The Catharsis of Protest

Those of us whose intuitions incline towards liberalism and an understated support for democracy have plenty of reasons to protest, with our societies injustices and institutionalised ignorances growing longer by the headline. Thus, it is difficult to criticize those who do take to the streets in protest. They are, after all, demonstrating as their conscience decrees. However, in our present politics, when the need for civil disobedience and dissidence is paramount; it is more important than ever to understand that not all protests are created equal. Many recent protest movements have been afflicted in varying degrees by the same illness. Often identified by a hashtag, these ‘grassroots’ movements and marches are perennially reactive.
#Black Lives Matter #Occupy Wall Street #Notinmyname and so on.

Occupy Wall Street

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These protests are each fundamentally moral. They are conceived in opposition to racism, to theft and to lynching. These are not crimes of perspective, but of principle. They burn against the very fabric of a free society and so it cannot be wrong to speak out against them.
But in each of these cases, the protests that grew against these crimes were practically futile. Where they have had an effect, they have catalyzed a nebulous ‘awareness’ of the problems we face. Often, they have simply forced otherwise static politicians to offer a conciliatory speech and carry on with their political agenda. This is because despite the scale of the issues at hand, these movements do not understand the nature of effective political protest.

There are two types of political protest. The first is descriptive protest. The movements named above are all largely in this category. Descriptive protest is often a response to a particularly abhorrent example of injustice. The pictures of Junaid Khan were one such example. The videos of Philando Castille and Eric Garner are another.
These images and sounds act as fuel, enraging our moral senses and rousing our consciences to protest, to marches and speeches. In the aggregate however, they do not offer or demand anything material from the State. They restrict themselves to sloganeering and hash-tagging their way through civil discourse. “We are the 99%” is not so much a call to action as it is a claim of solidarity, “Not in my name” is not so much as call to action as it is a demand to be indemnified against the crimes of your fellow citizens. The descriptive protest may also be noted for its emphasis on outrage and ridicule of opposition. For instance, those whose response to Black Lives Matter was “All Lives Matter” were very rarely met with reasoned argument or persuasion. Instead they were met with condemnation and indelible labels of racism.

The second type of political protest is prescriptive protest. The examples of prescriptive protest movements are rather more resonant through our history. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s was largely prescriptive. The LGBT Rights movement in the 21st century was similarly prescriptive. Prescriptive protests are often carried by the same energy of moral outrage; the injustice faced by Rosa Parks and black students spurred the United States towards desegregation, just as the Stonewall Riots led to the inception of the modern LGBT rights movement. Prescriptive protests are identified by their willingness to make use of the same injustices, but pragmatically and in service of specific political goals such as the desegregation of schools or the decriminalisation of sodomy. While this can manifest itself cynically it also produces the most direct results.
They also choose to prioritize persuasion over condemnation. Martin Luther King’s dream of his children living in a nation “where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” is notable for its lack of vitriol towards white America. Similarly, Frederick Douglas’ writing shows that despite what would be absolutely justified hatred of America, the autodidact freed slave retains admiration for the ‘great principles’ of the Declaration of Independence and hope for his captor nations more perfect union.

All protest is in the pursuit of catharsis. The ideal protest will result in a form of national or social catharsis; a popular realisation of the injustices of tradition and orthodoxy. There is no example of completely successful protest, but the examples of prescriptive protest above are as close as I can find. Although far from complete, the progress made in American race relations since the 50’s and in LGBT rights throughout the world in the last 40 years is unprecedented. This is because these movements embraced social catharsis. We need to understand the difference, historically and practically, between these styles of protest. They are by no means mutually exclusive, and often bleed into each other, using the same symbols and rhetoric to bend the moral arc of history towards justice.
But when one form of protest overtakes the other, as it has in many contemporary protest movements, we find ourselves in a civil discourse that is profoundly self-involved.


Political protest cannot exist in isolation, and it cannot succeed without the support of the institutions of democracy, but these institutions also require the support of protest, civil disobedience and dissidence that does not deal in cynicism or derision, but in honest civic engagement in the democratic project. A project that is both universal and profoundly parochial. If we are ever to reach the point that James Baldwin described in The Fire Next Time where we achieve our countries we must ask of ourselves and our peers these uncomfortable questions (among others).
What purpose should protest serve, if not to convince your fellow citizens of injustice? Can a moral minority ever hope to convict the immoral majority through condemnation and derision? What hope is there for a nation to achieve its potential if its liberals and dissidents, who are the drivers of social progress, view all patriotism as vulgar and crass. When protest is more in service of moral absolution than political solution? In short, we must take care to ensure that we do not substitute our own personal moral catharsis from speaking out, from standing up; for the social catharsis we need to create among our peers.

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Protest and civic engagement may seem futile, especially to those of us privileged to look down from our internet towers. It may at times seem impossible to persuade our foes and even undesirable to make the attempt.  Perhaps it is.
But to butcher Robert Browning;
Ah, but that a peoples reach should exceed their grasp, Or what’s a country for? 

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