On the Ethics of Protests and Why History Has Its Eyes on You

May 09, 2024 22:31

This is not a commentary on any particular, single episode of protests – whether it be the anti-‘reform’ protests in Israel, the pro-Gaza protests in the US, the protests against authoritarian encroachment in Georgia today, the protests in favour of trans rights and an end to bigotry in the UK, or, indeed, protests that have taken to various corners of Southeast Asia over the past few years, in the wake of perceived governmental ineptitude and impunity.

The following is not directed towards any of these protest movements in a sui generis manner. Indeed, the objective here is to ascertain, and devise generally applicable principles that can withstand the tests of time, of contextual variations, and of cross-cultural differences, as they are applied by hands-on practitioners. It is also an attempt to establish, as lucidly and comprehensively as possible, principles with which we should appraise the ethics of protests.

There’s a popular saying about socialism and capitalism – which I found remarkably amusing in its iteration in ‘A Triangle of Sadness’, and which I shall duly coopt for present purposes. “If one doesn’t believe in protesting impetuously, angrily, vociferously when one is 20, one has no heart. If one believes in protesting impetuously, angrily, vociferously when one is 40, one has no brain. If one believes in protesting impetuously, angrily, vociferously when one is 60, one is likely to be a successful politician who can instigate thousands to stand for oneself on the streets – only for one to be comfortably tucked away behind the firing line, sipping on champagne as the world falls apart.”

Now, there’s clearly nuance to these rather grossly and woefully asserted generalisations. Protests can and do work. Some seasoned protest leaders take to the streets despite their advanced age – I’m thinking of those who yearned for the winds of change and reform in Malaysia in the early 2010s through to Pakatan Harapan’s victory, or those who stood on the streets of Sidi Bouzid in the aftermath of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation. And it’s evident that youth can also speak up against the futility and counterproductivity of protests – whilst retaining their ‘hearts’. Yet by and large, public-facing writing is itself a hasty act of gross generalisations, and so long as we are equanimous about the possible crudeness and need for more refinement of some of our statements, I see and take no issue.

The first and foremost consideration consists of the cause. A surprising number of rallies, assemblies, and crowd movements these days are deprived of a clear, consistent, and reasonable understanding of the claim that is being raised. Single-cause and -issue sit-ins spiraling into multi-cause protests, morphing into beasts with lives of their own – so lively, so vivacious, yet so devoid of concreteness as to what exactly they want. That, to me, is the modern tragedy of many a social movement. Fetishisation over being seen and seeing others in this co-constructed space. Zealous devotion to advocating, without knowing what exactly is being advocated for. Or, indeed, worse yet, an empty, vacuous, nihilistic expression of anger – but with no clear targets or intentions undergirding the anger. Movements across the world, whether they be under democratic or authoritarian regimes, appear to be guided by the motto of visibility and salience first, and reflection and consolidation later – and that is precisely how the original intentions and rationale for the cause get buried, under the heaps and piles of populist lies.

The second consideration pertains to the costs. Will the actions undertaken impose excess personal and moral costs on those partaking in the protests, or on innocents standing by on the sidelines? The argument that innocents must tolerate and put up with being collateral damage is a ‘cute’ thought – but also a recklessly selfish one. It is one that reflects the romantique naivete under which pseudo-revolutionary leaders act, only to realise the follies of their ways far too late. It is not the case that all costs are unjustified – for instance, costs inflicted upon perpetrators of the injustices that are protested, or that are necessary for the advancement and succeeding of the envisioned enterprise. Yet it is usually a fairly accurate rule of thumb to submit that the costs dealt upon others in large, debased mass movements – propelled by madness and a thirst for success – are rarely proportionate.

I’m thinking here, of course, of the Guillotine and Robespierre – which indirectly birthed Napoleon, who swept to power by claiming that he could restore order to a power-fixated and heavily unchecked system (Committee-turned-Directory-turned-Consulate) that was innately structured to be in disorder. I’m also thinking of some of the most harrowing and difficult days in contemporary history in some of the largest countries in the world, when reason lost out to those who insisted, “Whatever the cost may be!”

The final consideration concerns efficacy. Will protests succeed? This is a question that bears on not just how individual agents should act, but also whether they are justified in so acting. The argument that we must resort to targeted violence and disruptive tactics to “get things done”, assumes and asserts that things will in fact be “done”. In truth and sadly, there are fewer activists or protesters who are willing to interrogate themselves on the exact courses of action and methods or sequences of change, prior to plunging themselves into the deep end of the swirl pool. And indeed, it is no less thanks to such haughty imprudence that many of the most grandiose, oh so moving and seemingly transformative crowd movements – once so promising, once so radiant – eventually collapsed or fizzled out with a whimper.

Efficacy is what grounds the most central justification for protests. In the absence of considering the individuals one would court and gain on side or alienate and lose inevitably; without thinking through the costs and benefits and how they compare at large, there could be no just social movement. And History knows. History judges. For History has its eyes on you.

Assistant Professor, HKU