This week: The ingredients of a successful protest, why condescension and criticism don’t get along and a personal piece to remind us of what’s at stake.
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How to create a protest
So what’s the verdict then? Were the #NotInMyName protests successful or not? As it usually goes with these things, the answer depends on who you’re reading. 2017 has already seen plenty of protesting across the world – US President Donald Trump’s tenure started with the Women’s March followed by a number of other protests; Romanians took to the streets against a ridiculous new law and Venezuela is currently burning. And no matter which part of the world we’re reading about, the same questions coagulate around the word ‘protest’ every time one takes place – are non-violent movements more successful than extreme ones? What turns passive citizens into politically active protesters? How do we go from protesting to achieving tangible political change? And that singular umbrella question – ‘Why do some protests succeed while others fail?’
For an article titled exactly that, Jesse Singal spoke to a number of researchers who study protests to understand what goes into the making of a successful movement. Her most important takeaway, in my opinion, is that protests attract more participants by lowering barriers to joining and not being sticklers for ideology. Singal quotes Ziad Munson, a sociologist, on the role ideology doesn’t play in protests, “One of the key things he’s [Munson] found, over and over and over, is that people often get involved in movements without having particularly strong ideological commitments to them.”
She goes on to list another lesson from Munson: “The more your movement broadcasts ideological demands, the more you drain the pool of potential members.”
One might think you don’t want to attract people who don’t believe in the ’cause’ or understand what’s at stake, but these researchers would all largely argue that initially it doesn’t matter. At first, it’s about getting people’s attention and labels like ‘activist’ and ‘left’; the pressure of going from law-abiding citizen to political protester all pose imposing barriers to entry. Most people will agree with you if you say ‘Innocent people should not be lynched’ but getting them to say it together and not just in their heads is the challenge – life gets in the way of our best intentions. Take the #NotInMyName protest for example, apart from them being written off as a ‘lefty-liberal’ rendezvous, there were some practical oversights in how it was organised. The Delhi protest started at 6pm on a Wednesday evening. We rarely make plans to see friends on weeknights, what were the chances that people were going to leave work early to go join a protest? Corporate work culture barely supports us tending to things like medical conditions, so ideological beliefs certainly don’t figure on that list.
Again, one might say that having a bit of a barrier is good, it filters out the flaky supporters from the committed ones. But Singal’s article argues that “it’s social ties and networks, not hard-nosed ideology, which creates and cements newcomers’ activism.”
At the end of the day, nobody really wants to rock the boat if they can help it. This basic instinct is what makes moderate or non-violent protests more popular than extreme ones (involving vandalism). When participants in a study were presented with articles and videos about violent protests, they actually became more sympathetic towards the person who was being protested against (Trump in the study’s case). Because when presented with material like that your first instinct is to think, ‘I’m not like them’. Whereas moderate protests that involve marches, posters and chanting are social spaces that are not only welcoming of the elderly but also the very young, and so successfully rope in a wide array of the population.
At the end of the piece, Singal sums up her point:
“Make everyone who is interested in your cause, or who exhibits curiosity about it, feel welcome. Other than wanting to help, there should be almost zero prerequisites. If someone doesn’t speak the lingo, or doesn’t know what intersectionality is, or anything else — it doesn’t matter — they can still contribute. And the more you can make activism part of their social life, the more of a meaningful role you can give them, the more likely they will be to stick around and to spread the word. Education on specific ideological issues can always come later.”
This piece does not assume that ‘if people care, they will come’. We all have a number of passive participation options open to us and a bigger number of concerns about what it means to be ’politically active’. Just the word ‘protest’ can be a daunting one for a lot of people and when our own personal comfort is not at stake, there’s no sense of urgency to go out of our comfort zone.
Much of this piece implies that apathy is not an anomaly, it’s quite the opposite and the burden of creating a politically engaged society falls on those who lead movements. It’s their job to clearly define what they’re doing, but also welcome those who are not fully on-board, if they want their movement to succeed. Media reports, moral compunctions, ethical duties don’t turn us into protestors, but welcoming environments and social events do.
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Digging out a valid point from a pile of condescension
Buried somewhere under condescension and a vague argument, Shivam Vij’s piece titled ‘Why The ‘Not In My Name’ Protests Did More Harm Than Good‘ seems to express a similar sentiment – who was the protest really for and what was its point? Were the protests for those who were already engaged with the issue to come together and clear their conscience? To get more people concerned about the problem in order to inspire policy change? Vij would probably say former, protesters would say latter.
