The Internet has been going wild over the Missouri protest situation and, to a lesser extent, the protests at Yale. And the situation may seem familiar to you because we’ve had the exact same situation going on for five years now in such classics as Ferguson, Occupy Wall Street, and the Academy Award-nominated #BlackLivesMatter. Each time the protests get uglier, each time they have a less organized plan for results, and each time they get more attention both for their cause and against it no matter how ambiguous or valid the situation is.
With the Missouri controversy, the protests stem from a serious lack of communication around treatment of race issues on the campus that resulted in students wanting the president to resign. It’s easy to poo-poo their initial complaints because they primarily stem from only two recorded incidents of racism but to do that misses the point; it’s about a culture of racial tension. Two incidents were documented but that doesn’t speak for all the ones where someone said “It’s not worth all the trouble” or “I’ll just let this one slide” or the awkwardness an 18-year-old black kid can sense in a room where people aren’t entirely comfortable with him there because they don’t know if he’s “one of the good ones.” Couple in the banner year for race issues in Missouri bringing tensions, a lack of meaningful dialogue and general discomfort and, yeah, it’s safe to say on some level they probably have a point even if they don’t have a meaningful plan in place for solving the problem.
At the same time, you have a large sect of society who’s tired of “protest culture” and, more so, how our nation has become one that coddles everyone. They see any protest and they write it off as jobless people complaining for the sake of complaining. And they’re not wrong. How many protests have led to real social change? Hell, how many protests have began at a valid point of contention? Even if Missouri students have valid points, there are kids at Yale complaining about an email or not being handheld enough by their RAs. I’m sick of protests, you’re sick of protests, everyone but the protesters are sick of protests. At best we start to ignore them. At worst, people dig their heels in on the counter argument just because they can’t take another protest seriously, credible thoughts never actually heard because of conveying the message through the prism of mob justice.
As a result, what we’re left with are protests that don’t work, people who don’t listen and dig their heels in because they’re exhausted hearing about another person’s perceived slights holding them backed, and everyone is completely missing the point: Regardless of the outcome, protests don’t work.
This is the face of protesting in 2015:
That’s Melissa Click, a media professor at Missouri filmed looking for “muscle” to remove a student reporter from protests on a public quad. Not exactly the first face you’d expect to see aggressively fighting against the institutional racism at a school. And that’s because she shouldn’t be the person aggressively fighting institutional racism at a school. Not because she doesn’t (theoretically) have valid thoughts, not because she doesn’t have a right to an opinion, but because this isn’t her fight to pick. We’re in a world of Melissa Clicks, people who fight battles that haven’t touched their lives in any way and do it solely for the love of “stirring it up.” Even if you find it hard to relate to, a person recounting their own experiences and how it affected them stirs up a real and genuine reaction. Melissa Click waxing poetic about the plight of the black man fighting the oppressive white patriarchy does not. You know what happens when a person sees a perfectly credible protest filled by a bunch of Melissa Clicks? They can’t take it seriously. She’s not affected, she doesn’t actually know what a person in their shoes experiences, she’s just there for the moment and now people are using her to undermine any actual points that might exist.
Think about the NFL for a second. For all their many flaws, one thing they took a turn on was domestic violence following the outcry around Ray Rice’s two-game suspension last year. But players have been smacking their wives and girlfriends in every decade since the league was formed. What changed? This:
There isn’t a man in the world who would have said “Yeah, domestic violence is pretty great, huge DV fan” before this. But after seeing it right there in front of you from the steely glare of a surveillance camera, it’s impossible to ignore. It was the same way with the Greg Hardy photos released last week; the gruesome reports of his incident with a girlfriend have been out there for over a year but it’s only really a problem when people have to stare it in the face. That’s human nature. We’re told as a course of action to believe half of what we see and none of what we hear. But when what we see is starkly laid in front of us like in these two incidents, there’s no way to deny it. Melissa Click can’t show us that in the case of the Missouri situation. She can’t even tell us that because she has no personal experience even remotely relevant. She has zero to offer in this debate (and probably life).
