"We sympathize with your cause, but....": Non-violent civil disobedience in the 21st century

This author welcomes the criticisms of opponents of OccupyUK and other protest movements. She argues that critics, simply by asking questions of the protesters, are able to spread the word and move the dialogue forward to effect change.

Kerry-anne Mendoza
1 May 2012

The activities of UKUncut, the Occupy Movement, the student movement and the forthcoming Olympics protests are all examples of a resurgence in non-violent civil disobedience that highlight social issues in the United Kingdom. This article examines the key criticisms leveled at proponents of non-violent civil disobedience and puts forward the argument that the critics, in posing questions, contribute to the goals of these movements rather than being an obstacle. 

Fence sitters and their justifications

Let’s be honest, some days it gets a bit tiresome hearing the same old arguments hurled at you as a protester. Sometimes I get frustrated at the lazy thinking behind them, the fact that I’ve answered them a hundred times before, and I know just how this conversation is going to go. I know exactly what they are going to ask, when and in what tone of voice, because they are simply transmitting a meme. But that state of mind is only pointless, self-righteous “clap trap.” So let’s look at these questions, the answers to them, and the secret success that derives from their being asked in the first place.

Critics across the political social spectrum often cite three points to individuals or groups who utilize methods of non-violent resistance.

1. I don’t understand what you’re protesting for or against.

2. People agree with what you’re saying, but you’ll alienate them with these actions.

3. It won’t change anything.

These points are even generally placed in this particular order. There’s a natural logic to it. First, I say you don’t have a cause. Then when it’s clear you do, I undermine your actions instead (with no onus on me to provide a viable alternative). If all else fails, I kill your case with pessimism.

The first thing to remember is that these questions will seem genuine to the people who are asking them. They often feel like they thought them up themselves. But they are part of a wider social narrative that most people simply inherit or absorb by a sort of social osmosis.

A brief look at the history of non-violent disobedience will attest to the fact that these arguments are as old as the hills and have been made to everyone from Gandhi to Martin Luther King and others. Both of these men were at pains to respond to their critics. 21st century movements need to deliver a 21st century answer to their critics. In short, we need to find our voice and re-make the case for non-violent resistance.

What are you about anyway?

While participating in Occupy London and Bristol, more than a handful of people outside the two movements berated the participants (and me personally) for “messing up the area.” Some would sigh, palm to forehead, and ask, “Have you seen what they’ve done to the grass?” These rants were always followed up with “And what are they about anyway?” or “They have no demands.”

It is all too easy, caught up in the passion of one’s cause, to reply with an acerbic “perhaps if you cared as much about human beings as you cared about these azaleas, we wouldn’t have to be here in the first place!” I have been guilty of making that same case myself on more stressful days. It’s not that this statement isn’t fairly apposite. It’s just not particularly effective as a means of moving the conversation forward. It’s a rhetorical block, a barb fired back to make the critic wrong and us righteous--tempting, but ultimately self-defeating.

A good friend of mine decided to have a conversation with each person he overheard making these criticisms. He would simply ask, “Do you know why they are there?” Most would say they didn’t. But many suddenly also revealed that they did. Some would go so far as to roll their eyes at their own inconsistency. In most cases, in this one-on-one exchange, speaking openly and with the person feeling safe, the critic would come around. A few would not. But both went away with their question answered, whether they agreed with it or not.

The only thing to do when someone asks this question is to answer it in a straightforward way. I generally start by taking a breath and reminding myself that, however I interpret the question, here is an opportunity to have a conversation with someone about something I care deeply about. It is an opportunity to open perhaps someone else’s mind to an issue or issues they may have been unaware of. It is an opportunity to reflect on my own views, to challenge and refine them. It is an opportunity.

Nice cause, shame about the tactics

Whether it is a strike, a march, an occupation or a direct action, there is always media focus on the “victims” of the protesters. In the case of a strike, it is generally the service users; for a march, it is the road users. With occupations, it’s the local community and affected businesses. The argument is often phrased along the lines of “What have THEY done to deserve this?”

People’s first reaction is most often defensive. They are going about their day, watching a sports event, etc. Someone who interferes with their plans, for whatever reason, will provoke a defensive response. That is, however, the point of civil disobedience. You get in the way and disrupt the planned order of things. It is not an unintended consequence that you would do better to avoid. You are there to make the world stop and look at the plight of others that is otherwise ignored.

