The politics of protest
The very first protest march that I ever participated in was in Germany in 1969, and it was about the growing prominence of a German neo-Nazi party, the National Democratic Party of Germany (the NPD). Our concern with the NPD was connected with the then imminent German general election, as the party was managing to attract a lot of attention in the campaign and it was feared it was about to enter the German parliament, the Bundestag; it didn’t, and I have always liked to think I played my part in that result. Shortly afterwards I joined another demonstration protesting about British involvement in the Nigeria/Biafra civil war. Though of course these marches didn’t change the course of history, I remain totally proud of my involvement in these and other protests.
I mention this in order to stress that I am not opposed to protest, and believe it to be one of the key civil liberties. Nor am I opposed in any way to demonstrations that express views with which I disagree. I also accept that protests are not necessarily about facing realities – the idea of shaking one’s fist at something we regard as wrong or unjust has its own merit, as it keeps our focus on pursuing what is right. But I am talking metaphorically: I am not as supportive of the fist being shaken in real time.
Last week, as we have mentioned here before, there was a student protest in Dublin in opposition to fees which ended in some violence on the part of a minority, with a police response. Yesterday similar events unfolded in London, again with violence erupting on the edge of a peaceful protest about tuition fees.
I think I shall steer clear of the vexed questions of who did what and in what order, and whether protesters or the police were more violent. Rather I am wondering about the politics of it, or rather the political judgement. Some sections of those who were involved in or who have supported the less peaceful elements of the Dublin protest have referred to the alleged benefits of scaring the establishment by such actions. That’s dangerous talk: dangerous because the opposite is true, and these actions have the clear potential to turn average citizens against the higher education cause.
Right now the future of many universities in a number of countries rests on a knife edge. To survive and prosper, we need to engage the support of those outside higher education whose voices could be influential: in politics, in business, in the voluntary sector, and so forth. Raising our voices may have some potential for influencing society; raising our fists does not.
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