NB: A very short post – this might well appear in TCS at some point. The subject, of whether student protest is radical or rude, was set by them. This article is brief, sadly, so I might come back and expand on these points at some point.
What’s worse – dropping an F bomb, or being part of a government which brings in policies which result in vulnerable people taking their own lives? I hate to frame it in blunt terms, but that, sadly, is the country we’re living in. In January, the Guardian reported that according to the government’s own figures, over 1,300 had died after being found “fit to work” by ATOS, a private company tasked by the DWP with assessing disability allowance, and that a further 2,200 people had died during the course of an ATOS assessment. That means that, in a first world industrial country, 3,500 people have died (either from suicide, or from illness or disability after being found fit to work) as a direct result of a government strategy. If that comes as a shock to you, it’s because the mainstream media seems to neglect to talk about the real, human cost of austerity. Reading this, I’m sure it makes you angry. It makes me angry. Yet, absurdly, we often find the focus of our anger on the protesters, who actually take politicians like George Osborne to task, being the target of scorn. Why? Because they might shout “fuck off!” Honestly, how rude. How unjustifiably rude.
I think that trying to frame protest action as being radical or rude is a bit of a false dichotomy. Does it honestly matter? If one really looks into the kinds of things which the government is doing, it makes one livid, and frankly, I’m not surprised that there is colourful language. The point, of protest, as I see it, is about raising a dissenting voice, but it is easy to fall into a worldview that sees protest as pointless, and those who go out on the streets as angry and extremist. Largely, I think, this is because protests don’t achieve anything overnight. Protest action is as much about trying to win the coveted middle ground of politics as it is about raising angry voices against a government.
And, in this sense, protest works. I’ll give you an example. Earlier this year, the first gay couple got married in the UK. The Gay Marriage Bill may be imperfect, but the massive shift in society it achieved is certainly something. Forty years ago, that would have been unthinkable. Forty years ago, if you said you thought gay people should be able to marry, you were probably seen as some annoying, radical extremists. Now, the middle ground of politics has shifted towards a more socially enlightened perspective. The vast mass of people supported the rights of gay couple to marry, and figures like Norman Tebbit, who were once the voices of the middle ground, are now the mad extremists. Gay marriage was not achieved because some people in Downing Street thought it was a good idea. It was achieved because of years of tireless protests by LGBT activists and their allies, whether it was demonstrating, haranguing their MPs, writing angry letters to newspapers, shifting the middle ground in their favour. I’m sure one or two of them used some coarse language. Does it matter in the long run? Not really.
Given the passions which underpin protest action, I can see why people might want to curse and be rude. I can also see why this is alienating for some. Part of that is a problem of the medium; a protest isn’t a discussion forum for nuanced, political criticism. To quote a friend of mine, an essay doesn’t fit on a placard. Hence, it was a little saddening to see so much anger against the protesters using naughty words against the political elite, and yet very little focus on the misery overseen by that elite. So, if you had to pin me down to it, yes, I suppose protesters might want to use a more family friendly vocabulary; the greater need, I think, is for more people to look at the reasons they’re angry in the first place.