Is protest culture fundamentally broken?

Used with permission from Ben Winslow (source)
Used with permission from Ben Winslow (source)

There’s few traditions as deeply embedded in our national culture as the protest. The American Revolution was marked by dozens of protests including the Boston Tea Party and what would later be called the Boston Massacre. When we don’t like a law, we make sure our displeasure is heard in a public forum. Protest culture, however, has slid from an effective means of directly confronting a law we don’t like into merely making a media spectacle. Utah’s protest culture is particularly bad at it and suffers from a kind of dysfunction that leads me to believe they are and will likely remain broken in almost unfixable ways.

Protesters almost invariably cite the civil rights movement as their inspiration. It’s a great example to use because it is both morally justified and universally recognized. This, however, is where the similarities to modern protests end. The protesters of five decades ago would choose to break the very laws they were intending to change, often with the expectation that they would be serving jail time for it. This would call attention to the law itself, not the protesters violating it. The modern protester seems to think that getting arrested for any old thing is just as good as long as they can say it’s “for the cause”.

I think this highlights a very important difference between the protesters of yesteryear and today. Today’s protesters need attention on themselves, not just on their cause. The SB100 protesters are a great example of this narcissism. They went to the capitol with the express goal of being arrested in order to get on television. When UHP refused because they weren’t breaking any laws, they chose to interfere with the business of the legislature by blockading a committee hearing on completely unrelated items. There’s a false conclusion drawn that getting arrested is the important part when, in actuality, it’s about calling attention to the law. A more effective protest on SB100 would have involved a bunch of employees coming out to employers and landlords, getting fired or evicted, and showcasing that act. (That they can’t beyond campfire story anecdotes says something, but this is another topic.)

So where does this attention-seeking behavior come from? I’d argue it comes from a sense of powerlessness. Those who protest do so because they feel that they have no power to affect public policy. Again, there’s a sharp distinction between today’s protesters and their forebears. Protest used to be reserved for when traditional avenues of seeking relief were exhausted. The civil rights movement worked on remedies from the legislative, executive, and judicial branches for decades before taking to the streets. Even then, protest was designed to persuade the people, to change hearts, minds, and public opinion. The culture has now changed to making a demand and, if not instantly gratified, proceeding directly to angrily marching in the hallways and peppering political opponents with whatever insulting words you think will stick.

Again, we see a stark contrast between the tone of between protest today and protest 50 years ago. The lunch counter sit-ins were quiet and mild. The marches in cities across the South were peaceful and caused the nation to recoil in horror when violent means of policing were used to disperse them. The sharp contrast between the noble and honorable behavior of the protesters of the civil rights movement and the actions against them is what created sympathy for their cause. Modern elements of protest missing from their demonstrations including goading police officers, breaking the law you consider unjust, and accepting the full consequences of breaking said law.

This difference in action and tone is why they’re powerless to begin with. Talking to legislators one-on-one and persuading them takes a lot of time and effort, it’s not very exciting, and it doesn’t bring public accolades. But it’s crazy effective. Ask any lobbyist and they’ll tell you the hard truth: you have to get friendly with these people so that, even if they don’t entirely agree with you, they’ll at least hear you out and consider your position. For better or worse, that’s how the game of politics has, is, and likely always will be played. I’d take odds on the vast majority of protesters never having employed these methods. In their haste to get change quickly, they lunge at the “get rich quick” scheme of protest. It may feel good, and it may shame or bully a few people into backing you, but it makes most people recoil and say that they want no association with someone who behaves so poorly. Usually the only people benefiting are the ringleaders, willing to capitalize on their notoriety to move up in the political world.

Unfortunately, protest culture encourages people to live in comfortable bubbles where everyone slaps you on the back and says “good job”, never pointing out the stark deficiencies of the methods employed. This is the same whether it’s the anti-war protesters of Code Pink, the anti-tax activists of the Tea Party, or the anti-NSA protesters of the EFF. Because a few modern public displays of anger work (like the protests against HB477), they’re convinced that they’re also the lightning in the bottle, that their chocolate bar has one of the exceedingly rare golden tickets. It’s the same mentality that keeps poor people spending a much higher proportion of their income on lottery tickets. That pursuit of a “quick fix” isn’t just ineffective, it’s counter-productive.

Will protest culture ever wise up and grow up, learning the real lessons from their ancestors? I doubt it. Most charismatic leaders of protests have their followers convinced that there’s no other option despite having tried none of the other avenues. They’re political rank amateurs and, quite frequently, bullies, hoping that shouting loudly enough will be just as effective as calm, reasoned persuasion. Sorry to spoil the ending, folks, but it rarely works and the odds are not in your favor. Grow up and join the adults in the room. You’ll be a lot more effective. And happier.

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