Idioms of protest

Somebody [flings a shoe]( at George Bush. A [Cambridge]( student follows his lead, and misses Wen Jiabao. The idea catches on in [India]( and [Ukraine]( By now activists are planning target practice (all those misses are pretty embarrassing), the paranoids have started questioning whether Zaidi was a “lone shoeman”, and [shoe-throwing]( has become a recognizable idiom of protest.

It’s not a bad model for how protests take shape. A successful new idea is replicated everywhere, often with more concern for imitation than effectiveness. Over time it becomes increasingly ritualistic and ‘symbolic’, until eventually somebody comes along to cut through the crap. Protest, like the rest of politics, works through analogy and institutional momentum more than through reason.

I’m not complaining. Repetitive protests give the rest of society at least a fighting chance of figuring out what the hell is going on, and even to respect them. If you hesitate to cross a picket line, it’s because you know what a picket line is. It’s a shame when ineffective forms of protest become dominant, but that’s just the price we pay for lack of imagination.

Mainly, I’m intrigued by the history of protest techniques. South Asia, for example, clearly favours some styles which are less common in Europe. Other forms are dictated by the behaviour of the authorities. British protesters can let themselves be arrested, with only a small risk of being mistreated by the police. In Greece or Russia, only the foolhardy play chicken with the cops. Forget the causes they’re advancing; I want to read the story of how protesters make themselves heard.

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