Friday, 3 February 2017

The protester as hero


The recent 'troubles' both worldwide as a result of Donald Trump's election and within the Catholic Church as a result of Pope Francis' actions made me think quite how powerful the archetype of The Protester (and of his cousin, The Rebel) has become within modern culture.

That's rather odder than might appear. Disagreement is an inevitable part of human societies. But it's hard to think of many other cultures which privilege 'protest' as the appropriate reaction to such disagreement. The quadricentenary of Bishop Sancroft's birth recently reminded me of the non-juring attachment to passive obedience. I confess to a long standing irritation with the fame of the suffragettes as opposed to the relative neglect of the suffragists:

The NUWSS adopted a peaceful and non-confrontational approach. Members believed that success could be gained by argument and education. The organisation tried to raise its profile peacefully with posters, leaflets, calendars and public meetings.

[Here.]

Since the 1960s, there has been a gradual increase in the sense that protest, particularly violent, highly emotional protest, is the proper way to settle disagreement. I can quite understand that many people object to Donald Trump as US President. But that disagreement was subjected to a democratic test and Trump won. Whatever path the losers of such a test now follow ought surely to take account both of the democratic result and the need to preserve the order of the American republic: in short, if everytime you dislike your leader you 'protest' and 'resist', it's hard to see how a republic can survive.

Protest, particularly mass public protest suffers from two main defects. It is disruptive of order, and civic peace is perhaps the main desideratum of public life. Moreover it tends to be blunt: I'm not at all sure what the Women's March recently was objecting to precisely (besides losing the election), still less what it proposed to put in its place.

I suppose (though I'm not completely convinced) that there is a place for The Protester. But I'm sure it's not so great a place as is currently given. If we are to have a pantheon of political role models, let's emphasize a bit more those who conform for the sake of peace, those who bite their tongues and those who compromise.  That goes for both 'sides': if a boorish, expressive individualism characterises much of the reaction to Trump, it also characterises much of the Trump phenomenon as well.

15 comments:

  1. 'The quadricentenary of Bishop Sancroft's birth recently reminded me of the non-juring attachment to passive obedience.' What a great sentence, Lazarus!

    I wonder, though, how many people really think that protest, especially in its volatile, emotive modern form, is a way to settle disagreement; is that really its primary purpose?

    I think that as Christians we should certainly be wary of the kind of aggressive and hostile protesting we see examples of these days; however, we must also recognise the value of public witness for things that matter - an approach which can surely complement constructive engagement with the political structures that already exist.

    I would also say that concern for the future of the American republic may well be one of the reasons for US citizens of good will to protest against their administration, especially given the new President's own attitude towards order and civic peace.

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    1. Perhaps I should put it like this: protest is seen as the proper way to respond to disagreement. (But the very fact that it might not be motivated by any desire actually to resolve that disagreement or at least to make it easier to live with is at the heart of the problem.)

      I completely accept that many people do have good intentions in protesting against Trump. And I also accept that some of what they object to is well founded. What I'm less sure about is whether they have come to the right judgment about how they register their objections and what the effects of protest are.(For example, there's a lot of talk of 'resistance'. Is that an appropriate response to having lost an election?)

      A key problem in the modern west seems to me to be the abandonment of the political: the way in which competing interests and ideas find a peaceful modus vivendi.Protesting as a regular response to disagreement strikes me as very unlikely to promote such a modus vivendi: it seems rather to express a certainty that the opposition is totally wrong and needs to be compelled to submit.

      But, as I said, it's more the prominence of protest that I worry about: it may have a place in a democracy (and in our social imaginary) but not as large a one as it currently has.

      Lazarus

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    2. Yes: 'protest' as such often seems to be more about asserting your own position or perspective with great fervour, among a body of the like-minded, rather than engaging with 'the other' with a view to resolving the disagreement (or at least engaging in dialogue to reduce the tension that makes the presence of genuine disagreement hard to live with).

      Perhaps in this way protest can be seen as essentially unpolitical.

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    3. That's very much my thoughts on this.
      Lazarus

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  2. Was it Jesus who kicked over the tables somewhere in the vicinity of a synagogue ? Was it He,the same, who was responsible for amassing crowds ? Was he a rebel with a cause ? A protester with a mission ? Did He bite his tongue and compromise ? Was He a fool ?

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    1. 1) No. (I'm probably being unhelpfully pedantic, but the error in detail about the location is revealing.) 2) Crowds were drawn to him but not for protest (except protesting against him Luke 4:28-29 and of course when choosing him to be crucified over Barabbas) 3) I guess a simple no would be the quickest answer to your remaining questions.

      Putting aside my slight (and I think forgivable in view of your argumentative hastiness) snark here, do you really think that the biblical account of Jesus, let alone the rest of scriptural revelation shows that Jesus would unproblematically have welcomed the sort of mass protest seen against an elected head of government in the Women's March? (What for example do you make of Romans 13? https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+13&version=DRA )

      I think your hastiness in argument here betrays exactly the sort of privileging of emotional expression over any consideration of effectiveness and harm that I'm objecting to in the paradigm of The Protester.Simply to note (as implicitly you do) that Christ was against injustice is not to show that his example supports the sorts of methods that have been increasingly popular since the 60s. As Aquinas notes (IIa IIae q38 a1 http://dhspriory.org/thomas/summa/SS/SS038.html#SSQ38OUTP1 ):

      'Now contrariety of speech may be looked at in two ways: first with regard to the intention of the contentious party, secondly, *with regard to the manner of contending*. As to the intention, we must consider whether he contends against the truth, and then he is to be blamed, or against falsehood, and then he should be praised. As to the manner, we must consider whether his manner of contending is in keeping with the persons and the matter in dispute, for then it would be praiseworthy, hence Tully says (De Rhet. ad Heren. iii) that "contention is a sharp speech suitable for proof and refutation"—or whether it exceeds the demands of the persons and matter in dispute, in which case it is blameworthy.'






