Methinks thou dost protest too much

On the fallibility of social movements

By Tim Bearly
Reader Contributor

“He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche, “Beyond Good and Evil,” 1886

The movement, like all social movements, started with the noblest of intentions: a unified resistance against a particular manifestation of injustice. Scrolling through a social media landscape with a multitude of revolutionary “hashtags” and protest “memes,” the tonal shift in the zeitgeist was unequivocal; it felt good when you decided to take to the streets and add your voice to the collective chorus. Chanting arm in arm with your brothers and sisters was such an exhilarating and empowering experience — you couldn’t have predicted that the movement, thanks in part to its more fervent devotees, would eventually veer so far off course.

The preceding paragraph could, with slight variations, be directed toward the adherents of any contemporary social movement — regardless of doctrine or affiliation. That’s because all social movements, irrespective of their political ideology, are susceptible to overcorrection.

Mass movements, of course, have played a positive role in our sociocultural evolution. The labor movement has been instrumental in bringing about workers’ rights legislation as well as many other positive reforms over the past few centuries. Innumerable movements throughout history have also contributed to our social progress — the abolitionist, civil rights and feminist movements among them. 

Notwithstanding the progress that has been and will continue to be achieved, the question must still be asked: When do social movements go too far? Moreover, at what point does in-group favoritism become the fuel for prejudice and hate?

The French and Russian revolutions are prime examples of how mass movements, though they may initially bring about positive change, can spiral out of control and become just as iron-fisted as the regimes they initially opposed. In France there was the guillotine; in Russia, there was the gulag — in both of these cases, “enemies of the people” (a phrase that has made a frightening resurgence as of late) were imprisoned and put to death. 

In 1793, during the Reign of Terror, French insurrectionist Maximilien Robespierre stated: “The revolutionary government owes to the good citizen all the protection of the nation; it owes nothing to the enemies of the people but death.”

In 1917, Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir I. Lenin used similar rhetoric: “No mercy for these enemies of the people, the enemies of socialism, the enemies of the working people!”

While the image of “aristocratic heads on pikes” is far removed from present-day protesters rioting in New York, all social movements, despite their differences, do have some common features. 

The fringes of a social movement, if left unchecked, can ultimately contradict and undermine the purported goals and aspirations of the movement. All movements have fringes that must be contained; the inability, or refusal, to contain the fringes will often result in a harmful overcorrection. To loosely paraphrase the above quote from Nietzsche: A movement that fights with chauvinists and bigots should be careful lest it becomes a chauvinistic and bigoted movement.

A notable case of overcorrection was the 2017 “Day of Absence” event at Evergreen State College, during which white students, staff and faculty were encouraged to stay off campus for the day. Traditionally the Day of Absence was a day when minority students and faculty voluntarily stayed off campus to raise awareness about racial issues; however, following the election of President Donald Trump, some students voiced concerns about feeling unwelcome on campus, so the event was refashioned and white people were “invited” to stay home.

Brett Weinstein, then a professor at Evergreen, expressed his disapproval of the idea: “On a college campus, one’s right to speak — or to be — must never be based on skin color.” 

Protests, violent threats and property damage ensued. Weinstein, who was allegedly told that the campus police would not be able to protect him, eventually chose to resign. 

“Where is the outrage from the ‘anti-racists’ on the Left?” conservatives justifiably wondered. But that question exposes naivete about group dynamics. One could just as easily ask, “Where’s the outrage from the Gadsden flag-wavers when Trump praises dictators? (And so on and so on — “where’s the outrage on the Left?” and “where’s the outrage on the Right?” — ad infinitum). We’re quick to call out the members of an opposition movement when they go too far; however, we often fall short when it comes to calling out the members of our own movement when they go too far. Collective agents, it seems, are not very good at introspection and self-examination. Unfortunately, in an environment of fanatical group cohesion, the selection process seems to favor those who lack this capacity. 

It would be a mistake to disregard the particular aspirations of a social movement simply because its fringe members went too far. To reject the basic message of the Me Too or Black Lives Matter movements because of the actions of their zealots, or because you have an aversion to “identity politics,” would be a kind of overcorrection in response to an overcorrection. But hey, don’t let me stop you from forming your own anti-identity politics movement: “The Conservative White Males Against Identity Politics.”

Take a stand, fight for what you believe in (unless you believe in, say, the flat earth model, or faith healing — then maybe you shouldn’t) and find a group that shares your values. However, in your struggle, make sure that you don’t become what you’re fighting against, maintain your capacity for critical thinking and don’t be afraid to deviate from the consensus of the group. No matter where your political allegiances lie, there is one thing that we should all be protesting: the homogenization of our thoughts and actions.

“Hey hey, ho ho, the bandwagon effect has got to go!”

Tim Bearly currently resides in Sandpoint, where he occupies his free time by writing subversive songs and essays. He can be lambasted via email at [email protected]

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