The Unseen Effectiveness of Social Movements and Protests

by Jolan Hsieh

The media has portrayed current Asian demonstrations, such as the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong and the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan, as unsuccessful because the protesters’ requests have not been met. By another measurement, the awareness of issues and recognition of the power possible by targeted and collective peaceful action, they have been very effective.

The long-term residual effectiveness of the Asian movements and other protests across the globe authentically can be measured only in small increments with some of the most significant and basic results at this point not always visible but rather felt at a deeper level of understanding. Protests are influencing people to change their beliefs, mindsets, and attitudes which are psychologically the most difficult elements to modify, but which ultimately are the most potent factors in creating authentic social change. The evidence is that more and more people in increasing numbers of nations are expressing dissenting opinions and demonstrating their right to be heard regarding issues affecting their lives.

Nov. 1, 2014 - Lennon Wall Hong Kong

Nov. 1, 2014 – Lennon Wall Hong Kong

Such manifestations of creative thought and open mindedness can, in part, be attributed to great educators and activists and their influence on young minds. Encouraging people to think, to question, to vision possibilities, to share information, and to cooperate and work collectively provides a pathway to release creativity and gradual change in social situations. Subliminal messages inherent in critical thinking activities can lead to respecting differing points of view and defying prevailing mores to create inward changes necessary to subsequently make outward changes.

The Impact of Exemplars and Participatory Learning

In regard to social change, the impact of leading by example and learning by participation cannot be underestimated.

Leaders in any social movement are the most credible when their own lives reflect beliefs aligned with the values they are espousing and expecting in their protests. When they desire to be heard and understood, they in turn should be open-minded and tolerant of differing opinions, for it is only through appreciating the perspectives and positions of all involved that a new, inclusive and shared cultural reality which benefits all can come into being. Powerful figures and authorities as well as the general public are more receptive to ideas of leaders and protesters exemplifying such qualities than they are of those exhibiting negative tendencies. When destructive or violent elements become part of a demonstration, those in power as well as those in the broader population become increasingly resistant or even hostile and less likely to entertain ideas different from their own.

As an educator desiring to see students become involved in social change, this author shares with them personal experiences of participating in the earlier Taiwan Wild Lily Student Movement of the 1990s. Students of those Sunflower Protests were concerned with the government’s lack of transparency and disregard for procedure. The author believes that the subsequent government elections in Taiwan were greatly influenced by this mildly successful but extremely effective protest movement because it brought awareness of the usefulness of the collective power of citizens.

Students interacting with their professor glimpse the experience of demonstrators, view the goals of the movement from the perspective of a participant, and, by comparing earlier events with current happenings, are able to see how the present and subsequently the future unfolds in the wake of protests. Hence, the experience of interacting with those actually involved is more real and visceral than merely reading about the movement.

Mar. 20, 2014 – Taiwan first wave protestors sleep in the street

Participants, including the author, joining in support and solidarity with those in Hong Kong’s Occupy Central with Love and Peace Movement, also known in the media as the Umbrella Movement, were able to exchange ideological thoughts with attending students and with non-government organization (NGO) activists. Understanding the background of various individuals, their concerns, and their visions for the future provided for rich cultural exchange. While very different, Hong Kong and Taiwan both face China factors economically and politically, and individuals are mutually enriched when their views and experiences are shared.

These gatherings of community and collective consciousness are a forum in which people can air their grievances as well as garner new ideas. Their common goal is to expose their concerns and reveal the image that the future can and should provide avenues for increasing shared dialog and exchange of information.

The Role of the Media on Demonstrations

These demonstrations and protests have been dramatically affected by the media itself and enhanced in recent years by emerging technologies of the internet and cellular communication which can provide daily and nearly instantaneous shared information and imagery to anyone, anywhere.

Besides showing nonviolent methods and tactics for accomplishing social change, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the 1960s provides an excellent example of the significance of the media in effecting actual change as well as the slowness with which authentic change becomes manifest.
It had been a hundred years earlier (January 1863) during America’s Civil War, the bloodiest in the nation’s history, that slaves were declared to be free in Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Across America the vision in this document was published in newspapers, the most immediate and powerful media of the era, capturing the imaginations of local citizens whose minds became open to the idea of ending slavery. The document provided a turning point in the discrimination of African-Americans, and subsequently became a stimulus for increasing freedom for others, including women and various minority groups.

However, it took five and a half years (July 1868) before the Constitution was amended by the 14th Amendment which granted citizenship to all those born or naturalized in the United States and which brought expanded legal protections against discrimination.

Examples are rampant, however, that the ideas inherent in those two documents did not permeate all of society, so nearly a century later the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed numerating specific safeguards against the discrimination of minorities. The passage of this legislation was highly dependent upon the sentiment of the American public, which in turn was generated largely by the newest media, television, portraying images of demonstrations and marches of the Civil Rights Movement, and popular music of the times written and performed by socially-conscious folk singers and entertainers such as Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Joan Baez, to name only a few.

