I’ve argued before that we need a better theory of protest. The context for the earlier piece was the woeful public discussion about whether or not vegan protesters were ‘entitled’ in a democracy to disrupt the ‘rights’ of others. I noted that often the arguments advanced offer little more insight than whether or not the speaker agrees with the message of the protesters. ‘I don’t care about the wants or needs of others, we really do eat too much meat and only a Police State would shut this protest down.’
The public debate about that protest was whether or not we like vegans. The Extinction Rebellion protests over the past few weeks, again, has reduced to whether or not we like environmentalists. The framing of the debate has made it very easy for politicians to express (quite worrying) legal ‘crackdowns’ on environmental protests.
The argument I advanced was in very broad terms: we can be more analytical in our approach to discussions about protests within a democracy that get us away from unworkably absolutist positions. By separating discussions about message from methods, we can look at the impact that particular protest activities have on others, and then do a kind of proportionality analysis on whether or not we think the protest is justifiable.
The protests at the International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC) in Melbourne provide an opportunity to explore some other dimensions of protest.
There’s a general view among journos that the most important thing in political debate is consistency. It doesn’t matter if your argument is insane, it just has to be consistent and then it will get a run free of critique in the Press. Senator Malcolm Roberts has nothing but absurdly crazy opinions, but those absurdly crazy opinions are consistent and so he is invited to provide his views on ABC light entertainment programmes like Q&A.
In truth, there’s absolutely no reason at all that a person’s views need to be consistent. It is entirely reasonable that a person should think that most of Sydney should be shut down for the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, but have absolutely no tolerance for a homophobic street preacher. There’s altogether too much high school-level debating rhetoric polluting the public discussion: ‘if you don’t let the mining industry do whatever it wants, who will stand up for your rights to do whatever you want?’ It’s a shitty, nonsensical argument that only operates in an ahistorical, socially absurd context. Of course we are going to support the views of people who agree with us more than we are going to support the actions of those who do not (or, as is more frequently the case, those who actually wish harm upon us).
There are deeper difficulties with this protest. It appears that the purpose was to disrupt the conference by preventing people from being able to get into the building. This was to be achieved by physically preventing people access, and spitting on attendees.
The correct response from authorities simply has to be a separation of the two groups. It is difficult to understand a perspective that says that we should just let protesters have at it against people they oppose.
Although this is undoubtedly the correct response, we now have a problem of the use of State violence to protect one group of people against another. And when the people being protected are those who, let’s face it, are in a position of significantly more power than the protesters, the whole thing stinks quickly. There’s nothing edifying in watching the police using quite a lot of force against a bunch of teenagers who, we need to admit, are right that the mining industry is irreversibly damaging the planet.
We see this same problem repeat time and time again when we have groups of people with odious, but lawful, views trying to hold events that are opposed by activists. The correct response is that we don’t let the larger group rip the smaller group apart, but this means that we are going to use State violence to protect the rephrensible.
What emerges is a space in which reasonable people can have reasonable disagreement. I think this use of State violence to protect certain speech justifies the censoring of the extremely reprehensible. Nazis, for example, shouldn’t get police protection for their views because that protection merely enables the spread of hate speech. Instead, if you attempt to organise a Nazi conference, you should instead go to jail. People might reasonably feel uncomfortable going with me down that path of the State defining and policing the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable speech. Others might argue that freedom of speech is (somehow) so essential to democracy that the State simply must protect the lawful expression of speech from protesters who want to shut it down. I’m uncomfortable with that view for the reasons given above: why should State violence be used to enable antisocial activities, the costs of which are borne by minorities and the vulnerable?
This is the sort of public debate that we could have constructively, and it’s the sort of debate that, if it were more prominent, would deny politicians a ground to demonise progressive protesters.