The walkout today has me thinking about protest and its pros and cons. Obviously, protest can be a good way to effect social change. But it can also be a way for young, narcissistic idealists to peacock before their peers. Encouraging this sort of peacocking is bad, because encouragement is the last thing narcissists need. At the same time, we don’t want to just be complacent. There are things about the world that suck, and we might be able to do something about it.
The ideological war of the past couple years has made it hard for me to regard protest positively. My knee-jerk reaction when I hear about protests is to cynically dismiss them as virtue-signaling. Sometimes this reaction may be correct, but it often is not. In any case, even when people protest on behalf of causes that I agree with, I find myself trying to distance myself from them psychologically. I’m hypercritical of everything they do and say. I hate that I’m like this now.
I want to stop gun violence. But when I hear about students protesting against it, my first thought isn’t “Wow! That’s great!” but “They are being used as pawns.” Which makes me sad, because I would much rather see these protests as a sign that young people are participating in the life of the polis, and that they actually care about politics.
In short, I’m torn. There are things we need to change. This is beyond doubt. It’s a good thing that people care about criminal justice reform, police accountability, racism, and mass shootings. But too often, I feel that these protests end up being a form of political theatre, serving to boost the self-esteem of the participants instead of to persuade or challenge their fellow citizens. It’s not enough to “send a message” or to “let your voice be heard,” you actually need to say something that might convince others to join you. And in order to do that, you need to know what you’re talking about.
In other words, effective protest is more than just venting. It’s not enough just to have a protest. Protests need to persuade. Effective persuasion on the part of protesters requires learning, which, in turn, requires time and humility. Or it will require relinquishing physical safety, as it did the civil rights protesters who endured beatings at the hands of the police in southern cities. When protesters learn about the issues they’re protesting and are prepared to sacrifice something on behalf of their communities, they show themselves to be good, engaged citizens. But you don’t need to be a good citizen to vent, even if you’re venting alongside hundreds or thousands of your peers.
I’ll keep thinking about this. Even as I’ve written, my thoughts have evolved. Maybe I’ll figure out what I think and write something in a few days.