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    2. Ah, sorry! Noted that I've rolled up 'Did He bite his tongue and compromise?' with my other negative answers! Let's try and do better. Can't think immediately of a proof text here, although the 'Messianic Secret' (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Messianic_Secret) in Mark certainly suggests a general strategy of favouring reticence. Let me throw this back at you: Do you think that Christ's example supports simply shooting your mouth off because your intentions are good, or never compromising? (How do manage to get from one week to another if this is your normal social strategy?!)

      Aquinas (IIa IIae q72 a 2 http://dhspriory.org/thomas/summa/SS/SS072.html#SSQ72OUTP1 ) on reviling certainly suggests the need to curb how you speak to someone, even if your intentions are good:

      'Nevertheless there is need of discretion in such matters, and one should use such words with moderation, because the railing might be so grave that being uttered inconsiderately it might dishonor the person against whom it is uttered. In such a case a man might commit a mortal sin, even though he did not intend to dishonor the other man: just as were a man incautiously to injure grievously another by striking him in fun, he would not be without blame.'

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  3. "...in the vicinity of a synagogue" Well He couldn't get any nearer as He was inside the Temple (synagogue?). My point is He went about the Temple in protest at those using it for moneylending and the sale of goods rather than as the place of prayer. He,it is written, kicked over their tables. Were His actions in/of protest at their abuse of the Temple? Was He therefore a protester?

    "Multitudes" were drawn to Him. Hard to believe that in such a mass there were not voices of dissent from acolytes of the orthodox against aspects of His teaching etc. Surely there were occasions of affray and heated debate during and after?These not sanctioned by Him but never the less a logical consequence of His (then) unorthodox teaching. Such affray goes on to this day.

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  4. 1) My (admittedly irritatingly pedantic) point was that the event took place in the Temple not the synagogue.It was an (individual) restoration of sacred order in a place desecrated by the busyness of secular commerce. It's hard to see that as a basis for secular, mass political protest.(If anything, it's more like a home owner(God) using reasonable force to defend his house.) Cont...

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    1. 2) Interesting speculation about the behaviour of Christ's crowds.Any evidence of this still less that it took the form of a public, mass protest endorsed by Christ? (The example of the synagogue in Luke I gave above might give an example of such an affray, but of course it was directed at Jesus rather than endorsed by him.) In general, it's hard to see that violent affray as a factual consequence of human, sinful reactions to and misunderstandings of Christ's teaching could provide a basis for a theological defence of public protest any more than the (predictable) reactions of the Pharisees to Jesus might provide a theological justification for their attacks on Christianity. Both reactions might be predictable consequences of Jesus's drawing public attention; neither (as far as I can see from scripture) are endorsed by Our Lord.

      Lazarus

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    2. "...an individual restoration of sacred order..." But the individual was Jesus. THE exemplar.With God's righteous force moving His kicking feet?

      I did say that the behaviour of affray was not sanctioned by Him. However human nature then,as now, was not completely pacific.The heart of His teaching was/is for humanity to overcome this flaw via love and compassion.

      Your piece is about the protester and the rebel.Do people today protest against that which they perceive as wrong because of the Judeo/Christian values and mores passed down to them from Moses and Jesus et al.? Even the secular are imbibed with such values of right and wrong. Hence protest and civil disobedience which delivers us from evil.

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    3. ...which seeks to deliver us from evil.

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    4. "...an individual restoration of sacred order..." But the individual was Jesus. THE exemplar.With God's righteous force moving His kicking feet?

      I did say that the behaviour of affray was not sanctioned by Him. However human nature then,as now, was not completely pacific.The heart of His teaching was/is for humanity to overcome this flaw via love and compassion.

      Your piece is about the protester and the rebel.Do people today protest against that which they perceive as wrong because of the Judeo/Christian values and mores passed down to them from Moses and Jesus et al.? Even the secular are imbibed with such values of right and wrong. Hence protest and civil disobedience which delivers us from evil.

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    5. 1) Interesting point on whether Judaeo-Christian values behind protests. My stab would be (roughly) that sense of justice is innate to human beings rather than peculiar to Christianity but that specific content of most Western protests of course reflects understanding of justice mediated through history of Christianity. But the idea of the Protester as the paradigm of how to respond to injustice is postChristian (and heavily affected by the possibility of creating a media spectacle).

      2) 'The heart of His teaching was/is for humanity to overcome this flaw via love and compassion.' You seem to accept here that protest is a flaw. And that, broadly, is my point.

      3) 'With God's righteous force moving His kicking feet?' I think you're missing the point. I'm not contesting that God performed this action but I am contesting that the nature of the action is such as to support modern mass protest. (It may of course support other acts of violence such as defence of property rights or restitution of legal authority. But that's a different matter.)

      In general, you seem to be confusing two things. We would agree (I assume) that a sense of justice and disagreement with injustice are good things. Where we would disagree is in the proper response to that injustice where I would argue there is far more warrant in scripture and natural reason for the priority of a pacific, reasonable response to injustice rather than the emotive mass protests of expressive individualism.

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