Cooperation, loyalty, adherence to the rule of law. These are noble virtues, of which the following are necessary for a free and open society.
But there are times when it is necessary to step outside these noble virtues. There are times when dissent is a virtue. There is a time for peace and a time for protest. When injustices are happening, if you aren’t dissenting, you are aiding and abetting. If you aren’t angry, you aren’t paying attention.
Anger is an energy, but if that anger is not under control and directed at the appropriate target, it is wasted energy. Worse, anger can inflict more harm than good when it is expressed without intelligence and purpose.
Let’s insert some philosophy and reality into this.
Five Realities of Protest
Reality 1: Many injustices occur every day.
Reality 2: A large number of injustices are caused by a small number of people.
Reality 3: The freedom to protest and act against injustices is just and necessary.
Reality 4: If you want to change the world for the better, you need to take actions that contribute to making the world a better place.
Reality 5: Protest and action against injustices can be either effective or not effective and either ethical or unethical.
Protest is a good and necessary action to make the world a better place. Protests that are genuine struggles against injustices unite people in mutual recognition and pressure the small number of people atop of the power hierarchy to change their actions and mitigate injustices.
Here’s another reality: the people in power do not give up their power unless they are made to feel uncomfortable.
Protests will not and cannot be effective unless they are directed at the small number of people in power and make those people feel uncomfortable.
A Lesson from Comedy
There’s an important guideline in comedy that comedians and writers should punch up not punch down. In other words, poke fun at the power hierarchy and not at the masses. It’s a foundational ethical rule. Those in comedy who forget that basic ethic hurt themselves more than anyone else.
There’s a lesson there for dissent and protests against injustices. Are you punching up or punching down? Simple question. Foundational ethics. Fairly simple concept to understand and simple question to answer. At whom is your protest directed and whom is it affecting?
Here’s another reality. The innocent bystanders whose daily activities are disrupted by the protestors don’t care about anything more than the fact that they are the ones getting punched. Being punched, they will be much, much more likely to be more angry at the protestors than at the oil corporations.
Here’s yet another reality. The executives of the fossil fuel corporations don’t give a flying frell. They aren’t getting punched. The unintelligent and misdirected anger of the protesters does not affect them. They aren’t being made uncomfortable; they aren’t being pushed to change their actions that cause injustices.
Back to Reality 2: A large number of injustices are caused by a small number of people. Yes, you have the right to protest as part of your ethical duty to work against injustices. If you are attacking the large number of people who are the recipients of injustices, you are committing fresh injustices. You also are not being effective in your protests. If anything, you are further empowering the power hierarchy by encouraging people to want the power hierarchy to clamp down on protest.
Indeed, that is what has happened again and again. When in the late 1800s and early 1900s anarchists set off bombs in public places, they didn’t turn people against the power hierarchy. The people, who unsurprisingly did not want to be bombed, grew more susceptible to the power hierarchy’s promises of “we will protect you” by clamping down on freedoms. The rise of the fascists in Europe was facilitated by their being able to appeal to people’s real and imagined fears of the anarchists.
Recently, in cycling’s Men’s World Road Race Championship, some idiots cemented themselves to the road, causing the race to be temporarily stopped. The protest punched down, harming all of the riders and other race participants who had spent months preparing for the race. Assuming the perpetrators were Just Stop Oil or whatever they call themselves now, their action ended up causing all of the vehicles and helicopters involved in the race to consume more fossil fuels during the forced delay. No fossil fuel executives or stockholders were harmed or even were aware of the angry stunt. The protestors punched down. Unethical and ineffective.
Whether protest actions are ethical and effective depend on a number of circumstances specific to the injustices and people involved. There is, however, a simple guideline for the complexities of determining ethical and effective protest. Are you punching up or punching down?