Protesting is making it worse
May 14, 2009, 9:39 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

I’ve never been a fan of the public demonstration as a medium. Very few people who organize them seem to really know how to use them effectively. There are rare examples of public demonstrations that have resulted in real social change – most, though, tend to be more alienating than inspiring.

The recent protests by members of Toronto’s Tamil community are seriously running the risk of falling into the former category. Despite the evidence suggesting that these protests may be accomplishing their short-term goals (Canadian politicians are finally starting to discuss the situation in public forums), you have to wonder if they’re going to make any contribution to the peaceful, long-term resolution of the conflict in Sri Lanka or if they’re simply going to cause frustration and resentment among the people of Toronto and Canadians generally.

Here’s why.

The prevailing concern in a protest such as the ones in Toronto is getting attention. Their purpose is to get as many people as possible to hear a particular message, thus giving the message maximum impact.

The problem is that for all protesters’ skill in getting people to pay attention to them, a huge number seem completely clueless when it comes to the articulation of their actual position.

There seems to be a common assumption among protesters – including the ones in Toronto – that the truth of one’s position will speak for itself, if only you can shout it loudly enough. But the truth never speaks for itself, no matter how loud it is. “Truth” has to be sold, and there are ways to sell an audience on a position that are effective and there are ways that are not. The most effective ways involve making clear, cogent statements, taking into account the particular qualities of an audience that would likely lead them to accept or reject a given position.

Far from being clear or cogent, however, protests tend to boil down sophisticated positions about murky political situations into catchy slogans and hand-scrawled signs, both typically fewer than 10 words long (see slide #6 on this page for examples of the kinds of slogans being used in the Toronto protests). Without the application of considerable amounts of care and skill, protests almost inherently reduce complex messages to absurd oversimplifications, which are rarely all that convincing.

Many demonstrators attempt to compensate for this deficiency in their medium by using powerful, attention-grabbing language and imagery. The Toronto Tamil protests, for example, have thrown about willy-nilly comparisons to the Holocaust and the Rwandan disaster of the mid-90s, as well as that international button word, Genocide.

Unfortunately, concrete information to justify these analogies is not easy to come by at a protest (or, as I’ve found, even if someone does a bit of independant research at home). It may be that the comparisons are reasonable but without essential, contextualizing information, phrases such as “Canada aid pays for genocide” come off as meaningless hyperbole.

The result of all of these rhetorical missteps is that the protest’s message becomes reduced to a series of trite and easily ignorable sound bites that leave its audience more annoyed by the inconvenience the protest has caused than moved by its message. If a message isn’t compelling, people just don’t listen, no matter how loudly you are shouting it at them. Then they tend to get annoyed that you are shouting at them. And your communication strategy falls flat.

It’s likely, then, that the Toronto protests have done nothing to advance the Tamil cause in the long run. Even where official acknowledgment of the disaster suggests that the protest’s message is getting across, reception of the message remains mixed. Dalton McGuinty provides an example of this when he reminds us of the world’s responsibility to end violence and strife, but adds that “there’s a right way and a wrong way to protest” .

A very unscientific study of the interwebs* suggests that this mixed opinion is shared by many other Canadians, who are still very concerned about the tactics used by the protesters and the importing of Sri Lankan politics to Canada, even if some are starting to acknowledge that the violence in Sri Lanka has got to stop.

So have the protests contributed to an imminent ceasefire in Sri Lanka? It’s possible. And let us all hope so.
But have they garnered support for an independant Tamil state or changed the perception of the LTTE? Not likely.

In the end, it looks like these protests have been more successful in alienating Torontonians than in gaining large amounts of sustained sympathy and support. And these are two things that Sri Lankan Tamils desperately need if they are going to be party to a peaceful resolution of the conflict and not just the losing side in a bloody civil war.

*i.e., a quick survey of newspaper comment boards and Facebook groups which reveals very little support in Canada for the LTTE – the idea that the ethnic tensions should be left out of Canada is still a very prominent theme on message boards, and Facebook groups in support of the LTTE are few and sparsely populated. In fact, as I write this, I’ve just been invited to join one called “STOP THE TAMIL PROTEST IN TORONTO” –


2 Comments so far
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In addition to this, protests carry with them a black cloud which you’ve not even discussed; freeloaders. Inevitably, you are going to get people in a crowd who have no clue what is going on and are simply following the mob mentality to be a part of something.

With more organized groups this can usually be a mitigated risk, however with situations such as the G8 protests, you often get vandals who don’t care about the cause in the least and are just coming out for a good time.

The unfortunate reality is that unless meticulously organized, many protests simply provide a medium for opportunists to push their own agenda, regardless of the cause.

Comment by Shananigans

I question whether the purpose of a public protest is ever intended to be the delivery of an articulate or considerate point. It is a forum that defies discussion and lends itself instead to the broad slogan. The slogan’s role is not to critically engage but to beat over the head. And to that end it can be effective: as you said, the government is now at least addressing the problem. I don’t feel the purpose of the Tamil protests is to win the support of the average Canadian so much as it is to prevent the rest of the country from ignoring the problem altogether. In fact, I believe the level of sympathy/support for the LTTE varies greatly amongst the participants of such a protest.

I wonder whether or not it would make a difference if they had a well-thought out, uniform position on the situation and someone articulate to deliver it.

My friend who recently posted some pictures of the most recent protest and offered his own thoughts on the subject made another good point. These protests serve a purpose that has nothing to do with other Canadians. They serve as a means for the Tamil diaspora something to rally behind, to maintain an identity and a voice, even if when spread across the world.

Link to those pictures in case you’re interested:

Comment by Keith

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