Protest before the ‘me’ generation

martin luther king jr quotesI recall about twenty years ago now, I was taking a law tute in Legal Theory. The lecturer was pretty awful and spent huge amounts of time in his lectures explaining why his side of a particular debate – with H.L.A Hart the opponent as I recall – was the right side of the debate. I happened to agree with him about his criticism, but it wasn’t a particularly edifying way to teach. And he went on and on flogging a horse which, if he hadn’t nailed it to the racetrack would have been pushing up the daisies.

Conversation on whatever the topic was was skittish and it gradually drifted to what a terrible course this was. I didn’t resist this drift with any great strength, and so we ended up in this tute with pretty much every student united in the view that this was an awful course. I was having a mild out of body experience – which is to say that I was just observing all this, thinking that it wasn’t particularly my job either to defend the lecturer, or to insist that we study the tute question. Had any of the students wanted to do this I guess I might have done so.

So we had a problem. And there was a kind of silence – because all this stuff had come out. Now what? I didn’t say anything. Eventually through the small talk or whatever was going on someone said “So what can we do?”. Then, in a dangerous moment of insight I said “Well you could blow up the building”. 

This surprised my students at least as much as it surprised me. But I went on to clarify my meaning saying words to this effect.

Whenever things are not satisfactory, people can do things about it. Often there are procedures open to express dissatisfaction. If you’re on the phone to a business you can ask to speak to complains, or if you’re in a shop or a restaurant you can ask to speak to a manager. You can write them a letter. In all these cases a clear pathway has been set down for you to follow.  In this however, no pathway has been set down for you.  This isn’t surprising because your view is that you’re dealing with some failure of the system. So it’s not that surprising that the system hasn’t got a box ready for you to tick.


So you have to choose what you want to do. You can do nothing which is usually a worthwhile strategy to consider. You seem to have chosen that strategy thus far. At the other extreme you can blow up the building. If you do this, you may kill or maim some people. In other words, registering your complaint will have consequences. They are likely to be quite nasty consequences, for others and for yourself. But it will certainly make your point that you don’t like these lectures.


You could complain to the lecturer, but then he might not like you for it. It will be tense, and who knows you might not do as well in the course for all sorts of reasons. Ditto if you want to complain to the dean. But I can tell you that, while this kind of situation has existed before, there is no box to tick. You are free agents and you have to decide what it is you want to do. And because there’s no box to tick, it’s quite likely that complaint might end up costing you something – in equanimity, in time, in frustration. Who knows even in marks. But at least you can rest assured that in the past people in far worse situations than you have been placed in this position, and it’s because of their actions then that things are a fair bit better for you now.  So best of luck with your deliberations and your choice as to what you want to do.

I thought of all this when I read this fine column by David Brooks on the time when social protest was a profound expression of the Christian idea that the meek will inherit the earth; before the time when social protest, often for very worthy causes, became overshadowed by moral vanity and posturing.

As we commemorate the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, it’s worth remembering . . . that while today we take marches and protests for granted, the tactics of the civil rights movement had deep philosophical and religious roots.


The leaders  . . . wanted a set of tactics that were at once more aggressive and at the same time deeply rooted in biblical teaching. That meant the tactics had to start with love, not hate; nonviolence, not violence; renunciation, not self-indulgence.  . . . 


At the same time this tactic was not . . . just turning the other cheek, loving your enemies or trying to win people over with friendship. Nonviolent coercion was an ironic form of aggression. Nonviolence furnished the movement with a series of tactics that allowed it to remain on permanent offense.

It allowed leaders to stage relentless protests, sit-ins and marches that would force their opponents to do things against their own will. Nonviolence allowed the leaders to expose the villainy of their foes aggressively, to make their enemies’ sins work against them as they were exposed in ever more vicious forms. . . .

The whole point of this philosophy is that you defeat your opponents with superior self-discipline. These days, protesters from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street like to be fully demonstrative, expressing their rage or whatever. But the early-1960s civil rights tactics demanded relentless self-control, the ability to step into fear without ever striking out, to remain calm and deliberate in extreme circumstances, to exercise emotional discipline.

As befitting what was largely a religious movement, the idea was not only to change society but to work an inner transformation. They clung to this in a way that is humbling for the rest of us, who stumble and fall in far easier circumstances. . . .

King argued that “unearned suffering is redemptive.” It would uplift people involved in this kind of action. It would impose self-restraint. At their best, the leaders understood that even people in the middle of just causes can be corrupted. They can become self-righteous, knowing their cause is right. They can become smug as they move forward, cruel as they organize into groups, simplistic as they rely on propaganda to mobilize the masses. Their hearts can harden as their enemies become more vicious. The strategy of renunciation and the absorbing of suffering was meant to guard against all that.

