I’m Sick of Protest Culture

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.

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2 Capitalisms

I generally don’t like the word “capitalism.” This is because, in my mind, capitalism isn’t an “ism.” That is, it’s not an ideology or even really a system, but the absence thereof. People who criticize capitalism generally aren’t criticizing freedom or markets, but an ideology which holds that humans are individual self-interested actors who seek to maximize benefits to themselves, and that we should not stop them from doing so in almost any circumstance.

This criticism is spot-on. Insofar as capitalism is an ideology that exalts self-interest and profit-seeking, it should be rejected. Freedom of choice and markets should not be thought of as means of maximizing the ability of individuals to pursue their self-interest, but as advancing some other sort of more substantive good. And insofar as these things hinder, rather than promote, that good, they should be modified or replaced with something else, albeit cautiously.

So there’s ideological capitalism and there’s instrumental capitalism. You can believe that free markets and profit-maximization are desirable in themselves, in which case you’re an ideological capitalist. Or you can believe that free markets, as a general rule, are the best way to promote the common good, in which case you’re an instrumental capitalist. The first position is indefensible and incompatible with even considering the merits of a non-capitalist economic system. The second is reasonable in some circumstances, although it might not be in others. We can have more capitalism or less capitalism if we’re instrumental capitalists. If we’re ideological capitalists, we either have it or we don’t.

It seems to me that markets are a highly effective way to advance the common good, provided that people acting within them are not profit-maximizing robots. The problem is that as ideological capitalism has become ascendant, people have more and more closely resembled such robots. Fewer people are asking whether creating a new technology or financial instrument would be desirable for society at large. Instead, they just ask if it will make them money in the short run. Often, it will. Hence the 2008 financial crisis. Hence the creation of addictive technologies that take all of our data so that Google can sell it to the highest bidder. Hence political commentators who spew lies and sensationalism at every opportunity.

Markets in themselves do not cause these problems. People, acting freely within markets, do. The question, therefore, isn’t whether markets are good or not, but whether we can change people’s behavior within markets. I think we can, but it’s unclear exactly how. And the task of reforming the human heart is far more daunting than that of reforming the structures in which we live our daily lives.