The right to yell outside until someone takes you seriously is key to the First Amendment. In the US, protests are becoming more popular by the day. It is the people’s right to be heard and hear the people we must! In Britain, Hyde Park is home to Speakers Corner, where anyone with the confidence or arrogance to orate is entitled to a public platform. The home of Her Majesty’s Parliament in Westminster also occupies a position for any multitude of rabble to rouse till climax.
What most people are unwilling to say is that a protest is an almost universally bad idea, so please refrain from it unless absolutely necessary. The reason for this is that protests invite counter-protest, by definition. If you say something loud enough, someone will disagree, and they may do so with too much passion. This allows the media to take soundbites and clips from both sides and shape the narrative. Case in point, the Covington Catholic Students pro-life protest in Washington D.C. recently invoked the wrath of millions when we were told they had “approached”, “harassed”, “intimidated”, “mocked” a Native American man, Nathan Philips, who was part of another protest. In the clip, we see Philips beating a drum, surrounded by a gaggle of Trumplings.
But what if I told you Philips approached them? That the protest Philips was involved in mobbed the students waiting for a bus back to Kentucky and told them to “go back to Europe” instead, where their white heritage truly resides. Well, that sounds like a different story entirely, no? Sounds a lot like the regular push and shove of any protest. Not the story of the century.
Of course, the argument here is not that we should exonerate the political right and teenagers from their shared blame in these affairs. Rather, the argument is to point out that protests do nothing but harm for political discourse by inflaming ideologues and polarising political groups. And nobody will dare say they are wrong.
Of course, protests have achieved great things in the past. The March for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 saw Martin Luther King give a rousing speech, which built support for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Another was the Women’s Suffrage Parade of 1913, which was a monumental success, even if it took several years for the Nineteenth Amendment to pass in 1920, giving women the right to vote.
However, great protests of yore could never be a success in today’s society. Let’s take “fake news” as an example: I admit my guilt in spreading falsehood. The media will not. This is why alternative media grows; bloggers, internet shows, freelance journalists may report without the shackles of the mainstream, who do not seem to care about the facts on the ground. That makes us important, but dangerous. Verification of claims, validation of evidence, these are important concepts you need to consider when consuming news and it is up to you alone to check their work.
And it is not merely the smoke and mirrors of the media that make protests dangerous. Increasingly, we bear witness to protest movements becoming a megaphone for extremists. The Women’s March movement, whose goals I sympathise with, not without reservation, hosts the Sharia apologist Linda Sarsour, who once said that anti-FGM campaigner Ayaan Hirsi Ali deserved to have her clitoris cut. More recently, Tamika D. Mallory made headlines. She is the co-founder of the Women’s March and now famously a friend of repulsive antisemite, or “the best”, in her words, Dr Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, a notorious prison gang. Former Head of the Democratic National Convention, Debbie Wasserman Schulz, posted that she now withholds support from the Women’s March until they rid themselves of this racism. But it is a little late and a smudge too rich for politicians to distance themselves from them when any opposition to the group was tantamount to misogyny less than a year ago.
In the UK, Brexit protests are in fashion. A group of no more than a dozen bumbling, obtuse individuals have been approaching politicians, calling them ‘traitors’ for backing a second referendum or wanting the UK to stay in the EU. As someone aware of the many arguments for the UK leaving the EU, and someone who is aware of the problems with having a second referendum, one might be forgiven for agreeing with their goals. But their tactics are not only vile, but they are also ineffectual. Apart from expressing bile, and whether or not the politicians deserve it, what good does this do for your cause? Does it make it more or less likely that they will vote for your interests? Does it make it more or less likely the media will stigmatise your group? For a protest to work, it needs to be respectful, impactful, and significant. When it is rude, trivial, and angry, is it any wonder people do not give you the time of day?
Here is a lesson for those who want to get involved. Keep your “political dialogue” on the internet. It is happier there than in a world where normal people have to hear it. Would-be protesters: Do not engage someone in public unless you know you can talk to them. If you cannot, immediately disengage. Do not beat a drum in someone’s face. Do not hoot and howl like a troop of chimpanzees. Do not insult someone, no matter their beliefs. Do not expect to be treated fairly by the media – it is in their interest to lie. Media: Do not clip a long video for a false headline. Do not condemn one side until you hear their story. For the most part, do not protest.