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20 June 2009
Protests as cultural artifact

Tens or hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets. They may be shouting or silent, peaceful or violent, but they are invariably provocative, drawing an equally wide range of responses from the authorities in charge. Protests have led to the overthrow of regimes (Georgia in 2003) and led to the crushing of opposition (China in 1989). Sometimes they create by destroying, as in the strikes and demonstrations that led to the Iranian Revolution, though all too often the new boss is an awful lot like the old boss. Sometimes they destroy by creating (the creative nonviolence of Gandhi and King forever undermined the legitimacy of British rule and Jim Crow).

Protests are a fascinating cultural phenomenon: rising up from below, they depend more than most movements on serendipity, self-organization, and samizdat. They are intensely local, embodied risks of culture making, yet they can command attention half a world away. Perhaps most strikingly, they are radical expressions of faith and hope, irruptions into a complacent world of a demand and a belief that there is something more and better ahead.

What do protests make of the world?

1. What do protests assume about the way the world is?

That there is right and wrong and that we are part of its making. Protests are a third level action. They are post-epistemological, post-conclusion actions.

Charles Churchill

That the people at the top of the power structure don’t know the will of the people, and that telling them what they want may convince them to change things.  They also assume correctly that laws and lawmaking is downstream from culture.

John Andrew

That popular opinion and populace needs are items governments must deal with regularly, at least keep in the back of their minds without fail. Even a theocratic nation, such as Iran must give the people a voice, primarily because popular movements have power. Perhaps this even points to a greater democratization of our world.

—Kyle VanArsdol
2. What do protests assume about the way the world should be?

That it should operate with fairness, justice, and in line with the will of the people.

—Clay Anderson

that leadership (at all levels) is accountable to the people.

—Kyle VanArsdol

Succinctly: different.
A protest assumes the world already IS changeable by protest. What it wants the world to be is different in some way (as an aside, imagine a protest about the government’s positive response to protests “STOP BEING SWAYED!” “OUR VOICE IS IRRELEVANT”)

Charles Churchill
3. What do protests make possible?

Sometimes, they make it possible for the disenfranchised, the disillusioned, and the marginalized to have a deep voice (civil rights). Other times they make it possible to recognise that the voice hasn’t even started cracking yet (the David Letterman protesters).

Sometimes they make it possible to see that the power being protested is tyrannical. Other times I imagine they might reveal that the power being protested is perhaps more noble than it seemed.


Positively, protests make change possible by capturing the ears and hopefully the hearts of leaders. Negatively, protests give mobs power, perhaps taking too much authority away from the experts and the wise. Protests can make the untrained, less informed, and those using subjective reasoning more powerful.  Not a good thing. I’m thinking of the Israelite mob in the wilderness demanding an idol from Aaron. Their protests combined with Aaron’s weakness led very near to total annihilation, save Moses.

—Kyle VanArsdol

They provide a way for the media to focus local, regional, and potentially, global attention on an issue. Without the media, they force those in close proximity to the protest to realize there is sufficient unrest for people to leave their homes and stand outside all day and protest (which, in and of itself is significant, but depending on who and how many are doing the protesting can be more or less significant)

Charles Churchill
4. What do protests make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?

They almost make it impossible for anyone’s voice to really be heard or considered.


That governing authorities can only serve themselves. It is impossible for rulers to govern without at least appearing to be serving in the peoples’ best interests.

—Kyle VanArsdol

A nuanced discussion - possibly any dialogue at all.

Charles Churchill

Ironically enough, in the American protest-as-entertainment scene, proper accountability and oversight of those in power.

One of my professional frustrations is the paradox of dedicating a tremendous amount of time and heartache to a people who are more interested in hearing their own voice than with finding the humility to understand complex issues.  (I have made it a personal rule not to discuss Iraq with anyone who cannot tell me anything about the Kurds.) In short, activism-as-theater destroys the possibility of serious public dialogue on complex issues, effectively ensuring that those issues will be dealt with by cloistered groups of professionals. 

That said, sometimes something needs to be said without nuance, and for these expressions, protests are a tremendous avenue.  Integrity in protests comes from an intimate understanding of the cause and a willingness to sacrifice in the name of the same.  This is the difference between the courage of Walesa’s Solidarity and the self-indulgent histrionics of our campuses.  (Regarding Tehran - May the innocent and brave find their way home. May the Basiji cowards be stripped of power as they have stripped themselves of honor. May Iran find peace.)

5. What new culture is created in response?

Army-Navy surplus stores.


It stimulates political activism and perhaps awareness. If my neighbor or cousin or wife passionately opposes a decision or action, so much so that he or she takes their opposition to the point of being injured or killed, I would want to know what the big deal is. I would be tempted to activism without knowledge just because people I know and care about are involved. I would hope however that the result would be knowledgeable activism and increased political involvement.

—Kyle VanArsdol