#WeblogPoMo2024 - A Rational Case For Protest

Having agreed to write more this month has produced a handful of posts that make me uncomfortable.

These are all posts that make me uncomfortable because these are fluent thoughts that get more concrete the more I write. Today I wanted to add another point about (non-violent) protest.

If you’ve spent enough time in the social humanities, you will end up with a viewpoint that could be condensed down to “humans are gonna human”, meaning that intentional action very seldomly can be used as a starting point for analysis because either it is not visible to the observer, or intentions are getting displaced as soon as other actors are entangled. If that is true and it still seems possible to give good descriptions, maybe even explanations of change over time, of “why the things are the way they are” by completely excluding intentionality from the analysis, then it seems right to be very skeptical towards explanations that rely on private intentions being present to make sense of the world. You don’t need to know the why of individuals to understand the why (or at least give a convincing description of the state of things at a given time) in a larger sense.

Armed with this viewpoint it seems heartbreakingly obvious that protest can’t work, because bigger more distributed powers shape society, if you like it or not.

But. There is a case to be made for protest, if we don’t assume protesting is meant to inform and convince the wider public to change their ways and join the protesters until the social pressure becomes so high that other people would be elected to the parliament that in turn would enact new policies.

If we take as read that any protest would need enough active participants and sympathizers, why would you want to protest if not for convincing people? I found this great encapsulation in a Hacker News thread about the 3,5% rule:

Protests aren’t intended to gain allies. It’s to put pressure on those in charge. Pissing people off and interrupting commerce is literally the point.

Disruption is the point! It means that people will complain about the protestors. It means that the politicians in charge will be asked - sooner or later - to deal with the protestors and in its absolute form this can really only go three ways: 1.) The wish of the protestors is granted in some way or 2.) the state uses violence to end the protests. Either way the non-violent protestors keep the moral high ground. 3.) The third option is that the protest peters out, in which case the protest was not strong enough to begin with and not worth a potential conflict with the law. You really have to believe in what you believe (or at least make other people believe that you believe in what they believe) to spearhead a protest.

So there you have it: A rational case for protest is about disruption not about convincing fellow citizens. You need allies to make enough of a fuss, but changing society has a lot less to do with convincing people and a lot more to do with strategically annoy them.

What has this to do with not taking intentionalities into account? We can see that the mechanism of protest works even if people do not act strategically on purpose. All you need is the right strong convictions and the wish to disrupt people for disrespecting your values. If you as an individual realize that protest works like this or not is not important for it to work this way.

So what about the other posts? I wonder if some problems in wanting to change the web through protest and activism can be attributed to there not being a need to understand the mechanism. You can disrupt parts of the web, but the web is not a society which means that platforms won’t react in the same way - or at least they don’t need to - because shutting down protests is so much easier: like what recently happened on stack overflow:

Stack Overflow announced that they are partnering with OpenAI, so I tried to delete my highest-rated answers.

Stack Overflow does not let you delete questions that have accepted answers and many upvotes because it would remove knowledge from the community.

So instead I changed my highest-rated answers to a protest message.

Within an hour mods had changed the questions back and suspended my account for 7 days.

The web is not a democratic society so disrupting a platform will have a different result than disrupting society: Either nothing happens, the platform dies or you get banned. Note that these things seem similar to what I wrote above, but they are different. One way in which these are different is that a platform is not owned by its users. Another way they are different is that people in charge are not elected by its users. So the dynamic of pissing of fellow citizens, them complaining to politicians to end the disruption and the politicians having to decide to either answer with ethically questionable violence or by granting the wish to the protesters is not working in the same way. Users engage on platforms. Platforms have owners. And these owners may have share holders to answer to but share holders are not congruent with the users of said platforms. To make protest work you would need a meaningful amount of users be part owners of a platform. Or you need to protest in the context of your society, which would be my point to make here.