According to Vij, focusing on the lynching of Muslims, instead of farmers’ distress or the lynching of Dalits, simply plays into the Hindutva agenda of keeping national politics focused on the protection cows in India. It’s a topic that serves the BJP well by attracting voters to the party, by mobilising them on the streets as politically active (if destructive) citizens. Meanwhile, a discussion about the government’s apathy for drought-struck farmers and the treatment of Dalits is not something that benefits the party.
Vij may be right on some counts – focusing on cow-politics does work better for the BJP than anyone else. But he doesn’t offer any solutions or even an analysis of how he thinks starting a protest focused on farmers and Dalits could eventually expand to include Muslims, but somehow he doesn’t believe the other way round will work . In fact, as a friend pointed out, everything Vij says in his article could have been expressed in person at the protest itself.
Then there’s the use of the label ‘left-liberals’, used so condescendingly by those who believe hyper-nationalism is the only creed worth subscribing to. Isn’t Vij also playing into the Hindutva trap by employing the same language to insult the very people who essentially care about the same things he does?
And finally, there’s the muddled point about why left-liberals care more about Muslims than Dalits or farmers – because the biased, rich elite don’t really have lower-caste or farmer friends. Is he right that this country needs a better conversation about caste and class? Yes. But essentially saying, ‘Muslims have no political currency in India, so best not to focus on them if you want a successful protest’ doesn’t cut it.
I can’t even say I blame Vij for this train of thought. Maybe he doesn’t have any Muslim friends so it’s hard for him to care about them. (Points that can go both ways don’t make for useful arguments.)
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‘What I say or what I think does not matter’
On a serious note, talking about protests like they’re marketing campaigns and using labels like ‘left-liberals’ all boils down to one thing – we’re ignoring the fact that real people, whether they’re Muslims, Dalits or farmers, are all feeling ignored and worthless in the place they call home.
“Over the past few months, I have woken up to WhatsApp messages and Facebook alerts of communal rioting and mob lynching of Muslims. I have shared them with friends, shed a tear, shouted and cried in anger, and sat paralysed, imagining myself and my family members as the victims. Ramzan, the month of spiritual cleansing, has been soiled with multiple incidents of hate and anger.”
That’s one of my closest friends, Aamena Ahmad writing for The Indian Express. We’ve grown up together, feeding each other’s appetite for over-analysing everything from books to clothes to her devotion to Allah and my aversion to faith. But we’ve stayed away from the recent spate of lynchings, because really what can we say? So when this article popped up out of nowhere (I had no idea she’d written anything) it was an important, moving surprise. On a personal level, writing allows us to process things we can’t say out loud or even think coherently so I am happy that Aamena experienced some momentary catharsis. On a public level, Aamena’s words sum up an emotional experience that’s missing from our political discussion right now.
She writes, “It is only recently that I have begun to feel that what I say or what I think does not matter. All that matters is that I cover my head, or that I have a name that sounds “Muslim”, or that I celebrate Eid, much like 16-year-old Junaid.”
It doesn’t take much to imagine that the farmers who were protesting in Delhi recently and also Dalit communities who lead grossly unequal lives feel similarly, Vij is right about this. But now that the initial protest has sparked a conversation, maybe sceptics and supporters alike have some ideas on where to go from here? Do we need more protests? Should the #NotInMyName organisers plan future events that agitate for other issues too? Should the ‘left-liberals’ Vij criticises make space for people who agree with him?
But that’s the big picture. On an individual level, figuring out how to protest is hard. Keeping it up is even harder. If protest is not for you – whether that’s because you don’t ‘get’ politics or feel like you don’t want to commit to something you don’t fully understand, that’s alright. (I often feel that way too). Maybe you’ll feel differently in the future and feel comfortable joining then. Maybe someone like a close friend will ask you to go and suddenly there’ll be a compelling reason to join (this is actually how a lot of people start according to Singal). But in the meantime, try not to dehumanise people by talking about their political value in terms of votes or population or GDP numbers. Find smaller ways (like volunteering for a cause you believe in, reading things you’d normally ignore) to make the people around you feel like they still matter.
Want to suggest a piece that should be included in this column? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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