One of the common and understandable gripes people have about any kind of demonstration-based movement is that they always lack a collective and coherent message. There will never be say an anti-war protest without numerous members demonstrating for either labor rights, gender equality or seeking the overturning of a criminal conviction or two. In one way, for many protesters, there is a certain perceived ideological similarity between all of these issues that makes gripes about one interrelated to gripes about the others. This is why there is rarely ever a singular and analytical goal of movements, especially youth movements; to them, all the undesirables in the world are wrapped up in one amorphous "system," which no policy can quell besides their standard and repeated litany.
In addition, there's a good reason that demonstrators go to no lengths to solidify a message: they already understand that protests are nothing more than a public display of general emotion without any practical possibility of influencing public opinion or the political culture in any useful sense. Protests have the affectuality of a highschool French Club meeting; the only outcome of them both is that the parties involved can stand in some kind of solidarity of similar interests and feelings. There's always the pretense among French Club members that they can win over some converts from Spanish Club with their impressing displays of French culture, but really there's little appeal of the in-group values outside of the in-group.
As persuasive instruments, demonstrations, much like Jedi Mind Tricks, only work on the weak minded. An onlooker with any vestige of an informed opinion will not change his ideas upon being confronted by a hivemind of youths parading the streets with placards and chants. The idea of a protest is less to convince as it is to enforce uniformity in already like-minded people. Much like a bumper sticker or a lawn sign, demonstrations (provided they are not violent attempts at revolution) are usually little more than a means of publicizing one's affiliations, albeit in a more physically active way.
I do think it's a significant mistake to label compulsive protesters as "activists". Protesting is the very act of passivity given that it usurps the otherwise sublimated will to improve society into a cataclysmic yet unsubstantial and ineffectual display of public emotion. Demonstrators exorbitantly dignify themselves saying that their action is "raising awareness," which usually means evoking attention of other people with the hope that one of those persons will actually work to solve the problem at hand on the behalf of the begrieved. I can certainly say in my experience, demonstrations constitute a supreme annoyance, at times a galvanizing one that can unintentionally cause unwanted backlash against the emotionalism of the protest itself.
Recently at my university, a group of student protesters marched about campus campaigning against the recent tightening of immigration law in my state and a new explicit disbarring of undocumented immigrants from admission into state universities. As a reader of any of my other pertinent writings should know already, I myself would be a fervent supporter of their cause. The group planned to march to the capitol building but, while crossing a busy city street that crossed part of the university, decided it would better help their cause if they laid their banners on the pavement and blocked traffic.
The demonstrators sat in the middle of the four lane road, with the horns of innumerable cars behind them blaring for an hour before the police gave up trying to reason with them and pulled them up and down to the station. Of those arrested, all were undocumented (no word on their fates).
Now I wonder how this stunt affected the opinions of the onlookers. It's been more than half a year and it's clear that the stunt had no political effect; likewise there wasn't even any student reaction to the event, moreover I hardly think it possible that anyone was compelled by the rationality of the demonstrators either. Yet I can nearly assure the reader that the drivers held up for an hour were gravely affected and gravely upset. Had I been one of those drivers marooned in the hot summer sun for an hour, I would have voted straight Republican for the next ten years in a pathetic act of revenge.
Protesters don't seem to realize the chasmous disconnect between their desires and actions. If you want to end war or income inequality, there is simply no way that busting in store-fronts, destroying public and private property and hurling Molotov cocktails at police will help the undecided empathize with you. These actions, which have been on the rebound in the last several years, especially in Europe, serve only to highlight the visceral, primitive and apish nature on which a lot of these political sentiments are based. The youthful left sure doesn't think Hegelianly anymore, otherwise they might understand that the dialectic repercussions of mass social destruction.
"Help I'm being oppressed!"
Growing up as a Christian, one is exposed to a great deal of propagandist exaggeration of the pre-Constantine Roman persecutions of the Christian faith. In actuality, there were only scarce occasions when Christians were fed to lions or terrorized by the Roman government, but as martyrdom is zenith of any true Christian morality, those few events are often extrapolated into a systematic religious genocide with the heroic Christian martyrs as the centerpieces.
