November 2, 2014

BHOWMICK | The Way We Protest

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By ADITI BHOWMICK

So here’s the thing — we live in a very diverse society with a broad range of choices and some people disagree with other people’s personal choices and start antagonizing. This leads to microaggressions, victimizations, interest groups, activism and what not. Be it feminists rallying against sexual assault, derision of LGBTQ rights or people protesting racial discrimination. A part of this dialogue also consists of the silent bystander who does not participate not because he or she is afraid, but simply because they believe silence to be the path of common sense.

Every column I have ever written has always had a stimulus, and so does this one. This past week, Tim Cook, chief executive of Apple, joined the league of OUTstanding businessmen by publicly declaring his sexual orientation. Additionally, this past week, a resident of Ithaca was publicly reprimanded in the Commons for being gay. The most startling part about the perpetrator was that he decided to make a fool of himself in broad daylight in the Commons when it was bustling due to Oktoberfest. The “victim” reacted in the most level-headed manner and simply asked the offender to stop doing what he was doing and asked him to leave. There is nothing extraordinary about this response but it still struck me as powerful. Perhaps because, for once, I do not read about cries of being victimized and so on. The victim in this instance was the offender who clearly does not perceive the social cues observed by modern civilized society. The truth is that it is not very difficult to respect each other with or without interest groups. When it comes to identity issues, I think at times activism and protest movements might end up doing more harm than good. There is such a tempest surrounding every controversial identity issue that the bystander chooses to “stay out of it” and the pandemonium continues.

For instance, I happen to be a feminist and very few people are aware of that. I am not preaching a way of life. My point is that constantly flooding social network and all forms of media with opinions and rant simply creates a lot of noise and the purpose of the movement you support eventually gets dissipated. As a result, people become numb to your protests. Maybe there is a caveat in the way we protest about certain issues. The idea of activism is to isolate the aggressor and not people who are — so to speak — doing their own thing. Civil society and social activism is an incredible instrument but varies in terms of marginal benefit depending on the issue at hand. For instance, when it comes to something like divestment and sustainability, you want to exhibit strength in numbers and volume of protest. However, when it comes to protesting for individual dignity, it is not really a public or collective interest, but a very private realm. Clamorous protests and activism in such instances results in society viewing a person only in terms of the part of their identity, which is controversial.

For instance, when I walk into a boardroom of chief executives as a woman of color, I want people to neither be bewildered with admiration or offended, I simply want them to get over it. Similarly, if I identify as a bisexual President of a country, I do not want to be subject to heated confabulation for 12 months, I want people to get over it and focus on other things as well, like maybe my merit and political agenda. However, some identity issues are a big deal and seem to blind every other aspect of one’s personality in the public domain because of the amount of positive and negative activism surrounding them. This hinders some people from living decent, undisturbed lives for absolutely impertinent reasons. Therefore, it is the responsibility of interest groups and activists to reassess their way of protest. Maybe an approach that focuses more on positive aspects like success stories and personalities each community is proud of, a more level-headed approach — not engrossed with constantly shouting slogans from a platform — is the need of the hour. I understand that in instances of sexual assault, for example, it is not as straightforward to ask the perpetrator  to mind their own business. However, I am limiting my argument mainly to social discrimination, microaggression and not necessarily criminal offenses. To be precise, my claim is that a number of social movements and interest groups that advocate identity issues end up concentrating more on presenting themselves as victims instead of sophisticated, level-headed members of society taking it upon themselves to remind certain sections of society to mind their own business. Finally, it is time a bystander joins the effort to isolate offenders and not members of society who are at the receiving end of slurs. Your silence simply adds to the haplessness of the noise. Society will prosper and so will individuals if we all work hard and respect each other. It really is not rocket science.

Aditi Bhowmick is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at abhowmick@cornellsun.com. Abstruse Musings appears alternate Mondays this semester.