I keep hearing about how people are fatigued by the question of whether or not ‘white’ people should have joined the anti-Zuma protest last Friday. While I think that Friday’s protests were better than last time (at least this time, the EFF was involved), upper-middle-class protests still strike me as problematic. Excuse all the puns.
The trouble is, these are two different things:
- The democratic right to protest; and
- The democratic right to have your protest understood in the way that you intend it.
The first is within your control. The second is not. The first is a right. The second is not.
A Protest Narrative Thought Experiment
Let’s take South Africa out of the story for a bit. I have another example (the last part is a bit exaggerated, but go with it):
- There is a hypothetical call-to-action taking place in the United States.
- Some background: for years, women have generally been protesting for their reproductive healthcare rights. Women’s access to healthcare (and Planned Parenthood, in particular) has been under constant attack from the Republican party, which panics that any form of reproductive healthcare must mean ‘abortion-related services’. This is despite the fact that vilified organisations like Planned Parenthood:
- Mostly provide cancer-screening and general healthcare services, some of which gets refunded by the government;
- The 3% of their services that do cross the abortion line have to be paid for by the patient (ie. there is no government-funding for that); and
- Planned Parenthood clinics are often the only source of healthcare available in rural America.
- So bearing that debate in mind: recently, an independent Congressman has proposed a bill to ban erectile dysfunction medication – because he is concerned about promoting sexual immorality.
- This potential ban has outraged most Republicans (especially the men).
- In response, Republican party leaders have called on their base to campaign against the threat of this ‘stunning intrusion’ by the State into the biological workings of the individual and the individual’s body. As they keep saying, this is yet another threat of Big Government going ‘too far’ and ‘interfering with an individual’s autonomy’.
- Many Republican men respond to this call.
- And they encourage women on both sides of the aisle to join the movement, because this affects them as well…
Do Republican men have a democratic right to protest? Well, yes.
But the real question is whether their protest is going to be seen as valid, or as a parody of itself.
Because actually, isn’t it quite offensive to women everywhere that reproductive healthcare laws are only a protest-worthy issue for Republicans when it might impact the sex lives of old, rich white men? And isn’t it even more offensive that these old rich white men are encouraging women to ‘join’ the fight for reproductive healthcare access?
FYI: those questions are rhetorical.
This would not be a debate about whether women *should* be offended. The only potential debate is whether women should put aside their feelings of offense, and use the momentum to drive some of their own agenda.
In the South African context.
On Friday morning, when everyone was getting ready to protest, I woke up at a reasonable hour in my safe suburb. I jogged down tree-lined avenues for my morning run. When I got back, I made coffee with my espresso machine, and ate banting granola for breakfast. I then got into my car, and drove myself to work.
Most of my professional peers will have had similar morning routines of comfort and convenience. There would have been no waking up before the sun rose, no walking to catch a commuter taxi, no cramped long drive to get to a workplace.
Yes, it’s definitely privilege. It doesn’t need an adjective.
And sure, I may indeed pay for all the things that I have – and work to pay for them. But my ability to work is not a simple function of effort. Firstly, all my raw material is biological. Secondly, that biological raw material was nurtured into a skill base by an upbringing in which I played only a minor part. And thirdly, I have managed to avoid the tragedies, illnesses and calamitous events that might otherwise have obstructed things. Thus far, at least – touch wood. Even my work ethic will have its roots in both nature and nurture.
So the question is: given all that, is it possible for someone like me to call for a protest against the current state of anything without de-legitimising it?
Let’s assume that I know Friday’s protest wasn’t about my life. That I know that it was about a more systemic problem. And that I also believe that state capture and nepotism affect everyone.
But even if I grant myself good intentions, would I be helping?
Or would I become a detraction, and hurt the cause that I’m trying to help? Just another privilege meme: using my gold card on the Gautrain to Pretoria, carrying bottled water, and documenting the march on my iPhone.
Unfortunately, there is no answer.
But for what it’s worth, I think that the debate is more important than finding an answer. Because without it, the protest lacks the self-awareness that might excuse some of the criticism.
And the criticism will come. When the already comfortable seek to protest against their own potential discomfort, and the further discomfort of those that are already suffering, that irony is low-hanging fruit. If you’re on the other side of the protest, it’s just too easy to re-frame the protest as blindly naive.
That part is definitely not in question. Even if it’s a complete distortion of why you are protesting.
Rolling Alpha posts about finance, economics, and sometimes stuff that is only quite loosely related. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, or like my page on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rollingalpha. Or both.