The Culture of Dissent: Activism 101

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There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and war, who yet do nothing to put an end to them. There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to every virtuous man.
(Henry David Thoreau)

Protesters and demonstrators. You rarely get them in Singapore but they are a normal part of the culture here – and everywhere else in the world. Have you seen any around lately?

They disrupt traffic, shout little ditty chants (e.g. “No to Israel’s racist war! / This is what we’re fighting for!”), and seem to fight passionately for a cause which is either totally irrelevant to most of us Singaporeans or just plain questionable.

Their causes range from seeking justice for the oppressed Palestinians to protesting unfair neo-liberal economic trade policies that they believe result in the exploitation of the poor and the ever-widening rich/poor gap in the world. This latter cause has earned them the title of “Anti-Globalization protestors”. Also especially high on their ‘gripe’ agenda lately has been the mandatory detention feted out by the Australian government upon refugees and asylum-seekers.

Exactly who are these protesters and what do they hope to achieve through their ways? Many people think of them as troublemakers who are merely out to create a big commotion and start riots. Others see them as sincere idealists who desire to change the world, but who have unfortunately chosen an undesirable path in their quest for a better world. After all, who likes to see all these rallies and protests? Is protesting and getting violent going to get us anywhere?

In the rest of this article, I hope to answer two common questions I’ve been asked concerning protests, activism and the like. I speak as one who considers himself part of the so-called “Anti-Globalization” and “Anti-War” movement and who understands how most in these movements think.

1) Why do you protest and what do you hope to achieve through it all?

I protest because I believe in the cause promoted by the protest. And these protest are usually for the poor and the oppressed and for justice to prevail in this unjust world. I see my involvement in protesting as part of becoming a “voice for the voiceless” in this world by fighting for the cause of the economically and politically oppressed and those who face injustice daily.

But I also protest because I see it as a legitimate and necessary path towards attaining change in this world for the better. Without a realistic chance of change, protesting becomes mere noise that irritates others and gives us a bad name. However, it is precisely because I believe change will eventually come through such actions that I continue to be part of demonstrations and rallies.

One can look to history and see the big role demonstrations and other forms of activism played in the securing of Civil Rights for the Blacks in America. Widespread Anti-War protests in the 60s and 70s on the streets eventually pressured the withdrawal of America from the Vietnam War – thus preventing the death of thousands of more innocent lives. More recently, anti-sweatshop demonstrations and activism have pressured big multi-national companies to start thinking about caring for their own workers.

The term “Anti-Globalization” has also been thrown around a lot by the media in the past couple of years. It is probably a misnomer for those in this movement are not challenging globalization per se, but rather are unhappy with the unjust effects of neo-liberal “free-trade” principles – intrinsically linked to modern day economic globalization – which have been proclaimed to be able to lift the poor and poor countries out of poverty, but has instead exacerbated the gap between the rich and the poor.

The United Nation’s 1992 Human Development Report noted that the richest 20% of the world lived on 82.7% of the world’s income. The poorest 20% lived on a mere 1.4% of the world’s income. Thus the richest 20% of people received nearly 60 times the income of the poorest 20%. In 1999, that gap increased to 80 times. And all this when globalization’s free trade rules were supposed to be a “rising tide that will life all boats” out of poverty.

What kind of a world are we living in when half of the world’s population lives on less than US$2 a day? While most of us in the developed nations live a pretty luxurious lifestyle, almost a billion people go hungry every day.

This sad state of inequality in the world is what drives most demonstrations nowadays. In one voice, we cry out “foul” against specific organizations (like the World Trade Organization) which have been responsible for promoting trade rules that economically oppress the poor, but benefit the rich.

It is still very much the beginning of our fight for “fair trade” in the world. Have the protests and demonstrations worked? I believe they have had positive effects as more and more people are starting to question the unconditional universal acceptance of neo-liberal economic policies and thinking of how to combat the ever-widening rich/poor gap. The fight continues and it will not end till the world starts to place “people above profits.”

2) Aren’t you guys being disobedient citizens by disobeying the law and rioting?

One of the biggest misconceptions (fed by the media) about most modern day protests is that they are violent and promote rioting. In fact, many people see protests and riots as virtually synonymous – a common belief accepted by our Singaporean government and used as a justification for their outlawing of demonstrations. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, perhaps 95% or more of the protesters nowadays are firmly rooted in the “non-violent” and peaceful tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi.

Certain anarchist groups like the Black Bloc are the ones that usually use violent tactics. However the great majority disavow the use of violence to achieve their purposes – including condemning the tactics of the Black Bloc. Thus, what occurs during these protests is of an overwhelmingly peaceful nature.

There are many causes to be fought in this evil world. Much injustice currently prevails and will continue to do so unless we all do something about it. More people are getting involved in demonstrations not because it is a fad but rather because they see fighting for the poor and oppressed as something meaningful and necessary.

I like the quote in beginning of this article by Thoreau. During his time in nineteenth century America, many were opposed to slavery and war in their thinking. Yet as the quote suggest, not many people actually lived out their convictions and beliefs; most, in fact, did nothing to end such injustices.

There is a great difference between thinking and feeling for the poor and oppressed on the one hand and actually taking steps to end the poverty and oppression on the other. We need to go beyond the thinking and feeling into involvement and action. As Gandhi once famously put it:

If you want to change the world, be that change.

Feeling for the poor and oppressed is not good enough. According to Thoreau, if we oppose injustice with our hearts and minds only, we become merely “a patron of virtue” – like the 998 others. The challenge is to become that rare “virtuous man” who puts his feelings and thoughts into action and strives to be that change in the world.

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