i've been thinking about the culture of protest. things at the university are bad, and people are understandably scared and upset. the story that caught on mediawise is that various departments might lose their telephones. meanwhile, on the south side of edmonton, a woman walking home with her friends in the early hours of the morning was jumped by a pack of guys calling her "a dyke." police response was... lackadaisical, to say the least.
particularly in regard to the second of these issues, the response on facebook has been swift, supportive, and fierce. within 24 hours, a "community response project" garnered over 400 members even though the group's organizers had no clear plan. the facebook description reads: "A group dedicated to crafting a queer, systemic response to the recent assault against Shannon Barry (and others). We would like to organize, give us ideas! Posters? Protest? Let's think grassroots."
i didn't join, even though i love and respect the group's founders. i didn't join even when i saw friend after friend after friend after friend become a member. and i've been wondering why. it's a holdover from church, i think. call it commitment issues, but i have a hard time becoming a member of something that will demand unforeseeable things of me, and i'm particularly leery of protests.
i've done a fair number of protests in my time. i've demonstrated for abortion rights and i've defended abortion clinics. i marched against the first gulf war and the second gulf war; i protested the mid-90s provincial budget cuts more times than i can remember; and just last january i stood next to my dear friend in churchill square reading the names of the children bombed by israeli security forces. i was briefly imprisoned after the rodney king uprising. as street credit goes, i've got a little.
i have to confess that the notion of responding to the shannon barry beating with an old-fashioned protest left me feeling weary and disaffected. in fact, i found myself siding with the do-gooder white guys who urged people to take this up with the edmonton police service's LGBT liaisons. similarly, i have not written to lambaste my faculty association, or the dean, or the provost, or the president or the premier or the prime minister. instead, i keep trying to point out that when the province of alberta incents funding expensive professorships on soft dollars, institutions are left vulnerable to exactly this kind of financial crisis. we could see this coming for years. in other words, it's a complex problem that can only be solved by understanding the big picture of how universities are funded and administered today -- which in turn would require grasping a medium-sized picture of how units beyond the humanities are affected by this budget crunch -- which might produce the necessary (if not sufficient) conditions for solving this problem.
what i often suspect about protest culture is that people are not in fact interested in "solving the problem." historically, of course, taking over the streets has been hugely effective. see french revolution, see civil rights, see the troubles in northern ireland. even now, occasionally, marches can bring tears to my eyes: think of the battle in seattle, 1999, or the worldwide -- worldwide! -- protests against the US invasion of iraq in 2003. or if you like, just think of how ian mcewan uses that as a touchstone in his novel saturday.
but me, i'm all about solving the problem. this is terrific when the issue at hand is keeping a dissertating student on task, or getting a deck built, or giving advice on some interpersonal conflict, or building a better graduate program, or fixing a logical lapse in something i'm trying to write. i don't mind fighting because in some profound way it's not personal: i believe that we can think our way through both process and desiderata, so that investment in any given position is inconsequential next to arriving at a better (if not ideal) solution.
but "solving the problem" is not always what's called for. life doesn't work like the OCD challenge of keeping a clean inbox. as i've been reminded at several points in personal relationships (ahem), sometimes people just want to bitch about a bad day at work without transitioning into a brand new career, or register disappointment with their families without launching the entire unit into intensive psychotherapy. when professionals lose their telephones, they worry that their jobs will be next. unrealistic fear? probably. unreal? obviously not. on a political level, sometimes people just want to stand up and say, clearly, unequivocally, and quickly (i.e., without making this their life's work): this is unacceptable. society is wrong. you cannot do these things in my name.
sometimes the most interesting stuff takes place when you're that simple and honest. over on the shannon barry community response project, a critique of the way hate crimes legislation bolsters surveillance and incarceration is shaping up. folks are not taking to the street, they are taking to their heads and their hearts, and the results are really moving.
i'd like to become member 423 -- if they'll still have me.