In spite of great progress, there still remains work to be done in the United States regarding discrimination as evidenced by continuing struggles, both in Congress and among the people, such as those to provide equal pay for equal work and to raise the minimum wage as two examples (see also: http://www.nwlc.org/our-issues/employment/equal-pay-and-the-wage-gap).

Social change, as this chronology of expanding freedom shows, is a gradual, incremental, and evolving process.

Nov. 1, 2014  - Protesters of the Hong Kong’s Occupy Central with Love and Peace Movement

Nov. 1, 2014 – Protesters of the Hong Kong’s Occupy Central with Love and Peace Movement

Because the notion of nondiscrimination, or fairness and equality, is an idea residing in the minds and hearts of people individually, it cannot be fully manifested until it reaches each and every individual to some degree. That is a very slow process, and it is most difficult to reach those with closed minds.

Democracy and Access to Information

Likewise, democracy is an intangible philosophical construct, and it, too, is evolving and being interpreted in the minds of people. Essential to a thriving democracy is access to information, or education, as well as introspective, critical, and creative thinking.

Historically in many places around the globe societies grew to become stable entities under a forceful, authoritarian leader with close advisors, followers, and allies. They were the aristocrats of the society, the ones with power, influence, and money. They were the few with privileges of education, knowledge, and power who basked in the luxuries that the society had to offer. The bulk of the population blindly followed the will of whichever regime was in power. A perceived stranglehold on knowledge kept the masses “in their place,” toiling for the benefit of the elite.

As vividly portrayed in battles collectively known as the War of the Roses where cousins and even brothers schemed and killed in vying for the throne of England and where women had few rights to property or opinion except through their father or husband, such was the might-makes-right culture of fifteenth century England, Wales, and Scotland for the ancestors of early settlers of the United States just five generations prior to when early colonists lay the bedrock for contemporary democracy on the North American continent in the Mayflower Compact which provided a vision of self-government.

The struggles and personalities of those involved in those wars is documented by acclaimed historian and journalist Dan Jones in his latest book The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors (1914) as well as in the historical fiction of best-selling British author Philippa Gregory in her multiple-book series about the War of the Roses which was adapted as a 10-part BBC television series which aired in 2013.

Incidentally, that warring culture was recently compared to that in contemporary Middle East countries such as Iraq on the Diane Rehm PBS Radio Show when she recently (January 2014) interviewed Dan Jones.

Unquestionably vestiges of the power-over mentality continue among many, perhaps even the majority, of people in the United States yet today, in spite of an overarching culture in this nation espousing freedom, democracy, and quality education for all.

In spite of that history, today the stranglehold on knowledge and thought is diminishing and an age of reasoning is slowly permeating all of society, not just in Hong Kong, Taiwan, or the Ukraine. The internet, cell phones, and the arts play a major part in this transition.

Oct. 4, 2014 - Protesters of the Hong Kong’s Occupy Central with Love and Peace Movement

Oct. 4, 2014 – Protesters in Hong Kong with their signature umbrellas

Democracy is an intangible ideal to strive toward, and no country on earth has fully realized the full power of its promise. Countries today which are seen as democracies are at best “representative democracies” where citizens elect individuals who purportedly represent them, but who often do not, as instead they serve the best interests of those with wealth and power… the ones they believe put them in office.

When negative residual attitudes are manifested in the actions of elected officials, people in many Asian cultures come to believe that “democracy” is practiced as a one-way, top-down construct which they rightly equate with imperialism. Authentic democracy, however, is fragile. When not fully understood or if implemented with split and incompatible values, as it often is, it will not long endure. Education and critical thinking are essential components of keeping this dynamic and evolving ideal of true democracy moving in a positive direction.

Governments must recognize that people do in fact have power; they are the critical mass of the society; and they deserve to be heard. While elected officials have the right to govern, this right must be accompanied by the responsibility to recognize and meet the needs of the communities they serve. Governments and authoritarian states can no longer repress the desire of people to be heard.
The world is questing not only for knowledge but also for freedom: freedom to be heard and understood, freedom to influence the future, and the freedom to make choices that impact their lives and the lives of their communities.

And people the world over need to know that their voice is critical. If they remain silent and uninvolved, the ideals of democracy and freedom, which have the potential to promote the welfare of all, can increasingly become distorted with autocratic societal structures. The “people’s power,” emanating from the bottom up, must become a stronger, more unified voice to make a positive and lasting impact on the society at large.

The effectiveness of protestors is in the information that is shared and their questioning. When their beliefs and actions are reported accurately in the media, constructive long-term changes will eventually be made. Those changes will enable people from different cultures to work effectively together and will likely require more malleable governmental structures, which enable cooperative sharing, than what has traditionally been implemented. Working collectively to envision and share pictures for future possibilities of communities is the collective work which is set before contemporary artists, protestors, and activists at this critical historical time.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Movements in East and Southeast Asia

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