Opinion UWE

What is the right amount of protest?


As of late, it seems like protesting has become the natural response to anything of distaste that takes place.

Don’t like what someone says? Protest.

Don’t like a decision made by an organisation? Protest.

Don’t believe in a new government policy? Protest.

All three of these examples have taken place in only the last couple of weeks. On Friday 16th February, Jacob Rees-Mogg was protested as he arrived to deliver a speech at the University of Bristol. The University and College Union (UCU) called strikes at over 60 institutions over a breakdown in talks with Universities UK (UUK) regarding a dispute about the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). Earlier in the month, The People’s Assembly and Health Campaigners Together held a protest calling on the government to increase funding for the NHS.

It would seem as though the sequence of outrage leading up to a protest has never been more straightforward.

Step 1. Find out about something on a vague superficial level.

Step 2. Have your mind made up on this issue by your peers or worse, your Facebook feed.

Step 3. Decide to stand against the inherent bigotry, xenophobia or other assorted form of oppression that you deem to be taking place.

Step 4. Protest in some bizarre and incoherent fashion (balaclavas optional).

Step 5. Find a cesspit of likeminded individuals to revel in the grand rebellion in which you partook (aggressive backslapping encouraged).

Repeat steps 1-5 for any situation that you deem fit.

Joking aside, this trend seems to place less emphasis upon deconstructing or debating ideas and more about causing a fuss, regardless of whether or not it actually contributes to the cause that you believe in. In the same vain as “awareness” campaigns, there is often very little rationality about how to deal with or address concerns, only to raise the profile of the issue.

But I digress. There are no doubt some benefits to organising a mass display of human opinion, and certainly for both visual appearance and public engagement, protesting is effective. To shut down roads by marching through them or by impacting upon other people’s days by picketing their place of work, or striking out of the transport system that they use is by far the most effective way of disturbing people into caring about the issue you are protesting. Some people will feel sympathy with the protestors and understand their point of view, as well as their reasoning for staging said protest. But, some people will resent the obscene obstruction to their day, making them embittered and angry with the protestors. So, where is the balance?

For the sake of time, I’m not going to carry forward the metaphor of striking workers, as that is a whole other ball game that I just don’t want to get into right now.

It is worth asking yourself, ‘for what reason am I protesting?’ before committing to the act of engaging in a protest. If the reason includes trying to produce some kind of outcome it may be worth asking yourself a follow up of, ‘is there a better way of achieving this outcome?’ If there is, you should certainly exhaust all those options before resorting to a protest for the sake of it.

So, what are some scenarios in which protests were utilised effectively? Well, to be honest, there aren’t many examples (in recent times specifically) of protests leading to a successful outcome within a timeframe that made any sort of palpable difference. But, there are some examples of protests that were both justified and effective, at least to some extent. Potentially the most famous protest of our generation was the Iraq War protest, which took place almost exactly 15 years ago. On a cold Saturday in February, over a million people took to the streets of the capital in what was, and remains to be, one of the UK’s biggest ‘peace rallies’ ever. Alongside this, it is estimated that nearly 35 million people partook in protests against the war all around the world during the weeks preceding the Iraqi invasion. This was an unmistakable expression of public opinion in a time before Twitter storms or viral YouTube campaigns, and rightly so. With hindsight, we now know that the fears of the individuals protesting were confirmed and that had the government taken time to reconsider their position, we would most likely be living in a very different world.

So what’s my point? Well, it is not my place to say whether it is right or wrong for people to protest about any specific issue (ignoring the fact that I am). However, it is worth noting that protesting as a form of political or social expression can certainly be de-valued by it’s over use. A mass protest that brings a country to its knees will put whatever issue is being protested at the heart of discourse for that day, that news cycle, that week, that month, that year. And if the protesters are on the right side of the argument, public opinion will shift and the government or organisation that is in the crosshairs of these protests will be forced to reconsider their actions or decisions.

By stark contrast, protesting for protests’ sake seems to have become a fun past time for those so tied up in contributing to a near parody level manifestation of ‘counter culture’. At UWE we saw a great example of this, when a gaggle of plucky, petulant man babies decided to cuss and cry in an attempt to silence Jacob Rees-Mogg at a Politics and International Relations Society event. Their position, or at least what could be drawn as their position from in between their mindless screeching, was that some of Mr Mogg’s views were unacceptable and that he should not be able to disseminate them at a University. This is of course alongside the fact that he is obviously a Nazi and/or fascist and/or bigot etc. etc. Now, fundamentally they have a right to disagree with Mr. Mogg’s views, but they do not have a right to silence him. They have a right to challenge him on his views, as many audience members did calmly and academically at the appropriate time during the event. So in this situation I’d say that protesting in a way that disturbs the event significantly was not only of no use, but also a detriment to the cause of rebutting Mr Mogg’s political stance.

To utilise protest is to generate empathy, awareness and consensus on an issue for which there are no other avenues to pursue. As a student movement, an argument being had at the moment by many Students’ Unions around the country and by the NUS (National Union of Students) is whether or not their time is best spent engaging with decision makers to achieve compromise or to protest anything and everything that dares hold a contrasting opinion.

Recently the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bath resigned from the position after protests about her pay (which was in excess of £450,000 per year, before bonuses) brought national media attention to the issue. Now, some may credit these recent protests as the sole reason for her resignation, but the real story involves years of protests and discussion starting from a very small grassroots group of activists to eventually a larger mainstream, albeit unnecessary movement. Had the efforts involved in those years of protests been focused on negotiating with the University directly on students’ interests, maybe there would be better outcomes for students at Bath and less outrage at the audacity of someone in a very high position to be earning a large salary.

Alas, I must now answer my own question before I dive further down the rabbit hole of the history of protests. For me, it’s clear that certainly on a student level, protests rarely work. Students are famously seen to be naïve or lazy. More recently, they have often been labelled as overly sensitive. The current deal for students isn’t as good as it can be, but it is by no means a bad deal. To improve upon the standards of teaching, the quantity of amenities or the opportunities for recreation it is advisable if not required to engage with those that ultimately make the decisions, which in this instance is the University directorate. No one likes being spited or slandered for the sake of political capital, so protest should be used sparingly and when necessary, not regularly and needlessly. However, if you would like to spend every waking minute complaining and remonstrating about the injustices in the world, without suggesting pragmatic or achievable solutions, I highly recommend twitter. At least then, I won’t be forced to endure the whining of those that don’t consider or rationalise their thoughts as I queue to get some coffee on a cold Monday morning.

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