In short, the method relied upon a very sophisticated set of paradoxes. It relied on leaders who had done a lot of deep theological and theoretical work before they took up the cause of public action. Nonviolent protest, King summarized, “rests upon two pillars. One, resistance, continuous military resistance. Second, it projects good will against ill will. In this way nonviolent resistance is a force against apathy in our own ranks.”

And yet it worked. And sometimes still does. . . . A study by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth in the journal International Security found that between 1900 and 2006, movements that used nonviolent means succeeded 53 percent of the time, while violent resistance campaigns succeeded only 26 percent of the time.

So that’s what we are commemorating: The “I Have a Dream” speech, of course, but also an exercise in applied theology.

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21 Responses to Protest before the ‘me’ generation

  1. Patrick says:

    ld simply think that today’s protests du jour lack any deep intellectual work at all (although that would be uncharitable!).

    More charitably, with the exception of women’s rights in the third world (not exactly a cause du jour) and gay rights, today’s western liberal brat protests are about diffuse and complex problems. At the typical pro-climate change action or asylum seekers or vegetarians, or anti capitalism protests, there is likely no one in attendance who
    Could define a succint and non-inane goal, even if they are protesting against a genuine wrong

  2. Crispin Bennett says:

    Patrick: I take it you get your information from handling one of Murdoch’s withered old organs? Nothing in your description matches anything I’ve seen at the small number of protests I’ve attended (I’m not sufficiently hopeful to be ‘an activist’, but I’ve presented my body on the odd occasion).

    The goal shared by the 100,000 or so Brisbanites who protested against the Iraq war (to prevent our troops incinerating Iraqis) may not have seemed intellectually rigorous to you, but it was surely ‘succinct’?

    And the far smaller but still substantial number who turned out on Sunday to attempt to protect the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park from a sound Campbelling might reasonably feel insulted by your ignorance. Which groups do you think were present? What are they opposing? How are they trying to do it? How are they funding their work? What forces are leagued against them? How do they keep motivated in the face of an Aussie majority who gives a shit about little but sport and shopping? What do your secondhand generalisations tell you?

  3. derrida derider says:

    On the last bit about that study, its a bulldust interpretation of the result. Very obviously, nonviolent campaigns only take place where they will not be suppressed with massive violence. That same context (ie civilised, if not democratic, opponents) gives them more chance of success.

    Failed nonviolent campaigns generally don’t cease when they fail – they turn violent and then they fail. Had J Edgar Hoover been able to “disappear” King and Bull Durham’s state troopers machine-gun the Freedom Riders then it would have been the Black Panther’s turn to try and change things – and probably fail. That would have counted as a violent failure, not a nonviolent one, in the study.

  4. Stephen Hill says:

    Its Bull Connor not Bull Durham – but dd’s point is spot on – its a lot easier to inspire change when you are confident that the opposing force will not use force. If this was not the case there would be a whole host of countries in different political circumstances

  5. Tyler says:

    I’d suggest the image of an overweight American policeman casually pepper spraying uni students who were sitting down protesting achieved exactly the effect Nicholas was talking about. I don’t think there’s anything to suggest that modern day protesters are any ‘worse’ than their forebears, beyond lazy generational stereotypes which i tend to dismiss given that many of them would be happily aimed at me

    • Michael S. says:

      I was going to post something to this effect but the Tyler beat me to it with this excellent example.

      The whole point of this philosophy is that you defeat your opponents with superior self-discipline. These days, protesters from the Tea Party to Occupy Wall Street like to be fully demonstrative, expressing their rage or whatever. But the early-1960s civil rights tactics demanded relentless self-control….

      This is breathtakingly stupid – and lazy. David Brooks doesn’t deserve payment for his writing, let alone a spot on the world’s most-read op/ed page.

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        I wouldn’t disagree with you that David Brooks doesn’t deserve his spot – but then only one of the incumbents does IMO – but would you care of let us all in on what’s so breathtakingly stupid about the extract above?

        • Michael S. says:

          I’ll let you in on what’s breathtakingly stupid with his point on three levels:

          First off Brooks’ can’t even articulate what the ‘rage’ of modern protest movements is when comparing it to the noble self discipline of the civil rights movement. Of course the grand achievements of MLK look impressive compared to the messy present we see up close.

          Secondly, as Tyler’s example illustrates there’s plenty of examples of modern day protest movements (even ones I don’t agree with) that involve tremendous smarts and self discipline, as well as using moral force to make their case.

          The U.S. civil rights struggle is an unusually large example of non violence and moral force in action, but that’s partly because it was such an unusual situation caused by a uniquely dysfunctional political system and history.

