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TiL Worldwide

2019: the year of protests

Reading time: 5 minutes

What began as a call for change in France and Sudan at the end of 2018, spiralled into a yearlong spectacle of protests in which both the audience, and the performers, were the citizens of the world. Ecuador, Chile, Lebanon, Zimbabwe and Iran saw its people take a stand against the failure of their governments to provide fair economic policies. On the other hand, the citizens of Iraq, Kazakhstan, Hong Kong, Venezuela, Colombia and India, to name a few, marched to the streets as demonstration of their angst against oppressive political policies and corruption. Alongside these protests where the Global Climate Protests, whereby millions of students from across the globe joined the streets instead of attending class for the day.

The question begging to be answered is why did the world march off into the streets the past year? Upon closer look, the three key causes of global unrest are the political, economic and environmental. However, rather than discussing the protests as consequences of the political and economic landscape collapsing beneath us, we should look at the unifying factors and commonalities that have generated this phenomenon. By understanding the foundations and mechanics of how global protests in 2019 were conducted, we can then tackle and propose better solutions to the negative consequences of the protests.

The True Believer
Useful insights into what makes a protest successful can be found in the works Eric Hoffer, particularly, ‘The True Believer’. Hoffer’s key idea is that mass movements are driven by the promise of a glorious future that will eradicate one of their unpleasant responsibilities bound to a dispiriting present. Hoffer then goes on to examine how certain demographics are more susceptible to the lure of this envisioned radical change and how these individuals thrive within the group knitted together with threads of frustration and hope. Once a mass has arisen, a fanatical leader, a short duration and a resounding intragroup dynamic can drive moment towards successful change.

Who are the protestors?
To understand the large-scale intensification of protests we need to discern the population demographics shaping the protesting masses. We have
the youth, aged between 16 to 25 years in Hong Kong, Chile and the Global Climate Protest, for example, as well as the working class who have actively participated in the economic protests, in France and Ecuador.

Theoretically both demographics fit into Hoffer’ s model of engagers in mass movements. Both feel abandoned in a hopeless present and willingly grab on to the promise of a better future. According to Hoffer, the youth fall into the category of ‘Misfits’ who are united by their search for footing in this world. Anxious that their best years will be lost before they get a solid grasp on their identity, the youth join mass movements to pave a path for themselves. The working class, on the other hand, would be classified as the ‘Unified Poor’ by Hoffer. The 21st century is typified by unprecedented levels of economic inequality. The working class who form roughly 89.2% of the global population share just 17.3% of global wealth. Apart from Latin America and the Caribbean, the rest of the world has experienced a rise of roughly 3 Gini coefficient points for low vs high skilled workers wages from 2002 to 2013. This excludes prospects of prosperity for the working class, who is would be recategorized as a new form of ‘poor’ against the ultra-rich by Hoffer’s analysis. Restricted within the boundaries of no real growth, working multiple low skilled jobs to pay the bills, the working class is isolated from any sense of purpose.

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How do these protests work?
It is important to analyse the communication and direction that the both groups are taking in making their voices heard. Historically, every mass movement has always had a vocal advocate; a powerful orator who is able to steer the frustration of the masses into canals of momentum, with one’s action inspiring the other to join in. However, the protests of 2019 followed a decentralized communication model through social media.

The Hong Kong protests were pinnacled by the idea of ‘Be Water’, a quote inspired by actor Bruce Lee. Through the app Telegram, protests would track the movements of the police and then coordinate dispatches of protestors to form a blockade on the police’s path or relocate their march peacefully and efficiently. Telegram is a Russian messaging app with self-destructing accounts in group chats that can hold up to 200,000 participants. The ‘Be Water’ movement gained popularity through social media and was later adopted by protestors in Spain and Indonesia.

Another global protest that was driven by the force of the internet was the Global Climate Protests. While Greta Thunberg could be regarded as the youth’s face of the movement against for climate change, the protests were largely self-organized with the youth expressing their frustrations with climate change through meme culture on the streets. The youth, representing Gen Z, grew up in the age of information and technology. Growing up in a world characterized by a rapidly evolving technology, Gen Z align themselves with the idea that they too can be individual agents of change, using the tools of the internet at their disposal.

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Have they been successful?
Among the seventeen protests that broke out in 2019, only three ceased. While eight protests were successful in removing heads of state, people still believe they have more to fight for. Hoffer suggests that the process of social change is in constant motion. At the end of one, signified by disarray from the masses, another mass movement must replace it to restore peace. Hoffer was of the belief that the concept of mass movements can be extended to all social proceedings since essentially, they were all attached by a ‘story’. One story exists to sustain social order until it fails to explain a phenomenon not part of the story of a culture or society. At this point, the story of the glorious future emerges, and a mass movement is encouraged. Hence, to restore peace a new story of social order, accounting for the failure of the former must be refurbished. In the context of the current protests, the masses are yet to find a renovated ‘story’ that quells their dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs.

Then there’s the issue of compassion fatigue that stifles the attention these protests can garner from the global audience. As discussed by Susan D. Moeller in her book about the phenomenon, compassion fatigue is the reduced sensitivity of the public to the news with constant coverage of the horrors of the world around us. 24/7 news coverage bombarding our screens, a sense of helplessness is experienced by the individual who now believes that there is little they can contribute to alleviate the suffering of people across the globe.

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How can we addressthese protests in 2020?
Following Hoffer’s concern, protests with a short duration can successfully bring about positive change. With a short protest, there is an instant substitution of the narrative, as social order is re-established instantly. However, masses are bound to the rigidity of those in power. If the establishment can suppress the initial momentum, then a prolonged protest is unlikely to bring about change in the radical fashion a protestor would hope for. For example, the use of social media in India and Sudan caused a huge scale network shutdown, prolonging the disarray in both nations.

One can only hope that the global dissatisfaction with economic inequality, political suppression and corruption can be accounted by leaders and that responsible change will be undertaken.

With regards to Moeller’s discussion about compassion fatigue, studies have shown that empathy is best applied when you are able to place yourself in the shoes of the victim. Following from this, it would be ideal for the audience to choose a few issues they feel personally connected to and for news outlets to provide more infield coverage to provide anecdotal insight in what is driving people to the streets.


Dal cartaceo di marzo 2020

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2nd year BSc Economic and Social Sciences.
I write about politics, society, psychology and anything in between.

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