I'm a Protestant, but I'm really not much of a protester.
Nonetheless, protests are very much in vogue. It seems like every week there is a group which has taken the time to put together picket signs, and walk the streets in opposition to . . . whatever. Inevitably, these protests receive media coverage of some kind. If someone gets arrested, the media coverage increases. In many cases, those arrrested are heralded for standing up for their principles, even at personal cost.
These days, you can protest about anything you wish. And that's a good thing.
Well, at least it's a good thing insofar as it showcases our political culture's ability to tolerate disparate views. The ability to take to the streets to give whatever politician, or company (these two tend to be the favourites of protesters, sometimes in tandem!) a piece of your mind is a freedom which we should cherish and protect. Nobody wants a replay of Tiananmen.
But, if you're someone concerned with thoughtful, prudential politics connected with public justice, you can't help but wonder about two things.
- Does the ubiquity of protests in fact undermine their effectiveness as a tool for political or social change? That someone is willing to get arrested because of their opposition to a pipeline coming from one free country to another somehow seems to cast aspersions on the very real sacrifice taken by, say, the protesters at Tiananmen. There are different, and better, displays of courage and principle.
- How do we evaluate protests? Most protests these days are evaluated on two levels. The first, mentioned above, gives considerable leeway to protesters as they enable us, as a political community, to express our collective magnanimity. "Go ahead and protest," we say, "we can handle your chants." But, if we're honest, this measurement really says more about our political culture than it does about the protest itself, and often gives the protesters a bit of a free ride in terms of evaluation. On the second level, which is often lost in the striking images and catchy sloganeering of protesters: is the intended goal of the protest in line with the demands of public justice?
I wonder if we aren't too easy on protesters from an evaluative standpoint: we stand back and watch with amusement or even applaud those who take to the streets, even if their policy goals are poorly developed, out of line with the complexities of our day. We give them a pass because "they're at least trying to say something good."
Protesters, like politicians, should be evaluated, at least in part, on whether or not their actions are prudent. After all, as a wise man once said:
It belongs to prudence rightly to counsel, judge, and command concerning the means of obtaining a due end, it is evident that prudence regards not only the private good of the individual, but also the common good of the multitude.
Protesters claim to act for the public good. It's time we evaluate them on the same terms.