The point of mass protest is not to stand out from the crowd, it is to be the crowd, Nicola James writes.
First published in October 2019.
I have thought long and hard about whether to write this and, to be honest, I have tried my best not to, as I am sure it will upset and/or anger some people. But I am sure that I wouldn’t be doing all I can for Remain if I didn’t.
Please believe me this isn’t personal.
While organising Rally For Our Rights, I and the other organisers asked those attending to wear everyday clothes. While the tweet I wrote then could perhaps have been worded better, I still think the request was reasonable. I also think that whatever the wording some people would have taken issue. We requested it because we felt the occasion needed to have a different atmosphere to other Remain events. We identified who we hoped to target and concluded that the best way to do that was for people to wear everyday clothes. We shied away from requesting suits and ties, etc.
That request generated quite a bit of controversy and has continued to bubble over in the two weeks that have followed. Rather than accept the request as valid, people have continued to target Rally For Our Rights for daring to be different. There was and remains a very deliberate rationale behind that request.
There are many precedents for protesting in this way. In my opinion, we are at a stage now where we need to think very carefully about who we are trying to influence and how to do that.
Consider how effective the following iconic protest images would have been under different circumstances. (These photos are intended to show the importance of visuals and not to suggest any equivalence with these causes.)
Would these protesters have made as much impact, if they had dressed as clowns?
Should the civil rights’ march in Derry have been a mass of people dressed as Disney characters?
If the Suffragettes had dressed as pirates would they have been as effective?
If these women were not dressed so normally, would the image elicit the same powerful emotional response?
The power of these images is how normal the protester looks while calmly facing a threatening opponent. Would the images be so powerful, if these protesters had been wearing funny hats?
As J.K. Rowling depicted so beautifully in her Harry Potter books, the way to vanquish a boggart that takes the form of the thing you fear the most is with the spell ‘Riddikulus’. You literally destroy the fear, by making it ridiculous. That is not magic. It is psychology.
There was a time when we needed to make noise and get noticed, and there are campaigners who did this brilliantly. I will forever be grateful to them for that. However, the situation has changed and we need to adapt or die.
We are in a situation in which we want to influence people in power. Why would we choose to make ourselves less of a threat? They should look at us and be scared they will lose their jobs and power, not dismiss us out of hand because we look like people who are easily ignored.
I am writing this as I believe there is a time and place for everything. In my opinion, an individual’s right to free creative expression isn’t more important than the rights of the 5 million EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU27, or the 66 million who will lose their EU citizenship. If you are more important than the cause you have misunderstood campaigning.
I have seen the argument made about inclusivity. Surely it would be more inclusive to allow the organisers of a protest or Remain event to decide what will work best for their event. At the end of the day, if it is not for you, you don’t have to attend, or you could even organise your own.
In my opinion, it is particularly undermining to take attention from the core message of a protest by drawing attention to yourself as an individual. The point of mass protest is not to stand out from the crowd, it is to be the crowd.
The visual language of a protest needs to be clear and not open to interpretation. It should be used to get attention for the message, not ourselves as individuals. If you do draw attention to yourself, at least use it and direct it to others too. Remain has many voices.
Protest is about the message, as is this piece. It is not about individuals, sour grapes, jealousy or trolling. It is about how I believe we achieve our shared goal.
I began this piece by saying that I know I will upset some people. Much as I dislike upsetting people, I would rather upset a few than see millions upset. The situation has evolved and it is time for us to evolve. Identify your target audience and act accordingly.🔷
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