Dishonest dissent

“… far too often we are pleased with, defend and opt for mediocre, mundane and haphazard activism and advocacy, which in turn supports the governments that seek to censor and harm us. If we aren’t better than them in strategy, expression and content, it is they who gain and we who lose.”

It’s the defence of mediocrity that irks me the most. This excerpt from an email I penned earlier this week captures a long-standing frustration with activists who believe that a combination of wishful thinking, ill-researched submissions and loosely phrased statements can actually inspire change and capture the attention of a larger civil society.

They are wrong.

When flagged, the knee-jerk reaction is no different to censorious governments. They feel under siege, suggest that they are unfairly accused and seek to place the blame on others rather than themselves. Anyone who has worked in NGOs knows precisely the compromises involved in drafting public statements. I would submit that these compromises add up to a point where those who seek change employ a language and course of action in fact no different from the governments they seek to hold more accountable, and sometimes even overthrow. A higher fidelity to clear expression and background research is necessary because very rapidly, governments are embracing the same tools dissidents and NGOs use in order to design and execute disinformation and counter-propaganda campaigns. Coupled with this, there is genuine fatigue over statements that obviously serve no other purpose other than a tick mark on project deliverables. They fill our inboxes, but they are far removed from policymaking.

The larger challenge is a real and enduring one – how to create and sustain demand amongst civil society to seek change, and stand up for what’s right. The humiliating volte-face over the pensions bill a few months ago, and the abandoning of the controversial sea-place project in the Negombo lagoon were both driven not by any major political party or NGO, but by people themselves. In both instances, the protestors came largely from the core vote base of the government. When the protests against the sea-plane project were at their peak, I noted in a blog post that “neither the Police nor the Army could not control the crowd. This is evident in the video footage, in which person after person openly taunt the authorities and mention that this is not what they expected from a government they had voted into power… After nearly ten hours, a crowd of well over 1,000 forced the authorities to remove the heavy sand dredging equipment from the lagoon and said they would not proceed with the dredging”. When the Police killed 21-year-old Roshan Chanaka in Katunayake, it wasn’t local, regional or international human rights NGOs that took centre-stage in holding government accountable. Crowds didn’t wait for civil society statements to take to the streets. Statements subsequently issued did not reach those on the streets, or compel others to join. Those who did join did so because of more immediate, personal connections to the injustice or in the case of the FTZ riots, those injured and Roshan. How to connect to and amplify this spontaneous, locally driven dissent remains challenging, yet central to much needed new thinking over progressive and revolutionary socio-political movements. Arguably, even attempting to amplify this local dissent – which often involves some degree of interaction with the protestors – can undermine viability and acceptance of the protest. NGOs in Sri Lanka, especially those perceived to be interested in regime change, do more harm than good when they seek to actively champion and worse, appropriate grassroots movements and spontaneous eruptions of public anger. Much better to leave them be. How then can change be demanded, by a larger community and over a longer period of time?

My previous columns have examined how the diffusion of mobile, web and Internet technologies can help. But supporting these new technologies must be a genuine commitment by key protagonists to the alternatives proposed, and the manner in which they are arrived at. Be the change you want to see in a Gandhian aphorism, and even if we reject the viability of non-violent satyagraha today, those who seek to stand up against a repressive government must step up to the challenge of actually doing and showing something better. A successful and sustainable reform movement is something people want to be part of even if they aren’t physically present in it. It is not unlike an addictive drug, an idea that compels and moves, a song that’s catchy, a catchphrase that’s resonant, an image that angers, a cartoon that ridicules, a video that goes viral, a poster that’s xeroxed in the hundreds an SMS forwarded in the thousands. Designing this demands clear thinking, very good insights and solid research into what it is that the movement seeks to address and change.

My frustration with statements that are badly thought out and written is that they grossly undermine public trust and confidence in the issues raised. This in turn has two immediate results. One is that it gets exponentially harder for subsequent campaigns on the same issue to capture public interest. The other is that governments can and will leverage the resulting confusion to their advantage, and by painting dissent and alternatives as unfair and dangerous, actually create even more public suspicion over genuine issues of concern. Sadly, a growing frustration by many NGOs in Sri Lanka over the inability to capture wider public opinion, and thereby the inability to generate greater demand for and attention on, to use just one example, a call to hold government accountable for war crimes, results in carelessness and desperation in design and execution of public protests, mobile movements and critical communications.

Studying the geometry unrest in the Middle East earlier this year offers vital lessons that can aid an enervated and largely unimaginative protest culture. But simple logic also suffices. Political change is never easy, never comes easy. Words alone won’t suffice. Nurturing opposition does not arise from the careless curation of dissent. Statements alone won’t animate a hostile public. Doing and setting an example rather than just talking about abstract ideas can help generate greater interest. Silence in the face of social injustice is not an option. And well before web based social media was invented, the exhibition at the Lionel Wendt in 2009 by Women and Media Collective showcased compelling slogans, letters, printing techniques, posters and communication material that at the time was able to capture a public interest much more than rapid-fire statements and most protest movements can today. The change is not just because of a vastly different context. It is also because many are less attentive to and aware of what really goes into a campaign that champions change and stands a chance of success. Today’s proclivity towards perfunctory communications that sex up facts and gloss over vital details increasingly risks rapid and public dissection.

A civil society that champions and goes on to defend this essential dishonesty is not one fit to have its alternatives or critiques heeded.

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Published in The Nation on 27 November 2011.

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