The other day I violated my principles, instinctively, only to kick myself later. An organization to which I contribute was doing something I opposed, and I saw a call, online, to protest. I contacted the Executive Director to express my concern, and implied that I would have to stop supporting the organization unless this changed quickly.
I protested as an individual, but it wasn’t deeply different from how larger protests work—a small or large group expresses their dissatisfaction with how an issue is being handled, and calls for change (with or without the implied threat of taking money, votes, or other support elsewhere). I forgot that I am anti-protests, that I think they do more harm than good, at least in democracies.
Here are my five biggest reasons why protests should, mostly, recede into our past.
They Violate the Golden Rule
The point of a protest is to foster change, in the direction the protesters want. But much as we want “our” protests to succeed, we would be equally upset if “their” protests did. When we protest, in other words, we are trying to do unto others exactly what we wouldn’t want them to do to us. We wouldn’t want “them” to impose their views simply by gathering enough people to yell loudly enough to draw enough attention to secure change in the direction “they” want, but that’s what we’re doing.
Which means we shouldn’t do it, either.
Protests rarely bring together a large enough group of people to matter, even when we assume the protesters represent a larger group. The Guinness Book of World Records says the largest protest ever was an anti-war rally in Rome in 2003, with an estimated crowd of three million. The population of Italy at the time was a little over 56 million, making the protesters barely over five percent of the population. We’d have to assume nine other Italians agreed with each protester before they’d be a majority of just that country.
The United States has never had a rally with 3 million people. Even if it did, and even if each protester represented ten others, that would still not be a quarter of those who voted in the last Presidential election. A quarter of an electorate is, with all due respect, not much in a country where elections are regularly won by two, three, or four percentage points.
There’s every chance that the protesters are matched by an equally emphatic quarter of the electorate on the other side; do we want to build a country where whoever is more willing to yell the loudest wins? The Founding Fathers worried about a tyranny of the majority or minority; we have to worry about a tyranny of those most ready to make a fuss.
They Prey On Our Distaste For Confrontation
Part of building a civil society is to try to get along as much as possible with others even when we disagree with them. We try to ignore, tolerate, and even celebrate others’ alternate ways of handling life’s challenges. Mostly, that’s all to the good. But when other people choose to put their views in our faces, demanding that we fall in with them, we are often ill-equipped to respond adroitly.
There is little room in such situations for a reasoned back and forth, a discussion that brings out the relevant facets of the issue. Our choices are to ignore the protesters, join them (if we agree), or counter-protest. Most of us will choose the first strategy, which means the field will be dominated, in those moments, by the protesters. And their voice is not, as my next two points show, the kind to which we ought to be listening.
They Make Heat, Not Light
Protests, by their nature, don’t reason even about issues which have good reasons to garner support. Protests build emotion, vent emotion, and do it in a way calculated to draw maximum attention. But there’s no good reason attention-drawing abilities should be the way we decide society’s direction. PR, social media, points of access to legislators, none of these ought to affect how we decide the important issues of the day.
In a democracy, our representatives are supposed to be concerned with what’s best for all their constituents, based on their own understanding of the issues as well as a sense of what those constituents, all of them, want. There’s nothing in a protest (or a social media campaign or a lobbyists’ visit, for that matter) that should influence them any more than other ways of discovering the will of the people, but they do.
Particularly on issues of importance, do we want important issues decided by who gathers more people (but a still insignificant number) to the town square?
Life is a never-ending series of issues, each vitally important to someone. Leaving aside the once in a generation ones that break the rules (which nowadays seem to come along all the time), we shouldn’t be deciding to vote for someone (or not to) based on any one of their positions. Similarly, drawing more attention to an issue than it deserves robs other issues of what they need.
Leading a society is a constant balancing act, and we do ourselves a disservice by allowing those with a narrowed focus to warp our leaders’ view of what we need to move forward productively. Protests—and anything else that focuses on one issue at a time, really—make it harder for these people to do a respectable job of deciding where and how to improve our society.
Express Our Voices, In Proportion
When I heard about my organization’s wrongdoing (in my opinion), I was fully within my rights to drop the executive director a note asking for clarification, and expressing my opinion. But I needed to remember, as I did it, that he deals with over a hundred institutions, thousands of members and supporters. This one wrong, and it was wrong, could never be the whole story. It was wrong of me to protest it like it was, and it’s wrong of all of us to let protesters think that way about the issues they raise.