Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Towards a Theory of Protest

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Towards a Theory of Protest

Article excerpt

I participated in what may well-turn out to have been an historic occasion, the first "teach-in" at the University of Michigan. This originated as a protest movement against the escalation of the war in Vietnam, by a group of Michigan faculty, mostly younger men. It developed from a simple protest into what turned out to be a unique educational experience in which between two and three thousand students literally sat down and talked and argued all night. The movement spread rapidly to other campuses and organized a national teach-in which was held in Washington in May. It now begins to look like almost a national mobilization of university teachers and students. In a way, the forerunner of this movement was the remarkable mobilization of faculty members on university campuses against Goldwater, which represented political arousement on a scale which has rarely, if ever, been seen before in these supposedly cloistered circles. The teach-in movement is clearly a response to Johnson's behaving like Goldwater, so in a way is part of this same arousal.

Nobody, unfortunately, is much concerned to study the effects of all this, some of which may be quite different from what the people who are aroused by the arousal intend. I am constantly impressed by the ironies of social systems, where action often produces quite the reverse of the consequence which are intended. On the other hand, presumably, the better our knowledge of social systems, the more likely are we to avoid any unintentional consequence. It is important, therefore, for protesters to have some theory of protest, and to be sensitive to those circumstances in which protest is effective in achieving its intended consequences, and those circumstances in which it is not.

Let me venture, then, on a few tentative suggestions for a possible theory of protest, in the form of some tentative propositions.

1. Protest arises when there is strongly felt dissatisfaction with existing programs and policies of government or other organizations, on the part of those who feel themselves affected by these policies but who are unable to express their discontent through regular and legitimate channels, and who feel unable to exercise the weight to which they think they are entitled in the decision-making process. When nobody is listening to us and we feel we have something to say, then comes the urge to shout. The protester is the man in the advertisement who does not read the Philadelphia Bulletin, but who has something very important to say that clearly isn't in it. Furthermore, as he apparently has no access to the Bulletin, all he can do is to stand in the middle of its complacent readers and scream. In the present case, the State Department White Paper on Vietnam is clearly the Philadelphia Bulletin; the protesters are those who see something quite obvious that isn't in it.

2. Protest is most likely to be successful where it represents a view which is in fact widespread in the society, but which has somehow not been called to people's attention. The protest of the man who does not read the Philadelphia Bulletin is likely to be highly successful, as he is usually trying to call attention to events which obviously ought to be in the Bulletin, being intrinsically newsworthy. Societies, like solutions, get supersaturated or supercooled; that is, they teach a situation in which their present state is intrinsically unstable, but does not change because of the absence of some kind of nucleus around which change can grow. Under these circumstances, protest is like the seed crystal or the silver iodide in the cloud. It precipitates the whole system toward a position which it really ought to be in anyway. We see this exemplified in the relative success of the protest movements in civil rights. Here we have a situation, as Myrdal saw very clearly in The American Dilemma, in which certain fundamental images of the American society were inconsistent with its practices, and where, therefore, the protesters could appeal to an ideal which was very widely held. …

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