An age of toothless protest

cisc1970/ Flickr

cisc1970/ Flickr

By Stefan Herlitz

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Protests have been integral to the success of many causes and have improved society, from women’s suffrage and African-American civil rights to same-sex marriage and peace in Vietnam. We look back to follow the example set by past leaders and activists for the future.

However, in our fervor to advance causes and effect change, we have lost sight of what it means to truly campaign for a change. We understand the need for widespread, grassroots support. We understand the need for publicity and media coverage, for facts and figures.

What we seem to have forgotten is that these things are only the means to an end. The goal of a movement is not a rally; the goal of a protest is not media coverage. Successful campaigns require a clear, achievable goal and a specific process by which to achieve it.

This was the downfall of the Occupy movement. What began as a protest in Zuccotti Park in New York City on Sept.17, 2011 became a global phenomenon protesting socioeconomic inequality, corporate greed and the uneven distribution of wealth. The Occupy protests attracted hordes of protesters and dominated news coverage for months.

Yet, more than a year after the major protests subsided, the problems that precipitated their inception still remain. Occupy Wall Street voiced the frustration of millions at the existing injustices of modern society, but it did not provide a method to remedy them.

We remember how the successful Civil Rights and women’s suffrage movements led mass rallies and protests, filled with great speeches and rhetoric, but, in our attempt to emulate past heroes, we have forgotten that leaders did more than voice dissent. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legendary March on Washington did far more than voice the grievances of the marginalized and downtrodden; it made specific demands for a bill against racial discrimination in employment, a $2 minimum wage and a call against police brutality, among others.

The march organizers worked with President Kennedy to ensure that the march would help push through civil rights legislation. As a result, it was a resounding success, and one of the most well-known moments in American history. Occupy Wall Street did not make as specific of demands or outline a way to achieve its goal, and thus failed to solve the issues it fought against..

While it may seem counterintuitive, part of the issue is that activism has become part of the social mainstream. Social media have accelerated the spread of many social movements, from gender and income inequality to gay marriage and environmentalism, but have also severely lessened the effectiveness of movements to actually enact change. Nowadays, everyone is an activist – everyone has opinions, and many make the expression of these opinions the primary focus of their online presence.

However, these are everyday activists, whose idea of activism is to share a video or news article and change their profile picture to promote marriage rights. The modern millennial activist does not dedicate him- or herself to resolving a single issue. Instead, we post, like, tweet, blog and express our opinions on a wide range of topics. This means that, while many more people vocalize protest against a variety of injustices now than ever before, fewer actually dedicate themselves to finding solutions to the complex problems of the day.

In our defense, the problems of today are much more multifaceted than those of our predecessors. The women’s suffrage movement succeeded by giving women the right to vote: segregation was undone through a combination of Supreme Court judgments and legislative changes. Even same sex marriage has a relatively simple solution, since all it requires is legislation making it legal, which in turn helps explain how it has gained increasing momentum while other social movements flounder.

Most modern issues are incredibly complex. Income inequality is not the result of a single factor, but of many diverse laws, regulations, policies and social mores. Gender bias and misogyny are cultural issues, and are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to legislate against any more than we already have. The issue with fossil fuels is not that we use them (after all, it is scientific consensus that they have a negative impact on the environment), but that our alternative energy sources are not yet advanced enough to completely replace them.

As a society, we have many obstacles to overcome in our pursuit of a better tomorrow. The current generation has been extremely vocal as to what we believe must be done, but we have yet to begin to enact the changes we wish to see. The lines are drawn, the goals are set and the objectives are clear. While we may not know the path to a better tomorrow, that should not dissuade us.

The hallmark of a great leader is courage, not clairvoyance. The time for angry writers, armchair theorists and aimless protesters has passed. Popular blogs, tweets, passive-aggressive Facebook posts and shared videos  have had their time. We as a nation must shift our focus away from decrying our problems and towards actually fixing them.

Stefan Herlitz is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]