This brings me to the second reason that critics have a natural repugnance for these interruptions. They don’t want to see or face the issue that you are holding up before them by your actions. They have successfully ignored it all this time. Now you come along with your bells and whistles and force them to look at it. So they’re angry you’ve messed up their day, and they are even angrier that you have made them look at something ugly.

In reaction to this, again, it is easy to start throwing around arguments about differing perspectives and comparing suffering. It is important to make these points and one should. However, don’t expect this to calm the critic. It is, in fact, the match on a powder keg. Not only have you ruined their day, but you’ve told them they deserve it too, which makes you appear arrogant.

There is a good reason why the media tend to want to focus on tactics. It is hard to discuss the nuances of the issues but easy to get drawn into a tit-for-tat debate regarding who is suffering the most. It is also easy to mobilise moderates against an action or protest because moderates are naturally conservative. They are, therefore, easily put off by something perceived to invoke acrimony. The key for these movements is once again to be honest. We are here to disrupt, not to defend ourselves and portray the critics as wrong. Clearly, we believe in what we are doing; otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing it, and clearly they do not.

All we have to do is state our case: once done, the ensuing debate generates the social questions about the particular issue. We have done our job. No protester, including many of the great figures of the past, wins these battles on his or her own. In fact, they are often not won in the protester’s lifetime. But the protesters’ role was absolutely critical in propelling forward the debate. They put the case out there, as many times as they could, to whomever they could, and they didn’t stop until they were physically stopped or the public conversation changed in their favour.

This is what we have yet to experience. Protest movements have a history that appears to be of single acts done by great people who changed the course of society. In reality, they were just a bunch of committed individuals who chose to speak their truth, and took the personal risk of disobeying the law in favour of honouring principles they believed to be of a higher order. Those principles were equality, social and economic justice, peace, and so on. In this sense, today’s movements are no different. We don’t need to win the individual conversation. We need to start it and keep it going until our combined efforts form a human tsunami of social progress. Keep doing; keep talking; keep listening.

You won’t change a damn thing

Finally, with all other avenues exhausted, the effectiveness of non-violent civil disobedience and protest is challenged. How will chaining yourself to the doors of parliament change government policy? How does some “idiot” throwing himself in the Thames tackle elitism? How do a few tents change the world? How does your closing Topshop for an hour change a tax law?

In this moment, one needs to remind oneself of Margaret Mead’s words, and perhaps read them every day. “Never doubt that a small group of committed individuals can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Movements that embrace ideas of social progress, equality and other principles inspire people. The rights and privileges gained as a result of these movements were not won by kind thoughts and some idea of a “natural and inevitable” social progress. They were won by people who stood up to be counted and could not be ignored.They were speaking out against the socially accepted norms of their times.

There was a time when the idea that a black person was not simply property was a radical idea. Today it’s the standard.

There was a time when the idea of a person who did not own property could have a vote was a radical idea. Today it’s the standard.

There was a time when the idea that a woman could vote was a radical idea. Today it’s the standard.

All these are examples of protest movements with non-violent civil disobedience at their core that challenged the established way of thinking about things and of how to conduct ourselves. They started a conversation for a different way and achieved their aims.

The dominant paradigm today is neo-liberalism, the seemingly unchangeable context of our lives. However, a growing number of people locally and connected across the globe has realized that this way of running things is not sustainable. The goal of ever increasing profits (figuratively and literally) appeals to fewer and fewer of the earth’s people. Consider it the evolution of our 21st century society. Empires went; kingdoms went; and neo-liberalism too will pass.

Reasons to be cheerful

The fact that critics are even engaging with us means that we are fulfilling our aims. We are shaping the narrative and adding it into the melting pot of worldviews up for discussion and debate. There is a reason that phrases like “you can’t evict an idea whose time has come” resonate with people. Critics can silence one person or jail however many they like. However, so long as the conversation between them and Movements exists, we threaten the status quo, as we originally intended.

In reality, the act of civil disobedience is the easy bit. It is the ensuing conversation that we are aiming for. Once that starts, we are well and truly on our way to achieving the change we want to see in the world. So, the next time someone asks what seems to be a truly stupid question about your Movement or cause, just smile. This person unwittingly becomes the vehicle to spread your case to others. 

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