Why our appetite for political protest is doing more harm than good
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Allowing the citizens of a nation to voice their dissatisfaction at the ruling party is a key ingredient in any democracy, wherever it may be. After all, governments derive their legitimacy from the consent of those over which they govern.
Throw these maxims together and you have yourself the skeleton of a functional democracy. To this end, physical demonstration has been a useful tool allowing the people to highlight their dissatisfaction at the manner in which things are being run.Nevertheless, in the present day, they’re fast becoming tinderboxes for political violence. In the last couple of years, we’ve witnessed a multitude of political demonstrations turn sour. From Charlottesville in the United States to Chemnitz in Germany and most recently the ‘yellow vest’ protests in France, which have brought chaos to the streets of Paris and elsewhere. With increasing frequency, we’re witnessing protests degenerate into a primitive form of warfare, and it’s damaging our democracies.
At its core, it would seem there is something unequivocally confrontational about political protest, especially when accompanied by counter-demonstrators. In some ways it's an exercise as old as time, appealing to our most primal instincts: two separate tribes squaring up in a fight for dominance. The ‘ingroup-outgroup’ dichotomies that poison discourse elsewhere viscerally manifest in the real world. Physical confrontation draws lines all too clearly between friend and foe. Often it’s more than mere confrontation, it’s the set up for a battle and it feeds on our worst intuitions and prejudices. Of course, this innate tendency for conflict is worsened by any belligerent predisposition among the participants. Any such tendency certainly wouldn’t be surprising. Political protest, as an activity already conducive to violence, is likely to attract those seeking confrontation. High-risk activities attract high-risk individuals. To use an example, the presence of ‘anti-fascist’ activists at the Charlottesville march in 2017 was a surprise to nobody as those marching were of a group that actively seeks to perpetrate violence.
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