There's an excellent post over at the blog It's all Yoga Baby, which was originally published at the ID Project's blog. In it, Canadian Buddhist and Yoga teacher Michael Stone details his experience during the recent protests of the G20 summit in Toronto, and the thoughts he had about trying to apply spiritual ethical teachings in such a context. Scrolling down on the comments, I appreciated Carol Horton's questioning of the value of mass protests in this day and ago, something I've wondered about a lot myself. Carol, the author of the blog Think Body Electric, says the following:
The really disturbing question is: what can we in fact do that might really have an impact on this type of very complex, huge, international institutional apparatus – not to mention the world beyond it? It’s very very hard to answer.
I'm right there with her. I've been involved in many protests over the years, and have found myself increasingly disappointed in the lack of focus, and actual impact they often have. Not all protests are failures, but the increase of military tactics used by law enforcement, plus the lack of coherent, sustained organizations of people behind them has really weakened protest as a force for change.
Anyway, I continued scrolling down the comments section to find this:
November 21, 2010 at 7:29 am
What I find difficult with this kind of event as with a large part of the usual political debate, is what appears to be a much deeper barrier than whatever can be built with concrete and steel: it’s how our views of the human world are so entrenched that they can only clash with each other, as if there was no way we couldn’t step outside the conflict and attempt a really peaceful resolution.
When I read Michael’s book on ethics a few weeks ago, I was both deeply pleased by the capacity he had to step away from any rigid frame of thinking, at least from the perspective of Buddhist values, and also quite disappointed by his take on the western tradition of ideas, including what appeared to me like a very crude (mis-) understanding of thinkers such as Descartes or Adam Smith.
Yet for people like me, who’ve grown quite attached to that modern western tradition, with the same sincerity as that of the protesters themselves, events of this kind are also profoundly saddening, not only because people actually get hurt, which is bad enough in itself, but also because dialogue just seem impossible.
I don’t mean the dialogue between protesters and the authorities though, because it is this conflict itself that is the result of the missing conversation. What’s missing first is a capacity on all sides to accept that people who do not share our views may have good reasons for that, and that we should stop thinking that we have some sort of right to force other people out of their differing views.
Democratic institutions are just collective means to apply that idea, through a few relatively simple albeit imperfect mechanisms. Now, I’m certainly not accusing the mass of protesters to have deserved the repression they got, but I wonder why some of them may even have thought for a second that they had any legitimacy in using violence, especially given that we are fortunate enough in this country to have institutions that do allow us to voice our concerns peacefully.
Isn’t this violence precisely the result of attachment and identification to conflicting worldviews? An attachment that is so strong that some of us think it is worth destroying others’ livelihood, “by any means necessary”? Isn’t this a strange concept of peace?
I agreed with the first paragraph, and have struggled myself with the levels of anger present at anti-war rallies I have attended. However, as I went further into Yvan's comments, I , frankly, found myself getting pissed off. That's the honest truth. It brought me back to a hot summer day in 2000 in front of our state Capitol building, where a small group of KKK members held court while a few thousand of us attempted to send a counter message. There were opposing groups in the crowd, including some provocateurs from a black nationalist organization that were trying to pick fights. It was a very hot day. People were already angry that the Klan had gotten a permit to control the entryway of the Capitol building for an hour and a half. And just to add to the fun, there were 200 national guard troops, waiting behind the Capitol stairs, in full riot gear. The fact that the event remained mostly not violent - a few punches were thrown between two guys - was something of a miracle. And from that event, my mind went to the 2008 Republican National Convention that occurred here in St. Paul, and I wrote the following responses:
Reply November 21, 2010 at 12:44 pm
“Democratic institutions are just collective means to apply that idea, through a few relatively simple albeit imperfect mechanisms. Now, I’m certainly not accusing the mass of protesters to have deserved the repression they got, but I wonder why some of them may even have thought for a second that they had any legitimacy in using violence, especially given that we are fortunate enough in this country to have institutions that do allow us to voice our concerns peacefully.”
You clearly are living a privileged life, and probably have not been in the middle of mass protests in recent years. The tactics of police and other “security detail” involved in these kinds of protests now include provoking, interjecting violent, fake protesters into the crowd to stir up passions, as well as to deploy weapons on people before anything at all has happened. I saw all kinds of madness being done in the name of “security” here in St. Paul, Minnesota during the 2008 Republican National Convention. In fact, I’d say that part of my city was basically in lock down for a week – stepping a foot into the wrong area could mean risking arrest, and during protests, those areas shifted sometimes every 15 minutes. It’s all set up to upset people, and it’s ridiculous to expect every last person in a crowd of thousands – even if they were all yogis or buddhists – to remain completely calm and contained.
There’s no way to know for sure how the violence that happened in Toronto started, or what people’s intentions were. And frankly, take a look at what the media covers. I’ve met more than one activist who has given up trying to be heard by staying calm and rational.
Saying all this does not mean that I advocate violence. But property damage is different than harming people or animals. And before you tisk-tisk the protesters involved in violence, you might want to take a closer look at what happened. Canada and the U.S. are freer than a lot of other nations, but there’s a lot more repression going on these days. Step out of your comfortable, middle class neighborhood and take a good look around.
Reply-November 21, 2010 at 12:54 pm
“I don’t mean the dialogue between protesters and the authorities though, because it is this conflict itself that is the result of the missing conversation. What’s missing first is a capacity on all sides to accept that people who do not share our views may have good reasons for that, and that we should stop thinking that we have some sort of right to force other people out of their differing views. ”
Also, you don’t seem to have a sense of the power dynamics here. I’ve mostly stopped going to protests because of similar questions to the one’s Carol above posed. But you seem to posit here some kind of equal playing ground, where people are just not listening to each other. Nice pipe dream that is!
People protesting in the streets have already been shut out of the conversation. Whatever ideas they have were dismissed by those in power long ago. Mass demonstrations are an attempt to be heard when other attempts have failed. They are often kind of desperate acts, and it’s rare to see an actual sustained, intelligent, coherent movement like the Civil Rights Movement be the driving force behind such events. As such, it’s quite difficult to get any message of depth across, even under non-repressive conditions.
So, it’s probably a secondary tool at best. People need to find other ways to change corrupt, oppressive systems.
But if it all boiled down to just getting people in a room to listen to each other, we’d be in a different place. I’ve been “heard” by numerous Congress people here in the U.S. over the years – often as one person amongst large group of constituents – it rarely has done shit to change their votes. If you have money and power, you get heard. If you don’t, you have to find other means.
Perhaps my calling this person out as privileged, and basically naive, sounds harsh. Maybe it is based on my own faulty assumptions; I'm willing to own that. But I think it's important to be honest, and even blunt about some of this stuff, because otherwise we just continue to spin in circles. Kindness and compassion are essential in bringing about more peace and justice in the world, but how that looks, and what it means in a given situation depends upon what the situation is calling for. And in my view, it's absolutely critical that people who are out there talking about large scale social issues get a clue about the ways in which power dynamics and the structures of systems influence nearly everything going on.
People who haven't experienced it tend to vastly underestimate the power that repressive environments have over people. This is one reason why it's important to maintain a regular practice, and cultivate the ability to handle those "little cares," so that if you find yourself in a truly repressive situation, you might be better able to live out the intentions that you have.
p.s. If you're interested, I have new poetry up on my writing blog. Enjoy!