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Thursday, Jun 20, 2024

'Showy but Not Substantive' Protests Appeal Only to Emotions

Author: Todd Metter

I have protests on my mind. I'm not, although I could be, protesting something like having to attend class, indoors, during this recent spate of warm weather. I'm not protesting the dearth of performances lately by the amazing Brian the Juggler, although I, and all of you, should be (e-mail him at bpletche@middlebury.edu — he still has a few spots left on his upcoming campus tour). I'm not protesting the lack of non-blueberry-fruity ice cream flavors lately in Proctor — I have my mind already looking forward to Free Cone Day at Ben & Jerry's, which to the best of my knowledge comes on April 22 of this year. I would insert a parenthetical statement telling Ben & Jerry's where to send my check for that free advertisement (slogan: Todd Metter: reaching dozens of readers yearly!), but is it really a free promo? I bet that they lose lots of money on Free Cone Day, especially when people (read: me) just get their cone and get back in line, which gives them just enough time to finish the cone before it's time to order another one. Yes, I've timed myself, and yes, it's almost down to a science. I'll keep you posted. However, I bet that they do build up lots of goodwill that nets them more money on the other days of the year when you do have to pay for the ice cream. In which case, Unilever, please send me some coupons or something to MC Box 4154. Thanks. Editor, please note, this ends the filler portion of my article.

What I am protesting? Basically, today I wish to proclaim my opposition to dumb protests. What are so many of you doing? Without judging the people involved, I wish to question the efficacy of the political motives of those involved in some recent protests — I'll keep it to on-campus ones for today. While it's fairly easy to come up with some inflammatory rhetoric, sound bites, spectacles, or what-have-you, there is a danger of having your organization or cause stereotyped by these actions, to your future detriment. That's not a revolutionary statement — I haven't said anything really new, but I do say that it's very important to keep these things in mind — much of life is politics, and the classic problem with politics is that it's generally short-term and local. As groups grab the limelight with attention-garnering activities, declarations, or actions, their short-term stock goes up. Lots of people, the day after, were talking about the demonstrations or activities at, say, the kissing show, or perhaps the CIA and World Bank presentations on campus. However, this increased public awareness and scrutiny of their particular issues or platforms often exposes perceived glaring defects in the logic or rationale of those who protested in the first place.

Often, unfortunately, this realization or conclusion leaves a negative stigma, either in the individual or among the public, attached to the group's future activities. Here, I must leave the road of generalizations and platitudes and get right down to my own personal opinion. As always, I welcome debate; reach me at tmetter@middlebury.edu since my editor takes out my phone number (go figure!).

While I consider myself a feminist in the sense that I believe in the equality of the sexes and the salience of women's rights, I do disagree with some activities, protests if you will, that lately have been sponsored by or have involved Feminist Action at Middlebury (FAM) or self-proclaimed feminists. For example, while I understand that those protesting at "The Art of Kissing" show were neither endorsed nor rejected by FAM, the attention that they garnered ultimately reflects itself most in the mirror into which all those concerned with women's issues must look. To the best of my knowledge, many different relevant Middlebury groups approved the content of the show months in advance. Apparently there was an open offer to have a gay or lesbian couple up on stage as well. Middlebury College Activities Board (MCAB) did background research in contacting other schools that had hosted this same show and found out that there had been no complaints concerning gender or sexual issues. While I don't, nor do I claim to, know all of the particulars, it does seem that a fairly concerted effort was made to avoid an offensive or anger-arousing show.

Let me here reiterate my support of many American freedoms, among them the freedom of speech. I feel that an individual can and should protest or support whatever interests strike his ardor. By the same token, I don't, won't and can't condemn those individuals who protested the kissing show; that's completely in their rights, and even responsibilities and obligations if they felt offended by its material. However, I do feel that the way in which they went about it suggests a lack of planning and upside, because when the fervor faded, many people, including myself, were left asking, "just what exactly were they protesting?"

On a related issue, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the many posters pasted around campus lately concerning sexual assault, rape etc. and these posters' claims of the high rates of these deplorable activities occurring on campus. However, the posters' strategy of inflamed rhetoric and less-than-logical reasoning (if the national collegiate average for rape is 1 out of 4 women, and a level much less than that is being reported here, it is not correct simply to assume that the level here is also 25 percent and any mentioned level under that is deliberate underreporting and cover-up by the College) is less than an expedient way of building long-term public support for addressing these issues. On the other hand, it's very possible that these claims of one in four women raped are absolutely true. I do know of some people here who have been involved in such incidents, and certainly I deeply sympathize with them. As to the true rate of these incidents, I don't have enough information to know. However, I do know that I, personally and unfortunately, was disheartened enough by the methods used in these posters to perhaps be possibly less sympathetic to these sorts of things in the future. Notice that I didn't out-and-out say that I am now biased, because it's not that simple. And of course this is a controversial topic and I'm garnering attention, but clear also is the fact that of course past experiences and interactions affect how we approach future ones. While it's objectionable, and "unfair," of course a higher proportion (when compared to other ethnicities) of people of Middle Eastern descent or appearance are screened at security checks at United States airports. The fact that all of those involved in the Sept. 11 attacks fall into this category is, for good or bad, an unavoidable fact, and airlines or the government or whoever is in charge of these things has decided on this sort of screening as their current course of action. While when comparing feminist protests to airport screening I certainly am talking about events of tremendously different magnitudes of importance, the analogy is straightforward. Often, short-term actions or protests (such as posters), meant to have a clear effect (to arouse awareness of this issue) and to clearly support a cause (the resolution of this issue), end up having a less positive long-term effect due to the form of protest or action taken; showy but not substantive.

While word-limit constraints prevent me from addressing any more topics (I had hoped to touch upon some of the issues surrounding the World Bank and CIA presentations), I feel that it is important to note that these other topics are no more or less important to me than that of those described in this article. I hope that in the future, perhaps next week, I may have a chance to look at those issues as well. Until then, I ask all of you, and this is unfortunately a basic truth of politics and many other things (advertising, for example — caveat emptor…), to think about what you see and hear and read and feel, and see if it makes real sense, good sense, is constructive, or if it is just an appea
l to emotion and not to efficacy.

It's unfortunate that many activities done in the names of many things (religion is a salient example) end up only causing much trouble in the long run. Perhaps, as I eat my tasty and soothing Ben & Jerry's ice cream next week (Unilever, where is that check?), all of this will make more sense to me. Until then, happy protesting!


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