Originally published on The Rationalists (therationalists.org)
It’s a term thrown around a lot, revolutionary, it simply means “new or innovative, a complete, radical change, or outside of standard practice”; so when someone invents a new type of camera, lightbulb, or phone, and this invention is actually, genuinely new in process, function, and/or result, the product is actually revolutionary, however; that doesn’t mean it’s good. The conflation of ‘revolutionary’ with ‘good’ or ‘better’ is a very common one; it is found in almost every circle, and in almost every context; it’s part of our colloquial language, it’s part of our vernacular culture, it’s something we just say, but it’s also wrong. It’s incorrect. Not everything new is better, not everything creative is an improvement, and not everything innovative is superior. Protests and revolutions aren’t necessarily a good thing; a protest is only as good as the idea that spurred it into existence. A quick look through history, even very recent history, will provide you with countless examples of awful, brutal revolutions. So why then, is the term ‘revolutionary’ held in such high regard within the common tongue?
Well, for one, most of us live in countries built upon or shaped by protest and revolution; America is perhaps the most famous example of this, but countries like modern Germany wouldn’t exist if not for populist pressure from within the two states, as well as surrounding countries like Hungary. Protests like this have led to the creation of new types of technology, art, architecture, literature, and even things like music. The way we live today would not have been achieved if not for protest, in fact, you would probably not exist if not for protest.
The intrinsic ability to confront a greater power than yourself is one that is necessary for a republic or democratic state to run properly
Protest and revolution are very important aspects of our democracy; the intrinsic ability to confront a greater power than yourself is one that is necessary for a republic or democratic state to run properly, as is the concept of freedom of speech and freedom of association. Without the ability to vote, protest, and speak your mind, how can we possibly say that we live in a free society? Advocation of violence and physically violent acts in the name of protest are, of course, a separate issue, however; non-violent speech and non-violent protest are actually human rights, rights that we have deemed essential for every human being to have. To quote the United Nations:
“Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,
Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,
Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,”
Secondly, people like to be part of something, part of a group or a movement. Given the right outlet, there is nothing wrong with this, it’s a natural part of being a human, hence why we also forge emotional bonds in the form of a partner or a family, it all comes from the same place; historically, we are safer in a group. The issue is, not everything is a good outlet for this behaviour; an ill-informed or malicious protest movement is often a fairly dangerous operation, especially if it’s well-organised and likes to preserve an associative identity. Groups like to maintain the existence of the group; if it has to achieve this by removing or exiling people or ideas, moderate or not, from the group, it will. If it achieves its original goal and finds no reason to continue to exist, it will find a new enemy, a new purpose. The situation becomes worse when two opposing protest groups like this claim the other is the enemy; the inability of these groups to compromise on anything becomes a very serious issue when these groups start to gain political strength, and even worse if one of these groups takes power.
‘Protest’ is a tool; it has a very specific use. Misuse of a tool generally leads to one of two outcomes; either the tool loses its ability to perform its intended function, or you break the thing you were trying to fix. Unfortunately, protest isn’t the type of tool you can just replace, it takes generations for the concept of protest to regain validity, and the “destruction of the thing you were trying to fix” could quite possibly result in war and the loss of human life.
Victor Hugo was a French poet and novelist of the Romantic movement; the man authored works such as Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Hugo was a famous liberal, republican, and self-proclaimed rationalist, making him a good topic for a future piece, but for the purposes of this article, there is a specific, notable, quote that Hugo is credited with, that is worth examining:
“What is history? An echo of the past in the future; a reflex from the future on the past.”
In a practical sense, the insinuation is that you, your family, and the world around you are, and always will be, products of previous events. At the very moment you identify the here and now, it becomes the past, a ‘previous event’; your actions in the ‘now’ will go down in your history and influence the future, and there is no way of halting this process. In this context, the importance of this quote is that besides war, protest and revolution are easily the most potent forces for change. We are the result of ‘protest’. The obvious conclusion of this is that the misuse of protest can result in a less than pleasant future; to guarantee a better future, ‘protest’ must be used responsibly and with an ever-present sense of self-criticism. If someone is protesting the world in order to change it, they must be absolutely sure, without a shadow of a doubt, that what they are doing is the right thing to do, that their replacement for the current world is a better one, a better idea, and that they may have to compromise in order to achieve their goal.
‘Protest’ isn’t a good thing, nor is it bad, however; it is a cornerstone of our political institution and a very powerful, influential, and important tool within a democratic system. Revolution is the extension of this, albeit one that is significantly more extreme, and if successful, almost completely irreversible; nonetheless, it is a necessary ability that people need to have in case the worst comes to worst. John Locke’s 1689 work, Two Treatises of Government, is a series of political philosophies on a numerous range of subjects; it varies from the topics of representation in government and the protection of property within a civil society to the subject of the state of nature, and a strange justification for slavery.
Locke makes the argument that people could foment a revolution against the government if said government begins to act against the interests of the people
The work is split into two volumes; the first is more specific, a rebuttal of Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha, while the second volume covers a wider range of topics. Within the second book, the Second Treatise, there is a concept mentioned that Locke labels as the “Right of revolution”, the right to “Life, Liberty, and Estate”, a phrase which goes on to be closely referenced in Jefferson’s The United States Declaration of Independence in the famous passage and motto, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. Locke makes the argument that people could foment a revolution against the government if said government begins to act against the interests of the people; Locke even goes as far to state that in some cases, the people of a nation are “obliged” to revolt against a tyrannical government. Locke asserts a categorical right to revolution in the passage:
“Whenever the Legislators endeavor to take away, and destroy the Property of the People, or to reduce them to Slavery under Arbitrary Power, they put themselves into a state of War with the People, who are thereupon absolved from any farther Obedience, and are left to the common Refuge, which God hath provided for all Men, against Force and Violence. Whensoever therefore the Legislative shall transgress this fundamental Rule of Society; and either by Ambition, Fear, Folly or Corruption, endeavor to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other an Absolute Power over the Lives, Liberties, and Estates of the People; By this breach of Trust they forfeit the Power, the People had put into their hands, for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the People, who have a Right to resume their original Liberty.”
Just because an idea is new, or because it’s different, or because your friends believe in it, doesn’t make it ‘better’. An idea, a concept, is only ‘better’ if it can be proven to be so with facts, data, and good arguments; these are the measures of a good idea. If the set of ideas your protest is based on don’t stand up to scrutiny, stop protesting. If you are protesting just because you want to be part of a group, go join a book club or a sports team, but stop protesting. And if your protests advocate for violence, or commit violence, stop protesting. But if your argument is based on sound logic, verified data, and irrefutable evidence, and if and when you can prove that your idea is better than the thing you objecting to, feel free to protest.
To conclude, a rational, peaceful demonstration against, or criticism of, objectively bad legislation, leadership, or authority, is, and always will be, the most important service you can provide as a citizen in a free country, however; misappropriation or misuse of this right can be a very dangerous and costly mistake. A state without free speech, free association, free press, and the right to dissent, can never truly be free; to put this point more succinctly, I shall finish by quoting the 35th President of the United States of America:
“Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed and no republic can survive.” -John F.Kennedy