In what some have declared the “Age of Apathy,” it’s easy to find anecdotal symptoms of such a disease. For one, there are endless renditions of, “Oh yeah, there is a lot less activism at Wesleyan than there was 30 or 40 years ago.” Regardless of whether people—specifically, students on campus—are increasingly apathetic, there is definitely a sense that we are doing less than we could in regard to various causes, and that even if we tried it would be meaningless.
For me, the Black Lives Matter March in December was the first example of what I expected to be a weekly experience when I applied to the school. It was powerful, it received an unexpectedly strong turnout, and its absence would have been even more of a story than its existence.
However, the hype I returned with was short-lived. What, actually, had I accomplished? I had been loud. I had been cold for a cause. I had donated an hour of finals study time. I knew it was the right thing to do, but I couldn’t yet find any tangible impression that my feet left on the movement.
Not only that, but the event drew vitriol from Middletown residents, or at least the ones who were inclined to comment on the NBC Connecticut’s Facebook post of a video from the march. Around 50 comments implied that those of us participating in the march should all be killed. “Drop the plow,” said one commenter, who received nearly 100 likes. Others were less violent but equally angry, calling protesters “morons” or “idiots” and peppering the thread with racist GIFs.
The pushback made my participation feel all the more useless. We didn’t magically sway any Middletown residents or Wesleyan students simply with our presence; more than that, we may have increased antagonism from those we encountered who weren’t already inclined to agree with us. The march seemed to be polarizing: all those involved felt more positively about the movement, those observing, more negatively.
I looked for optimistic reasons for the importance of protest. It’s energizing. It collects a group of relatively like-minded people and channels that energy toward a goal. It captures media attention and furthers discussion.
As is often the case with optimism, although these reasons are accurate they miss the central point. The Civil Rights Movement protests in the 1960s were effective not because people were “energized,” but because they forced the government’s hand. The bottom line: real political change comes down to incentives.
At first and second glance it can be hard to see how protest puts pressure on the government. Washington is a mess of competing interests, and those interests are fueled by a whole lot more money than is represented by a group of Wesleyan students.
When protests result in political action, the politicians aren’t saying, “Oh hey, I guess they’re right!” Rather, they’re realizing that change is in their best interest because it is the interest of their constituents and they do not want to risk the embarrassment of ending up on the wrong side or losing elections.
So, my individual impact? Minimal. But I believe in a model of trickle-up political change. If my head in the headcount of participants made the number slightly more impressive to someone who could pressure someone to pressure someone to make a difference, then at least that’s a tangible, if minuscule, impact.
A more important question than whether or not to protest is the question of how to protest. The problem with many protests is that they do not always provide a proper incentive. We talk in Social Psychology about the challenges of bystander intervention: diffused responsibility and an ambiguous goal or problem mean that people are unlikely to act. Think of the murder of Kitty Genovese: people did not know what the problem was, and they assumed others would take care of it. The woman died, needlessly.
Lessons from this would suggest that protests would be more effective if they were targeted. Demonstrating general outrage sends a strong message to others who view the actions, but it is not as politically effective as making demands and pointing fingers at the people that you want to act. This means holding specific officials accountable for specific actions.
The Occupy movement is one that reflected this problem. Although it influenced debate and burned the concepts of the “1 percent” and the “99 percent” into household vocabulary, it fizzled out with far less political effect than it was capable of. It was amorphous, few specific demands were raised, and there was no clear target. The public bores easily, and many became disinterested once there was nothing specific to latch on to. The problem was not with the subject or with the people involved, but simply with the execution.
You can’t effectively protest “inequality” as an idea; racial inequality and income inequality should be fought, but it’s hard to combat an intangible phrase. Yet you can effectively protest unequal policies. In terms of the Black Lives Matter movement, this means forcing legislation against discrimination (something that could be communicated clearly by a standard protest) while separately trying to combat prejudice, perhaps by means other than a march. It seems like a narrow distinction, but an important one in terms of results.
This is not to say that “general awareness” protests are not good. On a smaller level, they may inspire individuals to take more concrete action, and they push the level of discussion about an issue. However, in our day and age, a push toward general awareness may not take its best form as a typical march. Many only see a video clip of a march as a lot of people walking and screaming, and there’s nothing very inspiring about walking and screaming by itself. It’s a shame, but an increase in social apathy seems to have led to malice against those who are passionate, unless that passion is specially packaged. An inspiring song or Onion article that goes viral may simply be more effective for the general public nowadays.
So when (if?) the next campus protest that I believe in comes around, will I participate? Absolutely. Will my specific presence make a difference? Only barely. But think of the alternative: people call a movement in favor of a good cause a failure. And if I can help prevent that, if I can be part of something rather than being separate from it, if I can put pressure where pressure is needed, then that makes it worth it. It’s better than nothing.