by Eli Koops, Commerce/Government and International Relations double degree student.
With the G20 fast approaching, it strikes me how little we actually hear about the summit’s broad multilateral agenda, the various policy positions of those nations involved, or indeed the outcome of previous resolutions. Instead, news outlets prioritise the vast security measures involved in preparing for the summit juxtaposed against the inevitable presence of protesters and escalation of violence during the event.
This is perhaps not an unreasonable way of framing the G20, particularly given the chaos that has marred previous economic summits, but it does present us with questions on the virtue of protest.
Certainly it would seem that there is no shortage of people willing to shout belligerently through cupped hands; wielding hastily constructed placards and a sense of moral indignation. Yet the efficacy of such activism is too often drowned out by the very act of protest. Especially given the incoherent message, uniformed demands, and violent behaviour of many demonstrations held at recent G20 meetings.
Let me quell the visceral response such sentiment may elicit by qualifying that my criticism is not levelled against the concept of protest. Throughout history, such activism has been used to abolish slavery, end racial segregation, and achieve universal suffrage. In this sense, protest is of fundamental importance to our modern conception of liberal democracy. However, when demonstrations espouse uninformed folly and descend into violent ambiguity, such protest erodes the conventions of civil society.
Specifically, where the essential nature of political demonstration is to shape some element of society in the normative convictions of those protesting, its success in a liberal democratic context depends entirely upon the intersubjectivity of such convictions. Accordingly, while you may be entitled to voice your opinion, you are not entitled to have that opinion shape the social structure unless a majority of people agree. The efficacy of protest therefore lies in persuasion, not force, as social change achieved by the latter is mutable, meaningless, and malign.
Nevertheless, truly persuasive protest requires two elements that many demonstrators of previous G20 summits have generally lacked; coherence and creativity. The first of these is the primary criticism levelled against organisations such as the Occupy movement. While this coalition of interests express a broad discontent with the global economic paradigm, a lack of clear and coherent demands limit their potential to heard on a variety of policy positions.
While such movements may be justified in their views, simply expressing dissatisfaction is generally perceived more as complaint than activism. Whereas a clear and coherent list of demands serves to highlight discontent, while offering an alternative course of action. In this sense, good protest is engaging in both moral debate and policy negotiation; its impact, normative as well as pragmatic.
The second element of effective protest concerns the means in which a message is conveyed. Specifically, the most powerful and persuasive of activist movements have not been carried out in violence, but peaceful creativity. Consider for example, the Montgomery Bus Boycott following the arrest of Rosa Parks. This innovative and peaceful expression of protest prevailed upon society by creating social awareness and causing economic loss. Such activism did not hold society captive to the values of those protesting, but instead captivated society and encouraged them to consider the virtue of institutionalised segregation.
So as the G20 approaches, I genuinely implore those choosing to wield their democratic right to protest, to do so honourably. In seeking to espouse your position on a variety of subjects ranging from climate change to capitalism, ensure your message is coherent, your demands clear, and your protest peaceful. Not simply because I’d prefer my car wasn’t set on fire, but because creativity is more persuasive than violence. Compare, for example, the famous protest of Rosa Parks with demonstrators at the Toronto G20 in 2010. Where the former will be committed to the annals of history as a seminal moment in the civil rights movement, the latter are lost to news archives depicting their violence rather than their message.
Accordingly, where actions speak louder than words, take a moment to consider what your actions are actually saying.