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The Dangers of Large-scale Demonstrations: When Peaceful Ones get Angry

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I got myself involved in a couple of heated conversations in the last couple of days. One of them was regarding my position on demonstrations, rallies and the such. While I agree that as a world citizen, we must make our voices heard when defending justice, I do not think that actions reflecting what we are standing up against should be undertaken. For it makes no logical sense to think that you can fight fire with fire. Remember my 10 year old friend’s advice? You fight fire with water.

A small demonstration (pun intended!).

Let’s say that, because of my deep concern regarding the current situation in Iran, I decide to rally up everyone I can contact, people that I know or don’t know, using email, Facebook and Twitter. At the appointed date and time, dressed in green, we march together towards the Iranian embassy and spend the whole day there chanting slogans and talking to reporters. We feel empowered, we feel joyful, we feel like we are a part of something bigger. And, at the end of the day, we all go home feeling great, having made new friends and having developed a new perspective on the world.

On the one hand, such an event will definitely raise awareness. In a society in which awareness is seriously lacking, it’s a great objective to achieve. After all, most people seem to practice what I like to call ostrich-style citizen participation.

On the other hand, raising awareness and encouraging a country’s government to sanction Iran for it’s less than adequate election process is about all that is going to happen.

I’m not trying to belittle the effort that goes into organizing these events; quite the contrary, kudos to the individuals around the world who take the time and effort to rally when their souls are stirred by injustices perpetuated time and time again. And, in the case of rallies happening in places where oppression runs supreme, I’m certainly not belittling the courage it takes for people to show up to them. It takes courage to speak up, but even more courage to speak up when you risk being punished for it.

However, I do dare say and repeat ‘all that is going to happen’, because, yet again, the root cause of the problem behind the problem hasn’t been addressed.

To find that root cause implies embarking on a tedious, lengthy and very difficult process of discussion, consultation, and change – the real kind. When we are told by Gandhi to be the change we want to see in the world, few people realize just how true his words are. As the questions in a previous post on Sahar’s blog show, justice at the lowest of levels is necessary to achieve justice at the highest of levels.

For if there is no justice in your household, how can there be justice in your neighborhood?

And if there is no justice in your neighborhood, how can there be justice in your county?

And if there is no justice in your county, how can there be justice in your state?

And if there is no justice in your state, how can there be justice in your country?

And, to top it off, if there is no justice in your country, how can there be justice in the world?

As the body of man needeth a garment to clothe it, so the body of mankind must needs be adorned with the mantle of justice and wisdom.’ (Baha’u’llah).

Without justice, there can be no peace.

So give your little sister her doll back, give your best friend his guitar pick back, and get working on establishing justice in all your relationships.

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4 thoughts on “The Dangers of Large-scale Demonstrations: When Peaceful Ones get Angry

  1. Hello there,

    I would like to offer a rebuttal of the concept that rallies are inherently ineffective.

    You wrote (and repeated for emphasis) that “raising awareness… is about all that is going to happen” because the root cause of the problem is not addressed. At the most basic level, yes, that’s true – but only for its lack of immediately measurable results. Who knows what the long term effects of a rally are? As an example: there will be a candlelight vigil by Iranian-Canadians tonight at the University of Toronto. Will that have even the slightest impact on the Iranian election? Of course not. Yet perhaps one of those young people will be (further) inspired to make a lasting change and pursue an education in law, and later move to Iran to make changes in the system – the type of root level changes that would prevent such fraudulent elections in the future. Yes, the election of 2009 was lost and couldn’t be overturned, but perhaps that candlelight vigil did make a difference.

    A less hypothetical example: Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch every year held “Close Guantanamo Bay” rallies outside U.S. consulates around the world. Did the couple dozen people who showed up for a rally in Perth, Australia in 2005 get the Bush Administration to shut down Guantanamo Bay? No. Did the hundreds of rallies around the world every year, the many advocacy campaigns in the news media, and the thousands of letters written by AI and HRW members combined PLAY A ROLE in shaping the next administration’s intent to close it? I absolutely believe that it did.

    Granted, I cannot definitively quantify that as much as you cannot quantify the ineffectiveness of a rally. So, I offer the example of noted United Nations humanitarian, Sergio Vieria de Mello. In his biography, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning Samantha Power, it is written that in his youth, Sergio participated in many rallies while studying in France, and they helped shape the man that he would become in the future. Many people complain of the U.N’s ineffectiveness and its need of a system overhaul (most of that criticism is incidentally true), but Sergio was able to show that the U.N. could still be effective and he changed the lives of many people. These are the incalculable results of passions that could not be extinguished and cannot be measured.

    So, dear internet stranger and fellow social justice activist, perhaps one day we will come across each other on a street, with me holding a placard and you walking to your next destination. Maybe you won’t join me on the frontline, but we will smile at each other knowing that we are both doing what we can, in our chosen methods, to make the world a better place. And it will be through our combined efforts that the day will be won.

    1. This is an amazing reply, and deserves to be a post in itself – which it will be, once I will have reflected on it enough. Thank you for sharing, and I hope you continue doing so!

  2. While I agree that demonstrations are often the starting point in helping individuals develop an interest in fighting for a cause, there is still a crucial step lacking.
    There always seems to be a lack of ways to transfer desires into action. Even people who choose to dedicate their lives to this cause, like the lawyer who moves to Iran to change the system, still face the same question as those casual activists on twitter; how do I bring about change?
    In some cases the answer is simple enough. If I am concerned about crowded animal shelters I adopt one of the animals. But many of these more complicated issues, like social justice, don’t have an easier answer.
    That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be actively trying to find that answer.

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