The Standing Invitation

Who You March Beside

with 2 comments

I joined my first political protest march in 2009; I confess that while I agreed broadly with its principles, I knew even at the time that I didn’t understand the issues well enough to commit myself fully to it. I was there mostly to see what it was like.

It was not something I enjoyed. I found myself holding a placard that only approximately expressed my views, alongside people I disagreed with politically, chanting slogans I would have phrased very differently. I left after an hour or so feeling not enlivened and proactive, but rather ashamed at having lent support to people and groups whom I dislike.

Any mass political demonstration involves, by definition, a large and probably rather diverse crowd of people. In joining it – joining any movement – one hopes to gain more impact for your cause through strength of numbers; in doing so, one sacrifices individuality. You become part of a crowd. You lend your voice to its demands, and become responsible, in part, for the actions, good or bad, of those you march beside.

This trade-off is inevitable; and now, before joining any protest, I try to get as clear a picture as possible of what I will have to sacrifice, and to whom. As in any exchange, there are instances when the price is worth paying; when the cause is so important that it largely doesn’t matter what nutjobs you have to associate with to get the job done. But there is plenty that a movement can do to make itself more attractive to me as a customer in the free market of political activism.

It is easy to see why protests are often perceived as vehicles of free expression of alternative lifestyles. After all, they are strikes against authority – what better way of showing how little control the Powers have over you than by having a street party? There are rare cases when this is acceptable, such as when the right being defended is exactly the right to have a party. But for the most part it annoys me. It is never good for a movement’s credibility than for it to be seen to be frivolous.

The treatment of all authority as being some monolithic capitalised Authority is always a bad thing. I recently saw, at Occupy London Stock Exchange, a poster about compulsory vaccination causing autism. (It cheered me enormously that it had been vandalised by people signing their names alongside their qualifications in clinical psychology.) The two causes are unrelated; affiliation with one should never entail support of another.

A third thing is the presence of a manifesto. It doesn’t matter if it’s written on soggy cardboard, as long as it’s clearly stated. This goes a long way to mitigating the loss of individuality, because a statement of purpose lets people know exactly what they have signed up for.

It will always be in the interests of the authority protested against to portray the protesters as diffuse, disorganised, violent, unintelligent, and more interested in fun than in change. It is the responsibility of activists to make a pre-emptive strike, and make their motivations clear as a laser, and as serious as politics.

Written by The S I

October 23, 2011 at 11:59 pm

2 Responses

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  1. This is why they shouldn’t craft a list of “demands”,26353/

    The Filmsmith

    October 28, 2011 at 11:25 pm

  2. Heh. I approve.

    But it does leave open an interesting issue that transcends all activism: do people achieve more or less by being precise about what they want? I don’t know the answer. I think that if a clear answer existed at all, the world would be a very different place.

    The S I

    October 28, 2011 at 11:56 pm

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