What Makes a Good Protest?
In recent times, protest has seemed to occupy an ever more prominent position in our national discourse. With events like the March for Our Lives, the Women’s March, and attempted speaker deplatformings at the University of New Hampshire, Lewis and Clark College, and Middlebury College, among others (for a more complete list of protests against speakers on college campuses, see this list compiled by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), it seems that we have become increasingly willing to resort to protest as a means of motivating social or political change. As a new culture of protest begins to emerge, it’s important that we take a moment to pause and make sure that we know what makes a good protest.
First, it’s important that we know exactly what we’re talking about when we say the word “protest.” Protest is a special kind of political speech. Where most political speech attempts to persuade other political actors of a given position by rational argumentation, protest does not. Rather than making an attempt at persuasion, protests attempt to use public opinion as a weapon to coerce action. Protests “name and shame;” they identify a social problem, and subject those unwilling to fix it to widespread opprobrium until they change their minds or, at the very least, grudgingly agree to give the protestors what they want.
Americans, generally speaking, have an easy time seeing the good that results from protest. Protest, by its very nature, embodies the democratic spirit that rests at the core of the American psyche. It seems that a propensity for protest itself is built into American identity; after all, the founding of our country was itself, arguably, an act of protest. We’re very quick to point out that many of the important social accomplishments of the 20th and 21st centuries—women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights Movement and the end of American involvement in the Vietnam War, to name a few—were achieved at the urging of persistent and often courageous protestors. In these cases and others, protestors identified a grave moral evil that infected American life in a deep and insidious manner, and took the necessary steps to put a stop to it. In situations where some serious institutional evil plagues our country, protest has a legitimate, even necessary, role in curtailing that evil.
Those who are quick to point out the good in protest are not wrong to do so; only a fool would deny that protest has played an indispensable role in ridding our country of some of its most embarrassing moral deficiencies. However, to hold up protest as an unqualified good is to overlook the potential negative consequences that can result from protest. All protest, even when justified, carries risk: namely, all protest runs the risk of becoming manichaean, that is, dividing the world into neat, discrete categories of pure good and pure evil. Because it eschews persuasion and debate by its nature, protest tends to assume that the solution to whatever problem is being protested is obvious. If the protest is already underway, then the time for arguments and deliberation has come and gone; rather, it is instead the time to dispense with arguments and take action. This can lead protestors to adopt one of three highly unfavorable views of those on the opposite side of the issue at stake: they are apathetic, and therefore can’t find the energy to get behind the cause even though they know it is worthwhile; they are unintelligent, and therefore lack the requisite cognitive capacity to see truths that are obvious to the more able-minded; or they are morally corrupt, and therefore know that the protestors are right, but refuse to give into their demands out of some nefarious ulterior motive. In short, those in the protest run the risk of viewing people opposing the protest as lazy, idiotic, evil, or some combination of the three.
Protest, even when justified, tears at the social fabric of the political community. By taking a quasi-manichaean view of the world, protest engages in a dangerous flirtation with factionalism, detracting from the sense that we are all fundamentally members of the same polity. One might ask why we should think this is a problem; after all, it may be the case that social fractionation is simply the cost of progress. In my view, this is a deeply mistaken line of thinking. Protest, as I argued earlier, can only take place once one has decided to stop trying to persuade people with whom one disagrees on a given issue. If they could be persuaded, then the need for the protest would evaporate. Deliberation and argument is the lifeblood of a republic; if these are not at the core of our political dealings, then we all suffer. If politics is not a game of persuasion, then it is a game of power. We should all want to maintain the kind of politics in which we are willing to convince and be convinced by each other and allow the best ideas to have a chance of winning out, rather than the kind of politics in which people who happen to have political power are able to force their agenda past any dissent they may encounter regardless of whether or not they have the best solution for a given problem. Protest is a form of the latter kind of politics. Since it eschews argumentation, protest attempts to force people in power to cave to the demands of the protestors or else face widespread social opprobrium. This can only happen so much before our commitment to deliberation and argumentation starts to deteriorate.
Let me give a contemporary example of this phenomenon in action. In the wake of the Stoneman-Douglas school shooting in Parkland, Florida last February, the surviving victims of the tragedy received a massive swell of media attention. At the March for Our Lives last February, shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez gave an impassioned speech during which she stated that “every single person up here today, all these people, should be at home grieving, but instead we are up here, standing together, because if all our government and President can do is send ‘thoughts and prayers’ then it’s time for victims to be the change that we need to see.” Later on, Gonzalez continued, “the people in the government who are voted into power are lying to us, and us kids are the only ones who seem to notice and are prepared to call BS.” At a CNN town hall on gun control following the shooting, survivor Cameron Kasky told Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) to his face that “it’s hard to look at you and not look down the barrel of an AR-15 and not look at Nikolas Cruz… this is about people who are for making a difference to save us and people who are against it and prefer money.”
