The plate is full, but the utensils do not move––nothing moves––time stands still and the showdown begins. If you have raised a child, then you know the drill. The dinner protest: arms folded, stiff upper lip and the stony stare––they are dug in. There is no more reasoning once the child has moved from listening to protest.
Protest is a powerful instrument to declare our opinions and make our thoughts known. And when citizens join together in protest, they yoke the dignity of a single voice with the inertia of a crowd. The founding fathers realized that peaceful protest was essential for the survival of democracy; therefore, with foresight and prudence, they protected this fundamental right. The power to protest is a unique right afforded to all Americans, and it serves as a preservative force against tyranny and injustice.
Protest also has the potential to reshape culture. The Protestant Reformation directed the synergy of protest to re-shape the landscape of medieval Europe. Dr. Martin Luther King harnessed the power of peaceful protest to change how a nation thought about race relations. And those of us who witnessed the horror of Tiananmen Square learned to cherish the rights afforded in the U.S.
Constitution. Protests have the power to change the course of history, and protests have the potential to transform a culture.
Nevertheless, what happens in a society when protest becomes the primary instrument of activism? What happens when protest becomes the chief way that citizens participate in public discourse? Moreover, are there consequences for a culture when protest becomes the default
attitude for civic engagement? I suppose we need not look any further than the current political dysfunction in Washington for our answer.
Protest harnesses the power of emotion. When all other means have been exhausted, a protest can give voice to the voiceless. Consequently, protest is then fueled by the emotion of despair.
And when humans have a general sense of hopelessness, all reasoning goes out the window. No amount of logic can change a mind numbed by desperation. Just try to argue with your toddler about the virtues of brussels sprouts, and you will learn that reason is pointless once a person settles into protest. Moreover, when society becomes a protest society before it is a listening society, we surrender to irrational fears, anger, and violence against our neighbor. Protest is an instrument to employ only after all other forms of engagement have been exhausted.
The right to protest is an essential part of a democratic society, but protest must take its place among a hierarchy of other activities. Democracy requires that citizens first engage in the work of listening before turning to protest. Today, however, our primary form of activism is complaint and protest. Moreover, protesting is so convenient, we don’t even need to leave our couch.
Twitter allows us to voice a protest in 280 characters. Cable news values the protest more than any real substantive debate. And now it seems that Democrats and Republicans cannot win elections unless they promise not to listen to their opponents. Consequently, do we even realize that we are losing the ability to listen to one another? The persistent protest in our society is
evidence that we are no longer a people who know how to listen to one another. And when democracies lose the ability to listen, there will be a hefty price to pay.
Democracy uniquely views every person worthy of value and dignity; therefore, democratic states must be first and foremost listening societies. Listening to our friends and our opponents is a fundamental way in which humans confer honor, respect, and worth to our fellow neighbors.
Once upon a time, we debated. A good debate was the art whereby people listened to opponents, determined their premises, tested truth claims and challenged or accepted conclusions. We didn’t always agree (in fact agreement wasn’t even the point in some cases), but the process of
listening afforded dignity and promoted mutual respect. Listening to the ideas of others showed that we valued one another as rational creatures even when we disagreed. If democracy is to endure, we must recapture the virtue of listening to one another.
So how do we re-engage such a noble task? First, find someone you disagree with––that shouldn’t be too difficult. Well, it is more difficult today than you might think. We tend to be tribal. We feel more comfortable with people who look like us, think like us, and agree with us. If we are to recapture the necessary components for democracy, we must engage with those we
disagree. Conservative, ask your Progressive co-worker about their views and discover what their opinions actually are. Democrats, ask your Republican neighbor how they developed their values and why they continue to hold those values. Perhaps we can start by asking each other what we are so afraid of losing?
Second, realize what is at stake here. Democracy only works when people can form a consensus. While we will never agree with one another on all issues, the process of engaging and listening is something that must bring us all together. Remember what happened when you refused to eat your brussel sprouts, your parents resorted to force. When a democracy loses the ability to listen, it becomes something other––democracies become societies where the use of force must be used. Democracy requires that its citizens hold a set of shared values and, if those values disappear, so does the nation.
In an imperfect world, it is unrealistic to think that people will agree on every topic. In fact, I am glad we do not. Because through diversity of thought, we have the opportunity to show dignity and respect for one another by listening and debating. The shared value in a democracy must be the willingness of the people to listen to one another. Democracy is unique because it acknowledges the importance of every individual life, and democracy is powerful because it
joins the many as one––E Pluribus Unum! If you are looking for a fresh way to engage in the public space, pause the Tweet for a moment and listen first. Our democracy may depend on it.