On Demonstrations

Though I consider myself to be rather socially conscious, and while I have written many letters and cheques, I’ve never been part of a demonstration. For a number of reasons.

Let’s consider first to whom the demonstration is directed. Perhaps primarily, it’s meant for the people in power. It’s meant to send them a message. But what possible message could be sent by a mass of people, some carrying placards, many shouting their contents. What’s in a phrase, or even a complete sentence? If the goal is change, presenting claims without evidence, without argument, is surely insufficient. Do we really expect others to change their minds, their policies and practices, without evidence or argument? Do we really want them to be so stupid?

Perhaps the message is not in the placards but in the masses, in the show of numbers. Why are numbers important? Are we thus insisting the majority should rule? First, a demonstration, consisting of self-selected people, is hardly representative enough to justify claims of being any majority. Second, why should the majority rule? I know that our system of democracy is based on this principle, but consider it for a moment. ‘Majority rule’ is really an appeal to popularity, a bandwagon appeal. Should the opinion of the majority rule, no matter how ridiculous, immoral, or simply unsupported it is?

The only message masses can send is one of intimidation, of threat: ‘Listen to us or we’ll beat down your door!’ And the answer is Kent State or Tiananmen Square. Perhaps the intended purpose of the demonstration is not to convert the people in power but to convert others in the general populace to the cause. By merely proclaiming a position? I want people to agree with me for good reason. But the tool of persuasion here is not reason, it’s peer pressure. (or the promise of party time.)

In any case, demonstrations tend not to increase social responsibility among their participants but to decrease it. When three or more human beings are gathered together, something called ‘the diffusion of responsibility’ kicks in and the chance of people/property damage increases. Unfortunately, many riots start as demonstrations. But then what can you expect, given that mass gathering facilitates emotional expression rather than, as argued above, rational expression-and given that the motivating emotion in the first place is anger and frustration.

To consider a third possibility, perhaps the intended audience of the demonstration is the media. Thus, we encourage their bad habit of responding to and reporting about (only) spectacle. Aren’t we tired of such sensationalist coverage? And while a picture may be worth a thousand words, most of those words will have to be fairly superficial. After all, to demonstrate is to show. It is not to tell.

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