‘We Sympathise with your Cause, but…’ – Non Violent Civil Disobedience in the 21st Century

In recent years, the activities of UKUncut, the Occupy Movement, the student movement and the forthcoming Olympics protests can be counted as a resurgence of non-violent civil disobedience, as a means of highlighting social issues in the UK. Today’s article examines the key criticisms levelled at proponents of non violent civil disobedience and puts forward the case that their asking is the path to success rather than the 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 protestor. Sometime 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 pointless, self righteous clap trap…understandable, but still. So let’s look at these questions, the answer to them and the secret success in them being asked in the first place.

Critics across the political social spectrum often cite three main arguments toward individuals or groups who utilise non-violent resistance methods.

1. I don’t understand what you’re protesting about

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

3. It won’t change anything

The points are generally even placed in that 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 apathy.

The first thing to remember is that these questions will occur as genuine to the people asking them. They often feel like they thought them up themselves. But they are part of a wider social narrative which most people simply inherit, imbibe 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 pointed at everyone from Ghandi to Martin Luther-King and beyond. Both men were at pains to respond to these critics. But 21st century movements need to deliver a 21st century answer to 21st century critics. In short, we need to find our voice and make the case again.

What are you even on about anyway?

The above cartoon encapsulates this point perfectly.

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

It is all too easy, caught up in the passion of one’s cause, to cast out 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’ve been guilty of making that same case myself on more stressful days. It’s not that this statement isn’t fairly apposite either. It’s just not particularly effective as a means of moving that conversation on. 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 took on having 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 revealed they did. Some would go as far as to roll their eyes at their own inconsistency. In most cases, in this one on one scenario, speaking openly and with the person feeling safe, the critic would more often than not come around. Others wouldn’t. But both went away with their question answered, whether they agreed or not.

The only thing to do when someone asks this question is to answer it in a straight way. I generally start by taking a breath and reminding myself that however I am interpreting the question, here is an opportunity to have a conversation with someone about something I care deeply about. It is an opportunity to open 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, 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 a media focus on the ‘victims’ of the protestors. For a strike it is generally the service users, for a march it’s the road users, for occupations it’s the local community and businesses. The argument is often phrased along the lines of ‘what have THEY done to deserve this?’

So, the conversation will naturally lead from a resolution of the why, to a rejection of the how. If you take a moment now and think about any protest movement of the last century…can you think of one that everyone agreed with? Unlikely. In which case, why would the protests of our time be any different?

This illness of ease with disruption exists for overlapping reasons.

One is that in most cases, people’s first reaction is defensive. They are going about their day, watching a sports event etc and so someone intervening in that, whatever the reason, provokes a defensive response. You’ve messed with their plans. No point even denying that, it’s what you do as a proponent of civil disobedience. You mess with other people’s plans, you get in the way, and you disrupt the planned order of things.
However, that interruption is the very purpose of your action. It is not an unintended consequence that you’d do better to avoid. It is the entire point. You are there to make the world stop and look at the otherwise ignorable plight of others.

This brings me neatly to the second reason for the natural repugnance of this interruption to critics. They don’t want to see it, the issue you are holding up before them by your action. They don’t want to deal with the mess. They’ve been ignoring it successfully for all this time and now you’ve come along with your bells and whistles and made them look at it.

So they’re angry you’ve messed up their day and they’re even more angry that now you’ve made them look at something ugly.

In reaction to this, again it is easy to start throwing around arguments about perspective and comparison of suffering. It is important to make these points and one should. However, don’t expect this to calm the argument down. It’s a match on a powder-keg, because now not only have you ruined their day, but you’ve told them they deserve it too, which makes you arrogant.

There is a good reason why the media tend to want to focus around this criticism. It’s harder to discuss the issues, and easier to get drawn into a tit for tat of whom is suffering the most. It is also easy to mobilise the moderates against an action or protest, because moderates are naturally conservative and therefore easily put off by something perceived to invoke acrimony.

No, the step for the movements here is to once again be honest. We are here to disrupt and here is why. There is no need to defend yourself or make you right and them wrong. Clearly you believe in what you are doing otherwise you wouldn’t be doing it, and clearly they don’t.

The reason all you need do is state your case is simple: once you have, the debate you generate forms the social question about the issue you have highlighted. You have done your job. No protestor, including great figures of the past, wins these battles on their own. In fact, they often haven’t won them in their lifetime. But their role was absolutely critical in forwarding the debate. They put the case out there, as many times as they could, to whoever they could and they didn’t stop until they were physically stopped or the social conversation changed in their favour.

This is what we have yet to experience. We have a history which appears to be of single acts by great people which changed the course of society. In reality, they were just a bunch of committed individuals who chose to speak their truth and take 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, we are no different. You don’t need to win the individual conversation, you need to start it and keep it going until your 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 you chaining yourself to the doors 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 you closing Topshop for an hour change tax law?

In this moment, you need to hug the words of Margaret Mead close to your chest, read them every day if you have to:

“Never doubt that a small group of committed individuals can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”

Movements which embrace ideas of social progress, equality and the better angels of our nature inspire people. The rights and privileges gained from movements past were not won by kind thoughts and some idea of ‘natural and inevitable’ social progress. They were won by people who stood up to be counted and made themselves unignorable, when it was unfashionable to do so. They were not speaking with the grain of their time, they were speaking against it.

There was a time when the idea that a black person was not property, was a radical idea.

Today it’s the standard.

There was a time when the idea of a person without property having 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.

There was a time when there was no weekend, no idea of work-life balance.

Today it’s the standard.

All these are examples where protest movements, with non violent civil disobedience at their core, took on the established way of thinking about things, of conducting ourselves, and started a conversation for another way. And they achieved their aims.

Today, neo-liberalism is the paradigm; the seemingly unshakeable context of our lives. Most things, if argued to be in the interests of increased GDP, are considered synonymous with being in the public interest.

An ever increasing pool of people has grown locally and connected across the globe, under the realisation that this way of running things is not sustainable and profits (figuratively and literally) an ever decreasing percentage of the population of the earth. Consider it the evolution of our society. Empires went, Kingdoms went, and Neo-Liberalism too will pass.

Reasons to be Cheerful

 The unacknowledged truth in all of this is that the fact the critics are even engaging with you means you are fulfilling your aim as a proponent of non violent civil disobedience. You are taking your role in the narrative. You are putting your case into the melting pot of worldviews for discussion and debate. All there is to do is keep on keeping on. There is a reason that phrases like ‘you can’t evict an idea whose time has come’ resonate with people. You can silence one person, you can jail however many you like, but so long as the conversation for them and their Movements exists, they threaten the status quo……exactly, as they had intended in the first place.

In reality, the act itself is the easy bit. It is the conversation afterwards which we are truly aiming for, and once that starts, we are well and truly on our way to achieving the change we want to see in the world.

So next time someone asks what occurs to you as a truly stupid question about your Movement or cause, you might want to smile at the thought that they are unwittingly becoming the vehicle carrying your case out there into the mind of others.

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