And on the other hand, you have people who are tired of it all. Over the last 20 years in America, white guys have taken it on the chin. Political correctness, affirmative action, the “rah rah girls rule boys drool but also women suffer because of you cock-having monsters” mentality that you can’t escape in the media have left some very angry with where the country is headed. Many people online like to rail on President Obama’s liberal minded ways as the cause but really he was only the last straw for the way the vast majority of people grew up viewing the world. People legitimately used to joke “Ha yeah the day we have a black President” interchangeably with the old expression about when pigs fly. Now, not only have we had a black man leading our nation for practically a decade, we’ve had countless changes to the way language and thoughts are processed and, unfortunately, policed. It’s an entirely different world than most people in this country grew up with and the result is an Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer effect where a lot of people out there don’t even recognize the country they grew up in. It’s almost like a psychological experiment if you were to compare the world of today to the world even 25 years ago.
At a certain point, the human mind can only wrap itself around so much change. And while in previous generations this would have resulted only in some Bud Heavy-driven grumpy Archie Bunker statements from a La-Z-Boy, one other major change has also occurred in the last few decades: The rise of technology. From the palm of your hand, you can communicate with anywhere from hundreds to millions of people within seconds. It’s a wonder in theory. But the result is a bunch of angry people of all ages living in a world they don’t understand able to communicate their ugliest and most honest thoughts all with the very convenient shroud of anonymity. People have said ugly things about one another since Jesus was riding dinosaurs but it’s never been quite so easy to be so heard. And the angrier you are, the more likely you are to get attention. It works both ways — aggressive protesters driving the #BlackLivesMatter movement being a prime example — but giving people who previously had no voice a platform to spew whatever they have in their hearts is inevitably going to bring the worst to the surface.
Maybe there would be some way to combat this predisposition to not wanting to hear what others have to say if society hadn’t marginalized that group so aggressively for so long. But even if that ship hasn’t sailed, the people currently driving the conversations aren’t the ones to handle it. A close friend of mine works for a public policy organization that recently had young/Millennial-aged “civil leaders” with big audiences into their office to teach them ways to better use their platforms to drive real change. One guy in particular was the most successful they had in, huge social media presence, great attendance from people at events. When my friend and his team spoke to the guy to try to figure out what he was actually working toward, the kid spoke in buzzwords and platitudes about building a better tomorrow and creating real change for those in need and, after an hour of asking in various polite ways “What do you actually do?,” they realized the kid had no idea what he was trying to accomplish. He had his general ideas, a utopian and aggressive world view that had clearly resonated with a bunch of people but had no real substance behind it. And this is the culture now. Someone drums up a cause, it sounds good, it gains traction with followers, and it means nothing and has no endgame that results in things being “fixed.”
But that’s anecdotal, here’s an example of it. This video is the best thing Hillary Clinton has done in the entirety of her campaign, speaking to #BlackLivesMatter “leaders” about their cause as politely as possible while pointing out the guy speaking isn’t actually saying anything or offering up any solutions:
When you have a cause near and dear to your heart that’s so bereft of ideas and solutions that you make Hillary Clinton seem incredibly likable and genuine in response, you’ve got to file that one away as a problem.
But what’s the answer? I’m putting all these words down and they mean nothing, no substance to back up all the rhetoric. And I don’t really have an easy answer. That’s the point. None of us do and it’s unfortunate that the people with the least answers make the most noise. But there’s so much shitty stuff out there that happens to people that we can’t ever relate to. There are also many bullshit slights that people want to drum up and make all of us suffer for just so they can be heard. And there are even more people who refuse to acknowledge that there are problems in the world just because they’re not as clearly laid out as Janay Rice.
The only “solution” for all of the above is empathy. Not everyone shares the same life experiences. But we share one common bond: Life is frustrating as hell for everyone. If you’re a black teen getting followed around a convenience store, that’s frustrating. A woman getting sexually harassed or treated less than equal at work is frustrating for them. And not being able to honestly discuss a topic out of fear of being labeled a racist is frustrating for the angry and slighted white guys too. But the only way to get to a better place is to stop thinking only about ourselves and be more aware of others. People protest in their own ways because they want to be heard. In the cases of Missouri, Yale, and even the Tea Party, people felt like they weren’t and as a result they lashed out. Even giving people what they want doesn’t work to stop protests, as the Missouri situation is proving. The only way to truly stop protest culture is to be willing to hear others out and stop jumping down each other’s throats for it.
When University of Missouri president Tom Wolfe resigned, he said he did so hoping people would use his resignation to “heal and start talking again.” Hopefully soon we can start listening again, too.
(Protest mic and angry white guy photos by Shutterstock)