Early Christians celebrated, yearned for and wrote adoringly of the enterprise of martyrdom, a tendency which still culturally survives in the counter-culture of today. Protesters don't just march to earn others' attention, they block highways, deface property and trespass with the explicit goal of being arrested. The premise is brilliant: violate the law in every possible way, but do it in a somber, compassive and face-saving attitude and your insolence becomes martyrdom. When finally accosted by police, loudly ask with feigned ignorance and innocence why you're being arrested and when they slap the cuffs on you, howl like you're being castrated.
Protests should not be qualified as non-violent if their goal is to provoke police into dawning their riot gear and shoving the masses away from causing damage to private or public property. More often than not, a protester's dream is to put the police in a position where they have to use violence to prevent further disturbances. And when that happens, the protester, after spending some time behind bars, gets to tell his friends the glorious sacrifices he's made against the oppressive (let's throw in racist for good measure) police.
Demonstrations Quell Useful Democratic Dialog
Those who demonstrated in the Occupy Wall Street movement may truly imagine that crowd psychology and ochlocracy are the veritable fundamentals of democratic society; this conflagration is in error. The psychology of the crowd is one that spreads and maintains an intellectual homogeneity having trivialized the reasoning faculties of its members. There, ideas are not evaluated by their analytical force nor by the truth behind them, but by the emotions they carry and the titillating enterprise of confirmation bias. A crowd or a "General Assembly" must operate on the lowest common denominator of every member and its discussion cannot be of fact and practicality because those most important matters are not subject to majority rule. The only thing a crowd has as a decision-making apparatus is the most base values and emotions of its entire cast of members which by definition do not extend to the incompatible outgroup.
Marches, slogans and repeated rhymes and puns don't appeal to anyone's rational faculties, rather they constitute a quite base appeal to the more primitive innards of the brain, where our tendencies to tribalism and simplification dominate. Slogans and chants serve to narrow all issues to one or two unprofound witticisms that, when faced by more complex argumentation or even another incompatible slogan, cannot retort aside from a more forceful repeated restatement of values.
Thus, student protestors increasingly live in an intellectually insular world, unexposed to the thoughts that are not intravenously injected into them by the emotionalisms of counter-culture. They are no worse nor better than equally cacophonous and precognitive viewers of network news or creationists who bat away anything that might shake their ideas with the same formulaic responses. These responses are not intended to persuade, only to justify the speaker's steadfastness in the rushing waters of reality.
Fundamentally this insularity in student culture is due to the fact that university students have built an unassailable fortress of justifications, rationalizations and demonizations of those who might take to disagree with them. One who might differ from the progressive consensus on abortion, affirmative action, economics or feminism is not just wrong, he must be categorically rejected as a misogynist, a racist or a puppet of the much maligned 1%. This derisible defense mechanism is not limited to words, but spills over into the all too common and unpunished actions of students who routinely usurp the floor of campus events whose speakers they might find disagreeable.
This does not simply constitute a childish and irrational form of silencing criticism, but it directly and physically impedes the very basic practices of free speech and democratic discussion. Again, my own university had once slated a speaker who had designed an anti-abortion campaign and was invited to explain the movement and his reasoning in an open lecture. As he begun his planned discourse, a dozen or so students paraded with banners chanting and drawing all attention they could. Whenever the small crowd tired of chanting, the speaker would ask them to sit down or wait for the question period, but again would they erupt in their reformulated slogans.
This is only a mild example of other "progressive" student movements that routinely prevent other students from hearing information that may dishevel the established consensus. The examples are copious: E.O. Wilson being silenced by student protestors as a "Nazi," Warren Farrel as a "rape apologist" or "misogynist." What underpins these types of demonstrations is not a concern to convince or even to raise awareness, but a very sad and pitiful attempt at preventing the spread of ideas that might dethrone and embarrass the drivel that spills from the emotive pores of a superficial, unstable and dying counterculture.