Throughout B.C., activists have taken to the streets calling on government action to “defend our coast” from the infamous Northern Gateway Pipeline. Placards have been painted, hoisted up high and marched through downtowns and around the vacant legislature up and down the coast. Public squares have been dominated, traffic upheld, and a message sung along the highways.
British Columbians have at their disposal a great number of ways to put forward a political ideal. The first thing most think of when the word “democracy” pops into their head is their elected representatives. There is of course a difference between direct democracy and the representative form that our ancestors settled on, but it is what we have. By writing to one’s MLA and getting involved in party donations and your local riding association, you can work to have your ideas and positions on issues considered in the legislature. By electing governments that share your values, say on preservationalist absolutism, and holding those elected officials to task when the opportunities arise, you can use democracy in the way it was meant to be used.
Since I’m appearing in newsprint I would be remiss to omit freedom of the press. Pamphlets, posters, paid advertising, letters to editors, and newspaper submissions are all options for shaping public opinion on an issue. Governments do have an incentive, after all, not to fly in the face of public pressure. Those interested in changing public opinion on the Northern Gateway Pipeline have an eager media at their disposal. Freedom of expression and the consultative nature of government has also allowed for many public civil forums to discuss the virtues and vices of installing this massive piece of infrastructure.
One must not discount the virtue of lobbyists in the 21st century, persons who testify before committees and can put forward reasoned and well-researched arguments behind a particular policy initiative. Donating funds to environmental organizations or an issue-based initiative is another way to steer government policy. Vote with your dollars— whether through political campaign donations, funding interest groups, or boycotting products and production modes that you might protest. If you really think the development of the tar sands is essentially evil, you dare not take your groceries home in plastic bags.
So the question remains, what is the place of these protests in a democracy? Freedom of assembly must leave room for such action. Protests give caring people something to do, with their hands and their time, and is less alien to one’s immediate experience. Making posters does make one feel good. The problem arises when protests monopolize access to public space. Public infrastructure— such as intersections—is usurped and marched around halting transportation of capital, humans, and materials. I suppose this is consistent with an approach which is opposed to the liberation of markets. Yet when reaching out to centrist voters it may not be the best way to appeal to those whom you are asking to sacrifice a huge opportunity cost, by costing them even more in the short run.
Political advertisements can be turned off and posters ignored by those beyond a movement’s target audience. However, in the public square, protests either expel others from the use of that same space or compel the attention of those who remain. It is a use of power in numbers and noise that causes harm to one’s enemies and excitement in one’s allies. In short, it is a kind of violence that forces itself into a place and forces others out. It is a weapon unbecoming of modern democracy. As the French put away the guillotine so too must we put away our barbarous tools. We have safer, saner, healthier ways to develop our opinion as a people than our ancestors did.
As for the pipeline, to quote Edmund Burke: “Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate [clink], whilst thousands of great cattle. . . chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that, of course, they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little, shrivelled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome insects of the hour.” Perhaps it is time for us to funnel the clink to more useful purposes.