Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: Communication, Life in Toronto, Tamil Protest
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.
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” –