Salon 23 On Protest

The large-scale demonstrations against the Iraq War in 2003; the Iranian Green Movement of 2009; the outburst of popular protests that engulfed the Middle East and North Africa from 2010 to 2012; the Istanbul’s Gezi Park protests in 2013; the Hong Kong pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014. And, if we remain within American borders, it was September 2011 when Occupy Wall Street arose in Zuccotti Park, in lower Manhattan, spearheading a global movement that in just two months would have reached more than nine hundred cities worldwide. Finally, more recently, millions of people have marshalled demonstrations in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and chanted for female empowerment at the Women’s March. These figures, representatives of just a portion of the protests that take place every day across the globe, are telling of the moment of sharp civic discontent that we are currently living in. What is more, they confront us with challenging questions regarding the way in which we choose to (or not) affirm our political agency as individuals. As an illuminating article by Nathan Heller, cited below, put it, we demand to know: is there any point to protesting? In this salon, we navigated some of these pressing issues with the help of an outstanding group of panelists that have learned about the concept and practice of protest also beyond the lecture room.

Some of the questions we strived to answer: Is there any point to protesting anymore? Have we gained anything from it lately? Do we protest to demand structural changes; or is it just a bit of civic duty that we perform to make ourselves feel virtuous, useful, and in the right? Are marches and demonstrations productive ways to use our political attention; or are they rather what skeptics would call “folk politics”, a mere distraction from the real challenges of today’s world? Does the act of claiming the streets still retain its power in the age of smartphones and social media? What are the features of contemporary activism, and how can we assess its impact? Were protests greater in the past? Have new technologies made it easier for people to mobilize; or have they numbed radical political zeal? Has protesting become mainstream - a habit, more than a solution? Does contemporary art have the power to defy the status quo; or is it instead a kind of opiate of the people – an obstacle to real political knowledge? Can aesthetic beauty and political saliency coexist? What is the role of art and design in movements for social change? Can collective creativity drive political activism?

This salon took place on February 28th, 2018.


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