Protest Marches: What’s the point?

I was at the Climate Change March in London on Sunday. I hadn’t planned on going. “What’s the point?” I thought. I’ve been to many protest marches over the years and I’d begun to doubt if they made any difference. Maybe they even served the status quo by fooling us into thinking we were doing something worthwhile. A mate of mine summed it up in his Facebook post: “If protest worked it wouldn’t be legal”.

By chance or unconscious design, I was in London on Sunday anyway and it felt right to go along to the march, despite my doubts. I had a great day meeting up with old mates, enjoying the creativity and feeling part of a global community of climate change activists. But did it change anything?

Climate Change Marchers 2015

Climate Change Marchers

On the train back to Exeter I started reading a book I’d had on my Kindle for months: Psychology for a Better World, by Niki Harre. What I read was remarkably pertinent to my dilemma. Niki shifts from the more typical focus on the problems we face to emphasise “sustainability as a collective, social enterprise aimed at new ways of managing ourselves.” If you see our lack of sustainability as a problem to be solved, then whatever solution you pursue will be contentious. But if you are “helping to create a viable alternative to our current ways of life, the meaning of what you do changes” (Harre, 2011). This side-steps the rather simplistic cause and effect model adopted by those sceptical of the value of protest. If you’re looking for a simple, directly measurable effect of protest, you’re looking in the wrong place for the wrong thing. “The ‘best’ action is not best in terms of having the most dramatic effect on the physical world, it is ‘best’ in terms of having the most dramatic effect on the social world” (Harre, 2011).

What kind of useful effects might we see from the climate march? I had a good time, met some mates, danced a bit and saw some beautiful art. So what? Maybe that’s the whole point! Positive emotions enhance our creativity, expand our understanding of the world and spur us to greater achievements. They also make it easier for us to face challenges. Niki claims that “positive emotions are not only useful for creative tasks, but also for tasks that involve re-examining our personal practices”. By being at the march I enhanced my ability to face the challenge of climate change, boosted my creativity, made it easier to re-evaluate my personal behaviour and spurred myself to achieve more. Not only that, it renewed my sense of being part of a community with a common cause. If we are going to tackle climate change, we need more of all of that. Going on a protest march isn’t the whole solution, but it’s very far from being pointless.

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4 Responses to Protest Marches: What’s the point?

  1. Kirsten Downer says:

    It’s been said in the Facebook comments but needs to be said again: Marches send a signal to politicians, who decide policy. There’s a pragmatic reason for showing up in numbers–it has some impact, some of the time.
    I like what you infer about the community on the march showcasing and embodying progressive alternatives – art, creativity, family, intergenerational support, interfaith collaboration, brotherhood, trust, optimism. And I heartily agree with you when you say that expecting an immediate impact is simplistic. Having said that, there is always an impact on the world even if you can’t see it immediately. The Buddhists call it karma and it plays out in the world. The concept of ancestors is important. We are all beneficiaries of the (at the time) failed protests of the past, fought -often with great sacrifice – by our ancestors. We can vote, enjoy holidays, have free healthcare and relative freedom of speech because they kept pushing for it – even though they didn’t see the benefits in their life times. So we march and engage in other peaceful activism not only for ourselves, but for those who come after us

  2. Administrator says:

    We’re in agreement here; protest does make a difference to politicians and so does have an impact. However, I’d like to re-emphasize the core message I take from Niki Harre: If you are “helping to create a viable alternative to our current ways of life”, rather than aiming for protest X to produce effect Y, you change the paradigm. I agree that past protest has helped change things, but Niki is saying something new and more radical than that.

    The Buddhist notion of karma is all about cause and effect, which is the traditional model of how things work. I’m interested in Niki’s attempt to open up an different way of looking at progress. The traditional model of cause and effect says: ‘Let’s do this to help create that’. A radical holistic alternative says: ‘Let’s revision who we are and how we live’. This may be related to what Erich Fromm explores when he writes about the difference between ‘being’ and ‘doing’, but that’s another blog post!

    • Adrian Harris says:

      Just after posting my response I realised that Fromm wrote about being and having, not being and doing. That said, there has been a lot of discussion in spiritual and philosophical circles about the relationship between being and doing. We are often reminded that we are human beings not human doings.

  3. Adrian Harris, Psychotherapist, Exeter, Devon says:

    Responses to the COP 21 climate summit are very relevant to the theme of this post. Some want to celebrate the very limited success while others highlight its inadequacy. I find Gramsci has it for me; I have a pessimism of the intellect but choose an optimism of the will. Let’s celebrate this frankly minor success: “positive emotions are … useful for creative tasks … [and] for tasks that involve re-examining our personal practices”. But let us also carry on with the work of “helping to create a viable alternative to our current ways of life” (Harre, 2011).

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