          Thirdly, in addition to being a great example of ‘back in my day’ the quote illustrates Brook’s ‘Very Serious’ persona that our mutually loved NYTimes columnist is forever flaying him for. His fundamental objection to OWS or the Tea Party nutters has little to do with their methods or tone, but the fact they are outside what he considers the zone of the serious, pragmatic centrism he fancies himself a wise exponent of.

          Someone of Brooks’ disposition in the 1960’s – despite having great sympathy for the plight of the Negro, would have been decrying the undermining of the rule of law and marked presence of radicals in the civil rights movement.

        • derrida derider says:

          Sorry, Nicholas – I’m with Michael on this. The way history is written is that “respectable” protesters such as King have their follies passed over in silence, while the unrespectable ones get slandered as self-indulgent, not serious, etc.

          It’s called “hippy punching” and tends to be worse among professed centrists – desperate to be seen as respectable – than amongst the heirs of the original hippy punchers (who took the term very literally, BTW).

          On Brooks, yes he’s a pillock – but not of course as much of a one as his moustachioed fellow columnist.

        • Richard HT Green who isn't allowed to log in says:

          Without wading into whether something is stupid or not, I do agree greatly with Michael about how atypical the 60s civil rights situation was. This was afterall in an environment where the majority of the population was already on side in spirit if not deed, the media and most politicians at a federal level too including every president in living memory.

          The antagonists had only held on so long because of the perculiarities of the system.
          As soon as the civil rights movement moved beyond the ground where all these people were on side (Jim Crow, voting) the tactics stalled and the militants started to become more popular. If MLK hadn’t been shot, he may well have just been sidelined (which would be unfortunate of course).

          I cannot think of anything in, say, the present Australian context where so many people are in coaltition against a minority of holdouts whom occupy veto positions (gay marriage is the closest), although expanding the race power to include aboriginies so as to go other the heads of the bastards in Qld and WA was an example from another era.

          Without proffering any opinions on what a current social movement should do, I’m pretty sure the lessons they could learn from the civil rights movement to

  6. Michael S. says:

    Sorry – to fix my phrasing above, Tyler’s ‘excellent example’ was the image of the fat cop in his post – not the Brooks snippet below…

    • Patrick says:

      What did that example illustrate? It certainly doesn’t illustrate “tremendous smarts and self discipline, as well as using moral force to make their case.”

      It’s a bit rich to ask Brooks to articulate what this “rage” is when his point is its very lack of content.

      So civil rights was about equal treatment of people and equal rights. If I may paraphrase: Civil rights leaders chose to, and did, demonstrate their equality through the moral superiority of non-retaliation. They demonstrated, day in and day out, tremendous physical courage, faith and self-restraint: they incarnated an ideal of western man and forced their opponents to either
      – debase themselves through their reactions, or
      – acknowledge the protestor’s humanity and moral equality.

      The counter-examples David Brooks has in mind, again if I may extrapolate a little, are:
      – You like the environment, so you go and wave signs about the moral imperative of not employing people in regional Australia;
      – You dislike the ‘system’, hence you like ‘the other’ in principle because they are conceptually in opposition to the ‘system’, hence you go and wave signs about the moral imperative of encouraging more refugees to drown; or
      – You dislike the ‘system’, you go and wave signs about the moral imperative of a new [insert name here once you find it] system.

      Whilst there is an element of caricature in the above, hopefully it doesn’t completely obscure the point that the very nature of what most people protest against these days is that you are seeking morally contestable goals – there are moral trade-offs involved. But the methods are absolute, crude and largely unthinking – jump up and down and scream, demand the impeachment of this President or that, demand no development anywhere, ask for more money for this or that, etc. All very reactive, immediate and self-indulgent.

      Whereas civil rights (and perhaps gay rights today and the rights of women in poor countries, but again when was the last time you even thought about women in poor countries?) accepted moral trade-offs inherent in non-violence, they accepted moral sacrifices of their own in their methods (have you ever stood by whilst your friend or brother was beaten? And not sought revenge? Encouraged another not to do so? Gone to prison for it? I’m not sure I could!). They did so in pursuit of a moral absolute.

      • Tyler says:

        Through entirely peaceful sitins they demonstrated the violence that would be casually applied to non-violent protesters who were trying to visibly draw attention to what they perceived to be public ills.

        Things like the concentration of wealth and privelege amongst American elites, the fading prospects for many American university graduates and the explicit support for these trends amongst the American political classes. Clearly disproportionate force was very casually applied to non-violent young people by state officials and yet somehow they’re protests were just incohate rage with no demonstrable self-control? What a joke

        The absurd reaction to many of the OWS protests from middle-aged liberals (amongst others) who’ve cemented their own comfortable position within the American polity was more revealing of the comfortable condescension that is directed at young people by many of the public representatives of that generation. Oh they’re lazy, they don’t do things as well as we did, they want everything all the usual cliches.

