Sunday, November 29, 2015

Ferguson Syndrome

Michel Martin: [...T]he question, though, Katie is does [the Black Friday Black Lives Matter protests] cause more resentment than it does - does it attract or does it repel? That's the question I would have, Katie. Do you have an opinion?

Katie Notopoulos: Hard to say - I'm sure that if I was there trying to get 40 percent off Kenneth Cole and I was barred from entering the store, I'd be very annoyed and upset. But, you know, that's also at the end of the day not very important. And the idea that you're stopping this mindless consumerism with something a little bit more mindful is I think a good thing net overall.

Michel Martin: All right, well, let me change gears now. [...]
Barbershop: Black Friday, Black Lives Matter And Social 'Cuffing'
And that, was that. A quick (and entirely clich├ęd) dig at "mindless consumerism," and it was off to the next topic. Which is a shame because I think that the question that Mrs. Martin was asking, whether or not the Black Lives Matter movement targeting Black Friday for protests aimed at disrupting people's lives will actually bring people around to the cause that Black Lives Matter seeks to promote is an important one.

A variation on the theme of "No Justice, No Peace," disruptive protests aimed at raising awareness and garnering support are, essentially, extortionist in nature. For the protesters, the current status quo is unacceptable, and so they seek to create a new one by introducing a crisis into people's lives, and that crisis offers two new options for the status quo - the first is that the crisis continues, and the second is that some sort of social change comes about that is more acceptable to the protesters. But for the targets of the protests, the second status quo is, at best, a disruptive change with some cost of implementation - were the benefits of the new status quo apparently greater than the costs, they would have started moving in that direction as soon as the new choice was pointed out to them. So, in effect, one could describe what Black Live Matter set out to do on Friday as seeking to push people towards a somewhat undesirable status quo by threatening them with an even worse one.

And from this perspective the question of do these tactics lead to more resentment than acceptance is an important one, even though it can be seen as an invitation to be unthinkingly critical of people who are standing up for what they believe is right. In "Why Terrorism Does Not Work" Max Abrams points out that the major shortcoming of terrorist acts is that the people that a terrorist is seeking to influence often lose sight of the fact that terror tactics are means, not ends, and come to see the negative effects of terrorism on their lives as being the terrorist's ultimate goal. It's worth understanding that protest movements can be subject to this same logic. And so to the degree that Black Lives Matter is seen as seeking the disruption of daily life for other people, their goal of a safer society for themselves and others will be forgotten.

If one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, target selection may be the determining factor in how people are viewed. Black Friday is an easy target, because it's become common to associate the day with brawls in the aisles of Wal-Mart for cheap flat-screen televisions or marked-down game consoles - luxuries that are nearly ubiquitous in modern American society, but that we still look down on people for wanting enough to take real risks to obtain. It's easy to want to have our cake of not needing to feel judged for lacking some common household item and eat it while judging those who feel the judgements of others most keenly. And so claiming that Black Lives Matter has done other people (and it's always other people) a favor by forcing them to be "more mindful" becomes a simple cop out.

But if enough people who profess Black Lives Matter are committed to the idea that only by disrupting the day-to-day lives of the people they understand have the power to call for change, the targets won't always be so easy. And in a society where walking back from even extreme positions is seen as a sign of weakness and defeat, it will be too late to ask if it's worth it.

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