In this short introduction to this month’s postings, British philosopher Richard Norman asks why protest is so fundamental for human rights and democratic society. The two articles that follow discuss two different protest movements. The first began exactly forty-one years ago when 14 mothers met in a central square to ask their country’s military dictatorship one question: “What have you done to our children?” The second broke out recently, but follows in the path of earlier movements in the United States that resisted white supremacy and racism.
1. People realise that they are not alone
One way in which the establishment maintains its power is by creating a dominant discourse from which dissidents’ views are excluded. If people think differently, they may feel isolated, marginalised and powerless. Public demonstrations and marches empower people by showing them that there are thousands of people who think the same things.
2. By protesting, we alter the agenda and start a debate
Those in power may try to ignore us, but if there are enough protesters then they will feel the need to come up with reasons why all of the protesters are wrong. That is when the debate begins and argument becomes possible.
3. In an electoral democracy, protest provides an essential voice for minority groups
The classic theorists of representational government recognised that universal suffrage and majority voting threaten to impose the ‘tyranny of the majority’ and override the rights of minorities. Protests are a vital corrective to majority rule.
4. Sometimes we win!
If there are enough protesters, the policies of those in power may become unworkable. When the UK government introduce the flat-rate Poll Tax in 1990, huge numbers of people protested and refused to pay the tax. It became clear that prosecuting everyone who refused would be impossible, chaos threatened, and the government abolished the tax.
5. Sometimes we win in ways we had not intended or planned
Political events are unpredictable. The protests against nuclear cruise missiles at Greenham Common in the UK in the 1980s appeared to have failed when the missiles were installed, but the protests had forced the US and UK governments into saying that they had to deploy the missiles only because the Soviet Union was doing the same. When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union and said that he was willing to make an agreement to withdraw all the missiles, the Western governments could not go back on what they had said. The missiles were withdrawn, and Greenham Common is now public parkland.
6. Sometimes we win but it takes a generation or more
At the time it may feel that it’s going nowhere; that those in power are stuck in a certain mindset and cannot change their thinking. But then a new generation may come along, unencumbered by past thinking, and see that the views of the protesters were just common sense. Think of the huge turnaround in attitudes to gay people over a couple of generations.
Richard Norman is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Kent, Canterbury, UK, and Vice-President of the British Humanist Association.
This article is part of OpenDemocracy’s Right to Protest series, a partnership project with human rights organisations CELS and INCLO, with support from the ACLU, that examines the power of protest and its fundamental role in democratic society. This article was originally published on the openDemocracy 50.50 website. Click here to access it. OpenDemocracy is a digital commons committed to promoting human rights, peacebuilding and reconciliation. We encourage you to take a look at this wonderful resource. All articles are published under Creative Commons licensing.