      • derrida derider says:

        Na, mate, this is garbage. Have you ever actually BEEN to a mass protest?

        King himself was involved in a lot of “morally contestable” protest – NTTAWWT. For a start he was a vociferous opponent of the Vietnam War from the start, at a time when only a very small minority (mostly people reasonably suspected of being commos, plus a handful of religious pacifists) were protesting it. That was a big reason Hoover set the FBI on to him. He was also (rightly, as events in time showed) willing to alienate a lot of his “respectable” liberal (in the US meaning) support over that issue.

  7. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Michael S,

    I think most of what you’ve said is empty assertion. Brooks hasn’t expressed the rage of the OWS or tea-party. It wasn’t necessary in his column to do so. He doesn’t actually express the rage of the civil rights movement. He reports on its methods favourably.

    “His fundamental objection to OWS or the Tea Party nutters has little to do with their methods or tone, but the fact they are outside what he considers the zone of the serious, pragmatic centrism he fancies himself a wise exponent of.”

    Except that he praises the civil rights movement for its ability to escape the pragmatic centrism of its time. If I’m to guess, I’d say that you’re right – that “someone of Brooks’ disposition in the 1960?s – despite having great sympathy for the plight of the Negro, would have been decrying the undermining of the rule of law and marked presence of radicals in the civil rights movement.”

    But perhaps we’re wrong or, if we’re right he has some insight into the charge you’re making.

    However I think you’re letting your antipathy to him slide into all sorts of presumptions which are based on nothing more than speculation – and it’s an unfortunate kind of speculation in which people talk past each other while they nurse resentments not exactly about the specific content of what they’ve said, but rather about how this is an example of just the kind of thing ‘they would say’.

    • Michael S. says:

      Thankyou for a thorough response Nick, as you’ve taken the effort to give a thoughtful response I went and read the whole column – breaking a promise I’d made to myself not to read Friedman or Brooks anymore. But I put my antipathy aside to consider his argument.

      I think by and large his greater argument about the strength of King’s message and means is correct, if relatively uncontroversial.

      I take issue with the offending paragraph because he is attacking a strawman by comparing those he ideologically disagrees with one of the great non-violent struggles of recent times.

      I think this is typical of, and says a lot about Brooks and that’s why I went into snark mode,

      As I said in my original post I think Tyler’s comment provides a good starting counter-argument to your argument about protest descending into moral vanity and by extension Brooks’ dig at OWS.

  8. Tyler says:

    I think it’s also fairly easy to dwell on the success of King’s political movement and ignore the failure to achieve substantive economic redress for many of the deeper social problems associated with the racism faced by African Americans. Quite frankly as i imagine all of us would agree the former is the ‘easy’ side of things for a democratic society to accept. All it required was the extension of general political norms in a consistent way from the North to the South.

    The issues facing society in the present day are more complex, climate change mitigation requires international cooperation on an almost unprecedented scale, in nations like the US adequately facing up to issues like intergenerational inequality and the economic disenfranchisement of the lower classes would require a significant reordering of their economic structure, far beyond something like the civil rights act.

    Both of these issues require policies that will directly impact peoples material wellbeing, not necessarily for the better. Economically insecure Americans can hardly be expected to create the perfect form of protest that would overcome the institutional barriers thrown against them by the mainstream institutions which stand to materially lose out from any serious reforms.

  9. Nicholas Gruen says:


    There’s something been smuggled into my views that suggest that I think King was ‘respectable’, that he’s acceptable to ‘centrists’. Sounds silly to me. I’m arguing that he was quite aggressive in his protest, that he didn’t accept the centrism of his time – indeed that was a major theme of his – the fierce urgency of now. I was saying that his movement was an exemplar of protest as been deeply morally purposeful. I’m not making points about where King was in the political spectrum. Nor am I saying that, on account of their lack of similarity to the moral power of the civil rights movement that contemporary demonstrations are no good, shouldn’t be supported etc. They should be supported, or not, on their merits pretty obviously.

    • john r walker says:

      Nicolas could I also add that the ‘argument’ that judeo-christian moral protest can be dismissed as an effective path, because it only works , in societies that have been changed by centuries of judeo-christian sacrifice/protestis circular nonsense.

  10. Alphonse says:

    A non-violent protest movement can succeed if its aim is clear, overarchingly singular and morally incontestable, the protesters are sufficiently oppressed, the oppressors are not central to the the power structure, the theatre is local, and its achievement is long overdue. MLK scored on all points. So did Mandela. So did Ghandi.

    Brooks sounds like he is bringing a historical perspective to the discussion by comparing today with a 1960s movement, but the opposite is the case. This is not to deny the deep need to dismantle today’s global plutokleptocorporatocracy but good luck with that, given the absence of the factors that allowed the abovementioned successes.

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