This is a useful example of how protests can devolve into counterproductive tribal bickering if not carried out properly. Regardless of one’s feelings about gun control policy, there is zero evidence to indicate that the government is engaging in the kind of institutionalized deception of which Gonzalez accuses it, and likewise for Kasky’s accusation that Senator Rubio is knowingly allowing children to die in school shootings in order to collect blood money from the NRA. It’s far more likely that we’re all interested in minimizing school shootings, but we disagree about what method is best suited to bring that goal to fruition. Manichean rhetoric like that employed by Gonzalez and Kasky accomplishes nothing except to create a political community that is needlessly divided against itself, and therefore less able to confront the problem that prompted the division in the first place (note that federal gun policy has not substantially changed since the March for Our Lives). The rhetoric employed by Gonzalez and Kasky is a prototypical example of bad protest; the harm is maximized in the fractionation of our political community, and the benefit is minimized in the manifest lack of change to federal gun control policy.
This begs the question, if March for Our Lives was a bad protest, what does a good protest look like? The beginnings of an answer might be found, curiously, also within March for Our Lives: Cameron Kasky, the survivor who compared Senator Rubio to shooter Nikolas Cruz at the CNN town hall last February, recently ended his affiliation with March for Our Lives and expressed contrition for his former approach to gun control activism, stating “I’m very regretful of a lot of the mistakes that I’ve made along the way… I went into that wanting less conversation and more to embarrass Rubio and that was my biggest flaw.” Kasky also plans to start a new podcast entitled Cameron Knows Nothing, in which he plans to interview various policy experts and improve the quality of public debate over gun control and other contentious issues. Kasky deserves immense credit for having the courage to change his mind in public, a transformation that many grown adults have lacked the maturity to perform. Here, Kasky embodies the main virtue that rests at the core of good protest: humility. The best protestors know that they’re only human, that there’s plenty they don’t know, and that the suggestions of others are at least worth hearing out.
Of course, this talk of humility can seem rather vague, so I have attempted to give a series of five conditions that, if followed, would be likely to result in the kind of protest I have been urging for in this piece. Conditions 1 and 2 stipulate when any protest is justified in getting off the ground in the first place, and conditions 3-5 stipulate how a justified protest should comport itself so as to be effective in accomplishing its ends. Particularly for 3-5, there may be cases that demand that one or more of these conditions be broken. However, under normal circumstances I contend that we’re best off adhering to the following set of conditions:
The protest in question urges for a just and moral cause. No argument is necessary to show that any protest that urges for evil is not justified (the Klan, for example, could never wage a justified protest).
Institutional channels for change are exhausted or nonexistent. Severe disenfranchisement (the case of Black Americans before the Civil Rights Movement or women before the suffrage movement are good examples) or persistent lack of response to the concerns of voters (think of the Vietnam War protests) must be in place in order for a protest to be justified. Otherwise, one should be urging change by more persuasive means (direct appeals to legislators or other citizens being the most obvious example).
The tactics of the protest are ordered so as to rally support behind a given social or political measure, not denigrate one’s ideological opponents. Even good protests almost always have an unhelpful fringe, but the core protesters should make efforts to distance themselves from said fringe and engage in more fruitful tactics. In some cases, the distinction between urging for good and fighting against evil is somewhat spurious, but protests should always be about urging for change, not propping one’s virtue up against the vices of one’s enemies.
The protest has a clearly articulated goal or set of goals the accomplishment of which would be sufficient to disband the protest. In other words, all protestors should be able to answer the question “what social or political changes, if enacted, would be sufficient for you to stop protesting?” If no clear answer can be given for this question, then the protest in question is bound merely to confuse, annoy, or even enrage the people whom the protest is targeting without accomplishing much in the way of substantive change. In order for a protest to be effective, those in power need to know exactly what is being asked of them, and also that if they do what is being asked of them that the protest will stop and things will return to business as usual. For example, the Vietnam War protest had a very clear policy goal: total military withdrawal from Vietnam. It’s difficult to imagine that those protests would have been very effective if policymakers didn’t know what the protestors were after. Contrast that, for example, with the Women’s March, the goals of which seem murky at best.
The protest avoids the use of violence at all costs and distances itself from those who do use violence. This is what distinguishes a protest from a riot; protests peacefully urge for change, whereas riots revel in wanton destruction. Even protests with legitimate grievances suffer serious setbacks from instances of unnecessary violence. A good example here is Black Lives Matter, the tactics of which have ranged from peaceful gatherings to violent riots (see Baltimore 2015 or Milwaukee 2016). It’s difficult to deny that American society has a lot of work to do in reckoning with the disproportionate use of force by police against black people, but that discussion is only hindered by the use of violence. Protests are at their best when they eschew violence and instead urge for change peacefully, thereby making their demands more palatable to those in power.
Let me be clear: I do not wish for my above suggestions should be treated as Gospel. I’ve done my best to be thorough and careful in suggesting measures that I think would result in more effective protest, but it is likely that there are points that I’ve overlooked or otherwise failed to address properly. All I mean to do here is contribute my perspective, for whatever it’s worth, into what should be a larger discussion about what place protest should hold in our political dealings. At the moment, our thoughts on the matter seem ill-formed and inchoate, resulting in a lot of empty noise both for and against protest without much serious content being discussed. Let’s resolve now to take a more productive tack and figure out as a society how to have a good protest.
(Overhead picture: Arnold Gold/Hearst Connecticut Media)