The controversial word “protest” can conjure up an array of diverse images.
On one hand, there is the depiction of minorities peacefully assembling, demanding attention to causes that have been ignored. On the other lies the image of protests as violent, destructive crowds. To further complicate matters, the media is continuously distorting our attempts at gathering an “objective” view of protests. Navigating these binaries and stereotypes can be arduous and often fruitless. In fact, these factors leave many people wondering if we live in a “post-protest” world. As college students, we are often faced with the option of whether or not to protest for the causes we believe in. “Will it be worth it?” We might ask. “Will the world even listen?”
The increasing influence of media is one of the main reasons that it may seem that our society is no longer conducive to protests. If one could assert that there ever was such a thing as “objectivity,” there most definitely is not now. The media is becoming ever-present in society and harbors more and more influence – for both better and worse. Although the media has increased the availability of information, it is inundating us with subjective views that hinder our ability to derive our own opinions and conclusions. This effect can be extremely detrimental to protests if they receive the disfavor of the media outlets. If the protest’s cause is harmful to a media outlet’s interests, they may choose, either consciously or unconsciously, to depict it in an unfavorable light. If a protest is depicted negatively, it could quickly lose support or be squashed by anti-protestors. If the protest benefits media outlets, however, the inverse could occur. Since we live in such a media-permeated and media-dependent society, the favor of these outlets carries unprecedented weight on a protest’s success.
Additionally, the increase in media outlets permits individuals to cater to what is known as “selective exposure.” Selective exposure is a psychological theory that refers to individuals’ tendency to favor information that reinforces their pre-existing views while avoiding contradictory information. This theory holds great influence in media; Individuals tend to adapt their media choices to avoid cognitive dissonance and mental incongruity. In other words, we watch and listen to media that agrees with what we think, and avoid outlets that disagree with us. This tendency has an enormous impact on protests, since the main idea of a protest is to inform and call-to-action the uninformed public or challenge audiences that hold opposing views. If individuals are engaging in increasingly specialized and subjective outlets, many protests may only reach audiences that share their sentiment. Some may maintain that this negates the entire purpose of a protest. However, there are many protests that aren’t affected by the media.
There are still plenty of protests that are not defined by their media exposure. Many community protests reach their audiences in-person and without the “middle-man” of the media. These protestors reach their audiences with their intended message and portray themselves as they choose. However, another factor often comes into play lately: fear. Between the ultra-awareness of police brutality and negative stereotypes plaguing protests as of late, modern protestors can often be afraid to join the ranks, even if the protest is peaceful. With recent controversial events like those in Ferguson and Baltimore, individuals may fear a fatal miscommunication with authority or the unintended eruption of violence in a peaceful protest. Although we still have our First Amendment right to peaceful assembly, many are left afraid to use it.
Nevertheless, the question remains: do we live in a “post-protest” world? Perhaps the answer of whether we live in a post-protest world depends on if we have the will to prove otherwise. There are undoubtedly obstacles arising in our way, but the importance of protest should override them. Protests – whether at your university, town, or city – question authority and encourage others to do the same. They force individuals to stop and think, rather than continue with the passivity that seems to dominate modern society. They provide our values and determination with a physical, tangible form that is visible to all. They give an amplified voice to minorities that are often too quiet or oppressed to be heard… Protests educate, aggravate, and innovate. Perhaps society may be very different now, but it still needs protest as much as it did in the past. Thus, the question should not be “do we live in a post-protest world?” but rather, “what can we do to ensure that we do not live in a post-protest world?”