselves immune to any negative effects of the many troubling issues we all face day to day. That may sound paradoxical or even insulting, as if people can be opposed to protests about things big enough to present a majority if not all of us with shared experiences. Let me assure you that it is neither. Such people are quite as sensible and intelligent as any of us who may disagree with them. They are simply sure that those issues are bad but not likely to affect them, because they are not numbered by themselves or others as "one of those people," or they see no reason to expect the system as we know it to lose its hold on the population at large. Those are not necessarily foolish or uninformed perspectives, however much some of us may disagree with them. On the other hand, "protest" as performance has won a certain level of general social acceptance, the suspicious kind that indicates the protest mode in question is ineffective. It is easy to forget that different tactics are most effective at different times, and that how they are perceived by different elements in a community will vary depending on whose ox is being gored.
In preparation for this thoughtpiece, I dug into my trusty OED to see what hints it could give me about majoritarian definitions of the adjectives "peaceful," "violent," and "non-violent." The results are intriguing, as is so often the case (a good dictionary really is a treasure). From the OED I learned that what is peaceful is "free of disturbance, tranquil; not involving war or violence; inclined to avoid conflict." With violence being so key here, I turned next to "violent," and learned that it refers to "using or involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something; in law, involving an unlawful exercise or exhibition of force." Now things are getting more troubling, because all sorts of implied questions begin crowding in as to who makes the law, who enforces it, and what physical force is. To get something in the same range of description for "non-violent," I had to resort to looking up the noun, "non-violence." For that, the consensus definition provided says, "the use of peaceful means, not force, to bring about political or social change." Scholars like Jule Goikoetxea argue that violence cannot be simply equated to a person directly striking another person or damaging property. This rings true with our intuition, because it catches the pattern formed by the use of coercion that impedes a person's ability to live safely and well. Personally, I am uncomfortable with equating property damage to violence, strange as that may sound, because I do not agree that a person's property is equivalent to them as persons. Losing property only has as much negative valence as it does because we live in societies that vaunt property and property holding above all other things. Domenico Lusurdo's history of liberalism explains this in detail, with many references.
There's also a problem with the way "peace" is conflated with avoiding conflict or there being no conflict. Then again, maybe the issue is not with peace, but the overextension of the notion of conflict. At root this word means "to strike together" with all the connotations of physically fighting and winners and losers that entails. We are regularly encouraged to see any disagreement with another person or group as not merely differing viewpoints, which is the case most of the time, but as a serious clash requiring a final resolution with either a clear winner or a compromise that disgusts everyone. I provide this description advisedly: "compromise" does not have good connotations. It's a bit like the term "tolerate" meaning to put up with who or what you don't like, rather than where we might hope it would land, say on the side of respecting those whom we don't agree with and mutually agreeing not to slaughter each other over our differing beliefs. The latter is more what Voltaire and many others who originally argued for religious tolerance had in mind.
Okay, so now we get back to the question of protest. More often than not, the big critique I see and hear of protest is that it is not "peaceful." That is, the protesters either have or can be construed to have engaged in some form of violence. Property destruction generally gets more press and more critique than any amount of injury inflicted on people, especially the protesters. But what about protests that are hard to construe as violent in any way, such as sit-ins, camp outs, vigils, marches and the like? Well, I regularly hear people complain about those too, because they are too noisy, cause inconvenience or otherwise distract the person complaining from their daily routine. Should the protesters skew to the young, they will be told off for skipping school and not waiting until they can vote. If they skew older, they will be told off for using their presumed copious retirement hours on pestering people who have to work for a living. If they are of "middle" age, then they will be told off for supposedly not having a job or not going to their job instead of protesting. In other words, no matter what protesters do, somebody will declare them malingerers and attention seekers or whatever whenever and if ever their protest has even the slightest effect.
Which of course is why all types of protest are necessary, and we can't simply write off every sort of protest because this one is somehow too violent or too inconveniencing or too distracting. Instead of getting distracted by what are frankly bourgeois whines, we can definitely insist that protests are never occasions that license rape, murder, or maiming. But I suppose for quite a few people that would lead to too much critique of the people they don't want to question, the cops and the military.