Friday, October 07, 2011

Why I hate protests...and why I go anyway

October is Respect Life month, and today is the tenth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. So last Sunday when it was announced in church that the annual Life Chain protest would be held that afternoon a block from our house, I rounded up the kids and out we went.

As a person who hates confrontation and likes to be liked, I don't enjoy protests one bit. Way too public. You stand there watching thousands of cars going by in an hour, wondering exactly how many friends and acquaintances you're losing by speaking out. Which is one very good reason for doing it -- practicing the virtue of humility, and also the virtue of honesty. It's not much good having friends and acquaintances if you have to hide your beliefs from them. For that matter, it's not much good being friends with someone if you're not willing to speak hard truths to them once in a while.

Another reason why I don't like protests is because I think they're usually pretty ineffective. You stand there carrying a sign that people may or may not be able to read. You get maybe five or six words, max. It's worse than Twitter. And usually, if it's worth protesting, the issue is probably complex, full of misunderstanding, and highly emotionally charged. I personally doubt whether anyone's mind has been changed on an issue by a sign at a protest -- although I know that it can and does happen, especially if the sign is thought-provoking, and reaches someone at the right moment.

But beyond being a very inefficient way of promoting change, the other thing I don't like about protests is the way they set up an us-vs.-them division that almost immediately shuts down any possibility for conversation. People drive by, see your sign, and then they're gone. If they agree with you, they feel affirmed in their beliefs; if not, they dismiss you as an extremist wacko. End of conversation. Moving closer to a resolution on these important issues requires something more: an in-depth, ongoing conversation, ideally within the context of a relationship in which both sides feel safe. Where can those kinds of conversations happen anymore? I have no idea. Part of the reason we're so divided and angry as a nation, I think, is the lack of opportunities to really discuss our differences in an intelligent manner.

Another reservation I have about protests is more pastoral. What effect does my anti-war sign have on a veteran who is recently back from the war? What effect does my anti-abortion sign have on the many women who have had abortions? In both cases, I think there is a great risk in poking a stick at someone's rawest, most intimate, most vulnerable places, stirring up all those emotions without any followup. "Violence is always wrong, but none of us are perfect and I respect your intrinsic dignity no matter what mistakes you may have made" just doesn't fit on a sign, and wouldn't really be sufficient even if it did. When I was at the University of Minnesota, our pro-life group did lots of demonstrations on the sidewalks on campus, or in the student union. (We mostly had information and displays.) There was a lot more opportunity for interaction, including some very enlightening discussions with women who had had abortions. Some of these discussions went on for a long time, like an hour or more. As we talked, we generally moved from her anger and rage to a somewhat calmer discussion that usually revealed a great deal of pain and hurt. (One young woman finally revealed that her own mother frequently told her that she wished she had aborted her. Wow.) You can't have those kinds of discussions when people are driving by in their car, looking at the six words on your sign.

Yet despite all this,I went to the protest anyway. And took my kids.

The only thing worse than that kind of protest is silence, and today there is a great conspiracy of silence around publicly sanctioned violence of all kinds. We simply do not want to talk about it; it's too divisive and uncomfortable, But as painful and inconvenient as it is, we have to talk about these issues, because the worst thing about publicly sanctioned violence is what it does to us as people, and as a society. It kills us just as surely as it kills the people it's directed against...the one type of death just takes longer, is all.

I recently finished reading In the Garden of the Beasts, the true story of William Dodd, ambassador to Germany during the rise of the Nazi party. Dodd was slow to realize the threat of Nazism, in part because of his own prejudices; but once he did, he did what he could to resist it, and he spoke out vigorously warning the United States and the western powers of the threat. He was not just ignored; people in the press and the State Department actively campaigned against him because of his outspokenness.

Such situations have repeated themselves throughout the history of civilization. Another fine example would be the persistence of slavery in the American south. What is amazing about it is that when you read the accounts of the people who were in power at the time, many acknowledged the evil of slavery, and the corrosive effect it had on the nation. "But what can be done?" they asked. Raising the issue in polite society in certain circles was just as likely to rupture relationships and kill a dinner party as raising the issue of abortion is today.

The only redeeming quality of protests, I think, is that they break the silence. They say: "All is not well...we need to talk." Perhaps they prick the conscience, even just a little. And if nothing else, they leave a record for future generations that not all were silent in the face of evil.

And so we went out. We brought our own signs, because I don't like the ones they provide at these events. One said: "SAY NO TO VIOLENCE / ABORTION - WAR - DEATH PENALTY"; another said: "SAY YES TO LIFE AND PEACE / FRIENDSHIP + ADOPTION"; the third, which we made for Jaybird, read: "I (heart) life!" She had fun painting the letters each in a different color. I like the "Say no to violence" sign the best because I think pointing out that both abortion and war are, at their root, acts of violence may be thought provoking to people on all points of the political spectrum. (So many are opposed to one but not really the other.)

Several hundred people attended the protest, lining the street for about a mile. We stood at the very end, at the busy intersection near our house. The kids came voluntarily and stayed for half an hour; just as we were leaving, a woman drove up and started yelling a string of profanities out the window -- she was truly furious. Fortunately, she was a little difficult to hear, and Jaybird interpreted her rant as being about the Vikings. (The woman used the F word repeatedly.)

Many people question the wisdom of bringing kids to a protest. To them I would answer that yes, it is good to use prudent caution when deciding whether kids should be involved or not. But if their physical safety is not at risk, then I believe that such experiences have some value in helping kids become responsible adults who do not stand by quietly as others are being systematically denied basic human rights, or even the right to life itself. In another time, another place, I would hope that my grown children would be among the brave few who publicly rejected Nazism. In another time, another place, I would hope that my grown children would be among the brave few to work for the abolition of slavery and segregation.

We have been reading the lives of the saints this summer. After reading the story of St. Terese of the Child Jesus (the one who called herself "the little flower"), the kids were particularly impressed. "Maybe we could become saints, too," Bear suggested. "Maybe we all could."

Standing on a street corner with a sign doesn't make one a saint. But being brave enough to stand up and speak out when the most vulnerable members of society are being harmed...that's a good place to start, I guess.