I feel a great deal of resonance with Heinlein’s words: “Democracy is a poor system of government at best; the only thing that can honestly be said in its favor is that it is about eight times as good as any other method the human race has ever tried”.
Protest rallies are often referred to as an incarnation of “grassroots democracy”; the idea of direct, actively participatory politics which still exists at every stage of political development in the world today. However, grassroots democracy has the fault that without the application of basic mathematics, and particularly without electoral considerations, it is at best an emotive show of pure passion and opaque numerical presence.
Since the global economic shift in 2008 public demonstration has become more prevalent all over the world, the Arab Spring and Occupy finding space on the nightly newscast, while cultures throughout the globalised media are shown altering and falling. Young people in particular are often inundated with invitations, appeals, pressure to attend demonstrations through friendship networks and social media in particular. So here, I want to outline the three reasons I am extremely hesitant to participate in this form of democratic voice. All are strongly interlinked, but not necessarily equal, depending on your reading.
|A small protest in the town of Dahab, South Sinai, Egypt|
Peaceful protest is the pacifist cousin of violent force. Successful rallies are based on numerical strength, the same as traditional violent conflict. One of two primary purposes is to visually demonstrate the number of people affected by the circumstance under protest. The second primary, particularly in states which have a sophisticated and accessible political petition system, is to demonstrate the desperation of the cause; the sentiment that those present feel disempowered or unheard within the established formal system of participation. As an individual, I frequently participate in national and international politics via multiple media, but have never experienced a circumstance where I have felt the desperation which compelled me to join this medium. Further, this emotive aspect which is true of the motivation as well as the effect is a denial of due process to other stakeholders which is not a step which should be taken lightly. As to the first purpose above and the position that individuals who support a cause ought to participate in rallies as acts of solidarity, or as a display of their own voice on the cause I have another experience: while rallies and protests via physical presence may gain media momentum, I frequently choose to support these events in writing to the object of the event. I find that while the place of the effected at the point of disempowerment may be in the street, those who still feel empowered are called on to exercise that power as strongly as possible. Not only is written media often physical, in the form of letters, or colourful postcards, or greeting cards less temporally transitory, but also it is the traditional medium of power, as it is interpreted to display consideration, and the firmness of opinion required to commit to physical evidence of that opinion. As to the moral imperative to participate in solidarity with a cause, I will address below.
In passing I also want to mention the accessibility issues surrounding this form of activism: individuals who may be the subject of rally based pressure may find themselves in mentally or physically unsafe and vulnerable situations, which we consider to be unacceptable even within the criminal penal system. This is also an involuntary motivation for my own avoidance of these spaces, but not a relevant one here.
Protest rallies also perform the positive role of an exercise of agency for individuals and political groups. Due to the desperate nature of a true demonstration, this also infers that to participate in “in solidarity” on some levels reduces and condescends to the agency of the affected group. That is not to say that there are not causes where the indirect effects warrant or even demand participation, but there of course is a time and a place.
Finally, there is a keystone to my lack of rally attendance to date: my privilege.
The nature of physical group protest, in its circumvention of democratic process and physically and audibly loud nature, necessitate that its use is restricted to circumstances where a group feels no other viable avenues of voice remain. The expression of this desperation is no place for one who has never experienced the motivation to act in such a way, as the participation of privelage, to me, undermines respect for the experience of the affected. This is the central argument which also holds the relationship between this and respecting agency, discussed above.
Experiencing Egypt’s second revolution earlier this month from a position of immersion, but alienation confirmed for me the importance of these feelings. They may not be everyone’s feelings, but for me political participation is deeply personal. This personal characteristic incudes negative participation, i.e. the active choice not to participate in any medium, be it rally or ballot election. Every people holds their right to agency, their right to be heard on their own terms, and their right a distinct identity dear. Allowing them the pride of achieving success in this, the achievement of democracy on each their own terms, is a central tenent of the democracy that I love.