Without a doubt, 2020 was an anomalous year. The COVID-19 pandemic brought about a breeze of lockdowns around the world. Paradoxically, despite experiencing the greatest public health challenge in over a century that brought about a breeze of restrictions in travel and physical interaction, protests were widespread. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) and anti-lockdown protests in the US, pro-choice protests in Warsaw and the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong are only a few examples. The anti-government protests in Bangkok was just one of over 230 significant protests that have erupted worldwide since 2017. If this is anything to go by, 2021 will not be any different. The pandemic-driven economic recession that a lot of countries are experiencing as well as rising inequality has led some to speculate that 2021 may even see more protests.
Protests happen because people want to make their voices and opinions heard. People march in streets and occupy public squares because they want to see change and sometimes overthrow institutions, governments and systems that they deem oppressive. Yet still, others protest to call for action to protect and preserve the planet, to end racial discrimination, to promote women rights and to advocate for the equal (re)distribution of wealth and resources. What seems to be a driving force in all this is the sight of injustice, negligence, corruption and immorality that is taking place all around thereby stirring a deep desire to see a world where all this suffering, especially human-inflicted suffering, eradicated.
There is a way in which protests link time. People protest because of some present realities. For example, people will attend a BLM protest because they believe racial discrimination exists and should be eliminated. However, the racial discrimination seen today, at least some of it, is a result of some events, ideologies and institutions instigated in the past. So when someone protests today, they want the transformation and in other instances the complete overthrow of whatever is responsible for the present circumstance. Not only do protests link the present with the past but they also link the present with the future. People protest today so that tomorrow will be a better day. Again, someone might attend a BLM protest because they wish to see no racial discrimination in future. Because they wish to live in a society without racial injustice which is a better society.
The link between the present and the future in protests is quite well-known even to an average protestor. People can see the current situation, determine that it is not ethical and protest to see it changed. Even so, the link between the present and the past is not known as much as the present-future linkage. It is left to archaeologists, historians, theorists and the curious. This is not to say people do not understand the historical underpinnings of whatever they are protesting for or against. Rather, it is an observation that such knowledge is not as widely spread as the longing for a better future. As a result, there is a danger whereby, by not fully understanding the events of the past, we risk painting the canvas of history in black and white.
I take looking at history in black and white to mean observing history and only identifying two players or motivations – the good and the bad. Consider the issue of climate change. Undoubtedly, some advancements of the past are what led to the extensive extraction and exploitation of the planet. A black and white view of the past will consider people who engaged in such activities to have had only one aim – destroy the planet. I know this is an oversimplification and there is probably no one with such an opinion. However, do not miss the point.
Granted the danger of this black and white view is greater in certain movements and protests, the results of not understanding the link between the present and the past are resentment and ungratefulness. When standing at public square protesting, there is so much to be enraged about, and rightly so. However, in most instances that not, there is also one or two things to be grateful about.
One of the mark of historic times is people’s drive for survival. That survival came with a lot of sacrifice. They sacrificed so that we can be where we are and have what we do. So when protesting for women rights? Remember the sacrifice that both men and women made in the past. Women sacrificed their careers and men sacrificed in their careers. Women gave up their careers and ambitions to raise families but countless men also took on careers, sometimes dangerous and not in line with their passions, to provide for their family. Next time you are at a climate march, remember that yes the actions of the past have brought us in the mess we are in right now. But it is also the same people who did those actions who made it possible for us to have the energy, science and technology that we cannot imagine living without today.
Being grateful does not mean we look at history and only see supermen and superwomen going all over the world doing what is good. It is not about ignoring the injustice and wrong of the past. Instead, it is about realising that granted we do not live in a perfect world today partly because of what humanity has done in the past, there are still many good things we enjoy today that spring from the same hands that brought whatever we might call injustice. It is realising that even our ability to protest is possible through the sweat and blood of people in the past who built us universities where we learn the effective strategies to protest. Being grateful I believe drives away indignation. Resentment in protests does not achieve much. Gratefulness can. There is a place for gratefulness in a protest.