culture of protest

Greetings, ladies and gentlemen

Have you noticed how, recently, a lot of people in many countries take to the streets as soon as they got some problem with the government (or someone else)? Examples: Turkey, Brazil, Egypt, the Zimmerman case.

What I’m not so sure about is whether these people actually understand the situation they are complaining about. In the Egypt case, what they just did seems pretty dangerous for democracy. They overthrew a democratically elected government, because some people (about half the country, I gather) decided they didn’t like the policies of the elected.

Also, in the Trayvon Martin/Zimmerman case, there are a lot of people protesting and I really don’t know if they looked closely at the case. From what I’ve read about it on the internet, it’s not at all clear that Zimmerman was guilty. It seems more like the opposite to me, so the decision is probably just. The problem appears to be that this case was much publicized and was claimed to be about race, although the prosecution had a hard time proving that was Zimmerman’s motive. Another thing the protesters seem to be missing is that Zimmerman was not being tried for profiling the guy (I think he actually was, and also that it was wrong for him to get out of the car and follow Trayvon), but for 2nd degree murder. At best, if one reads about the case, the conclusion should be that it was far from beyond the reasonable doubt that Zimmerman was guilty of the crime he was charged with.

The protesters have a right to protest, of course, but it would be better it they were well-informed.

I guess, the fundamental thing in all these cases, is explaining how these movements form. I suspect that the internet and the media have a lot to do with it. I think during the Arab Spring websites like facebook and such helped people to coordinate and share information, which was a good thing in that context. But this can backfire in situations like the ones above. It seems that, now more than before, someone says something on a website or in the media, and a bunch of people are quick to rally, whether or not there is anything to it. This is what I referred to as a culture of protest. The basic concern is how much people can be manipulated by hearsay and inadequate information, and pure opinion (as opposed to knowledge). I think it should matter who you listen to and who you follow. If a group of people on facebook start a campaign against this or that, the ideal citizen should first get more information about the matter and see who these protesters are. This is something that it’s not clear most people who protest do.

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4 Responses to culture of protest

  1. Nates says:

    Interesting post, Juan. My sense is that you’ll find widespread political ignorance at work in every social and political movement — good and bad. Just listen to the election night interviews of voters leaving the polling stations, and you’ll quickly be dismayed and disheartened. Barring a fundamental transformation of our education system, this isn’t going to change anytime soon.

    Unfortunately, political change currently must involve an element of non-rational persuasion. So, even though it shouldn’t, it matters that your presidential candidate seems like someone you’d like to have a beer with.

    In the Zimmerman affair, the central issue is clearly the Stand Your Ground law itself, not its enforcement in this particular trial. And I’ve seen plenty of smart commentary focusing attention on the problems with this law — along with the tendency of the legal system to enforce it in a racist manner. But, as a political cause, it’s difficult to get people riled up about a badly designed bit of legislation. In general, people are fired up by personal, not merely institutional injustice. So, for opponents of Stand Your Ground, it’s tempting and natural to rally around the cause of Trayvon Martin. When you do so, you know it’ll inevitably lead to a lot of misguided, emotionally-charged commentary. But it’s also your best chance at getting the law changed.

    Personally, I feel kind of ambivalent about all this. It’s disconcerting to be associated with this sort of ignorance. But I find just as unpleasant the idealists who give up on the chance of meaningful change in order to preserve their ideological purity. (These are the people that voted for Nader in 2000 in Florida, giving the presidency to Bush.) Ultimately, a political cause needs to be assessed based on the best arguments for and against it. But we can agree on this, while still recognizing the necessary role of other forms of persuasion. Of course, this raises a question that I don’t have the answer to. If my cause is rationally justified, exactly what sort of non-rational persuasion is permitted in support of it? Presumably outright false claims are still not justified. But what about appeals to non-rational factors (such as likeability)? In a way, this is also a lie, since my appeal to them includes the implicit false claim that these factors are relevant. Still, it somehow doesn’t seem as problematic. To be honest, I just don’t have a clear sense of where this line should be drawn.

  2. Josh says:

    Nates writes “In a way, this is also a lie, since my appeal to them includes the implicit
    false claim that these factors are relevant.”

    This reminds me of the opening of Aristotle’s Rhetoric. There he notes that rhetoric is the “counterpart to dialectic” and that one who understands both how they are similar and how they are different will be a master of both.

    I don’t think that a persuasive appeal that is delivered through the lens of “likability” is a lie, if what you are advocating for is otherwise defensible.

    I also don’t think it’s true that likability *is* irrelevant – at least in its more intelligent forms – not “I’d like to have a beer with him” but “he is trustworthy/has my best interests in mind etc.”) Ethos and pathos are not irrelevant or dishonest aspects of persuasion, they’re just different sorts of aspects of it. Without them, at least for Aristotle, persuasion would just be dialectic. If it’s only logos that is ethical to deploy, we’re just talking about a whole different game.

    I do think that false appeals to ethos or pathos (i.e., appeals along those lines directed towards things that cannot be defended from the perspective of logos) are bad. But if there’s a logical claim being defended, it’s can’t be that any appeal that deviates from strict logic is suspect or a “lie.”

  3. Nates says:

    “But if there’s a logical claim being defended, it’s can’t be that any appeal that deviates from strict logic is suspect or a ‘lie.’”
    Well, there was this guy named Socrates who claimed to believe otherwise.

    You’re right, Josh, that there surely is a politically legitimate notion of likability, but that’s changing the example. For me, the more philosophically interesting question involves what to do if one seeks to enact change in the face of a deeply irrational electorate. So, the relevant example would involve the other kind of likability: what do you do if people will only vote for a candidate that they’d like to go drinking with (or that has the appropriate religious beliefs). In these circumstances, there’s an almost impossible balancing act between staying true to your ideals and getting in a position to act on these ideals.

    Obviously, I’m thinking of Obama here. I expected pragmatic compromise from the beginning, but I still find myself feeling very disappointed in him lately.

  4. Josh says:

    I wasn’t meaning to say there’s nothing wrong with the cult of “likability” around the American presidency. I tend to think Obama is less guilty of this than George W. Bush and the whole “guy I’d like to have a beer with” thing.

    For me anyway, Obama’s problem isn’t with rhetoric, it’s with substance. At least with foreign policy issues. I actually don’t think he’s done such a bad job with domestic policies. We can’t forget that he did succeed in locking in a long-term income tax increase on the highest brackets, and got a major piece of health care legislation passed.

    Foreign-policy-wise, Guantanamo, drones and the continued expansion of the surveillance state are terrible, but I have to believe Obama’s not being insincere in his embrace of them (or, more charitably, his refusal to confront them).

    Either way, I don’t see the whole “failure of salesmanship” narrative as all that persuasive. Following most of these disputes’ minutiae, I’ve really concluded that Obama has had to contend with a severely reactionary House of Representatives which no amount of successfully deployed rhetoric would have helped. A majority of house Republicans are in non-competitive conservative districts which allow them to vote against anything and everything. Their repeated complaints that Obama isn’t personable enough and hasn’t reached out to them enough is just the thinnest of covers, one which everyone involved knows isn’t the real story. I’m not even sure why they bother to offer it.

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