Protest is an essential part of any democracy. Rioting and destruction of property isn’t. What are the dynamics of a demonstration and what can we learn from it?

At a recent protest against election fraud held here in Calgary represented an opportunity to learn a few things about how to maintain civil discourse.

Balancing act

The event began with the usual rallying speeches. The organizers stated several times that they wanted to balance the female and male speakers and alternated the microphone to ensure different voices were heard. Some speakers were more radical than others and the calmer voices were given an opportunity to say their bit. The result was an even-handed description of the problem, rather than an escalation of tensions.

A movement needs momentum

The organizers then set the protest in motion, moving the group from its location in front of City Hall to the federal building nearby. This again creates a feeling of doing something concrete, making a statement by marching, which is a longstanding tradition and peaceful, yet powerful. The movement along the roadway also attracts attention (in this case, it generated a lot of honks of support) and spreads the exposure out over a greater distance, furthering the objectives of the protest.

After reaching the destination, the microphone was handed over to one of the more eloquent speakers to discuss the purpose of the protest, some possible solutions and give further encouragement to the participants that their voices do matter.

Smash vs speak

It was interesting to note that a couple of the protestors tried in vain several times to rally the group towards more radical solutions. That person yelled, “smash the state” at one point. Faced with this unwelcome interruption, and comparing it to the reasonable voice at the microphone talking about peaceful protest, the group simply ignored the rabble rousers. Full stop.

It may have gone differently if the police had moved to handcuff the guy. It may have gone differently if the media had turned their cameras to him and made him the story. But none of that happened.

Meanness rules the day

Consider this. We give an inordinate amount of attention in the media to the “smash the state” protestors. Or to the extremists who over-react and use unwarranted force. Very little attention is paid to those reasonable voices calling for very worthwhile solutions to achieve objectives that satisfy everyone. We elevate the vitriol, ridicule and name-calling, snickering over the meanness of it, all the while perpetuating it by passing it around and giving it attention (I’ve done it myself. We all have.)

When we do this, we do ourselves a grave disservice. And we lower the bar on our civil discourse such that we end up with polarization and partisanship from which no one gains much satisfaction. I’m not saying humour doesn’t have a place, but let’s make sure it is even-handed and genuinely funny, rather than mean-spirited and one-sided.

Let’s use our social media to spread reasonable solutions and elevate competent, knowledgeable voices. Perhaps we as citizens can drown out, or at least neutralize, those who would rather smash than speak to our challenges.



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