Apparently, we protest everything now? Obviously, a healthy society will have large gatherings of this sort to give voice to injustice, but I can literally find a protest to join in every single weekend. It seems like too much. I wouldn’t say I’m a huge fan of the new norm, but in a way protests are kind of fascinating, if for no other reason than the opportunity they provide aspiring wordsmiths everywhere to give voice to public witticism through the folk-art form of the protest sign. Never in a million years will this particular introvert join a public demonstration, and if I do it will be limited to a silent show of solidarity to the more vocal members of the human race, and I can’t think of anything more embarrassing than shouting the ersatz speech that is a slogan as I terrorize passersby with my varied complaints, but those glorious posterboard signs created with magic markers and conceived after a glass or two of whiskey? I would very much like to hold a few of those aloft.
In the US, we recently had two large, public protests that were more or less at cross purposes even while both proclaimed seemingly related goals. I’m not interested in debating the merits of the goals of each respective protest here, I have my opinion and I’m sure you do too, but I’m quite interested in discussing the signs. The signs were crude, offensive, patronizing, shoddily made, and so very random. They were also witty, hilarious, and incredibly interesting.
Are these signs really effective as communication? In a way, yes. At their best they’re an expression of private opinion in a shocking or humorous way. Even at their worst they’re symbols of free speech. But gathered together into public protest, is the protest sign as a one-time display effective? Is public communication of this sort truly as persuasive as we think? In a way, no. Protests galvanize the troops but they also annoy and harden the opposition. I suspect they have an effect similar to that of social media political postings – pretty much none at all. The humor is wasted on those who don’t care for the message and a one-time event is a blip on the screen, a shout into a public square that really isn’t any more than an echo chamber.
The protest sign as a public display stands in contrast to other forms of communication that are entirely private such as ongoing political and moral dialogue with friends and neighbors or the thousands of daily actions that implicitly argue for a set of beliefs by their results. These smaller, steadier communications lack flashiness, but perhaps are the true catalyst of social change in a way that a sign will never be. In this regard I am reminded of Pope Francis, who teaches, “Truth is works of mercy.” In other words, the grandeur of the dogma is most effectively communicated by discrete acts performed with faithfulness.
It isn’t quite so wise, though, to write off public speech entirely. It has a vital role to play in any society that communicates in a healthy manner. Hannah Arendt, in critiquing modernity, argues that it would be devastating to lose the public world, meaning the restriction of a public sphere of action and speech, and be restricted to a private world, meaning introspection and personal intimacy. We need both.
From time to time, governments have been known to impose despotism in the public sphere while maintaining the illusion of freedom by allowing private speech free reign. Eventually the lines become blurred entirely, and this is to the detriment of both types of communication as private speech is transformed into the public. I wonder if this phenomenon is at play in the rise of celebrity politicians, social activism by hollywood stars, TMI twitter accounts, and the the like. It’s an odd sort of transition, with the loss of public speech by means of, say, a monolithic media that relentlessly shames those with whom it disagrees, the private, instead of disappearing, becomes the public, but underneath the disguise it still retains its private character. What we’re left with is a form of public-private political speech that makes its points through the eloquence of home-made drawings of female anatomy in which the ovaries have grown hands and are capable and willing to flip the bird indiscriminately at all viewers.
There is a necessary distinction between private and public speech and both must be valued for what they are. By doing so, each is protected and each is able to flourish. If political speech is privatized and public debate/dissent is made unfashionable or outright banned, everyone loses because there is no longer a forum to develop a community sensibility. But if on the other hand speech is entirely public and no one is allowed to deviate from the reigning orthodoxy, it loses its ability to be persuasive at all. You can put Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag for as long as you want, but he’s going to think whatever he wants to think and no one can stop him. In our context, we might note that no one is swayed to a vote by the set-piece of a single presidential debate and the zingers contained therein. No one is swayed by a one-liner from a late night political comedian or a single protest march.
If one or the other type of speech has been suppressed, instead of dying a dignified death it will simply invade the other and the result is a nation of people who disagree about politics but who also don’t
even quite agree on what it means to be human. This is because everything, absolutely everything, is up for debate. There are no longer any givens. Thus we are now accustomed to the use of private speech in a public forum and the results are laughable. The problem is that, if I as a White Midwestern Regular Guy born in White-Ville don’t “get it” about, say, the various complaints of the participants of Black Lives Matter, no frankensteinian amalgam of public-private protest will be helpful to make me understand. Public speech debating human rights I understand. Private speech about our common humanity, empathetic stories to bring issues of privilege and hardship to light, living next door to someone very different from me and watching our children play together, these I understand. But riotous crowds marching down my city block shouting profanity about micro-aggressions I will never understand, even if I try, even if the basic assumptions of Black Lives Matter are more valid than my own. I will fail to be persuaded because what I’m confronted with is a private communication in a public space and I can easily ignore it in favor of my own, private thoughts. In fact, human psychology encourages me to do so. Such speech expresses anger, yes, and perhaps there is some value and need for this. But as far as it communicates, it only bullies on the one hand and preaches to the choir on the other.
I have no idea what to make of all this, and there’s no easy conclusion. Are protests good? Are they bad? How many is too many? How personal should a sign get? All I know is that I love the signs. At the same time I do wonder if the message is falling on deaf ears and if this isn’t a mark of the degeneration of our ability to hold the public and private spheres in proper tension.
There is a lot more to be unpacked in the work of Hannah Arendt on this topic (and I don’t follow all of her arguments or claim to be anywhere near an expert on her work), and her argument that the public isn’t merely the sum total of the private but is uniquely concerned with a world that lies beyond any one self is compelling. What this might mean is that, if our political discussion is centered on individual rights and forgets about the rights of communities as a whole, it fails as communication.
If anyone else has additional thoughts or corrections to the above I’d love to hear them. This is probably one of the more tentative essays I’ve published in Dappled Things, so perhaps it would be best defined as a gesture towards a potential conversation. In the meantime I’ll be admiring the cleverness of these protest signs.