Pardon the generality, but mine seems to be a generation that loves demonstrations, both the negative and positive kind. (See, for example, Time’s awarding “The Protester” its 2011 Person of the Year award, in light of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement; the more than 10 million users of Change.org, a site that manages online petitions that have produced significant results; and the innumerable options of various causes to support by clicking “Like” on your Facebook newsfeed.) We like making a point, and we like doing it with creativity and panache. Businesses have taken note, and everything from purchasing shoes and glasses to drinking certain soft drinks can carry implications for social change.
Those with a bent toward demonstrations may already be aware of this week’s Spirit Day, an annual day of solidarity with LGBT teens and protest against bullying. Although the observance began only two years ago as a response to the epidemic of suicides related to anti-gay bullying, it’s rapidly grown to the point that countless celebrities and other people of influence participated last year and will again. The concept is superbly simple: Wear purple (since purple is the color on the pride flag that corresponds to spirit) on Friday, October 19, and find a way to communicate that your attire is a symbol of your support for LGBT teens. Spirit Day is a particularly low-commitment example of a growing number of annual LGBT-themed protests and demonstrations that capitalize on my generation’s affection for short-term activism (or, if you’re cynical, “slacktivism”), and it may come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I feel ambivalent (Do I ever feel otherwise?) about such rallies.
To be sure, demonstrations have an important—essential?—role in raising awareness for any sort of social movement, insofar as they effectively communicate the message a group is trying to communicate. There are only so many ways to draw attention to any particular topic subtly and unobtrusively, meaning one must occasionally surrender subtlety to make noise and start conversations obtrusively, especially when the issue at hand is something people seem keen on silencing. For Christians involved in our culture’s (and our faith’s) ongoing LGBT discussions, demonstrations are a convenient opportunity to alert the people around you to your awareness of the existence of LGBT people and your interest in LGBT issues, much in the vein of my previous post about “Safe People.” Participating in a demonstration can represent a huge step in any given person’s journey, and the action might be inexpressibly meaningful to others in that person’s life. I’ll probably never forget fighting back tears in a campus bathroom on last year’s Spirit Day when two different individuals sent me texts that included pictures of the purple shirts they had donned that morning in support of the cause.
The main danger I see with any demonstration is the risk of poor communication, such that the demonstration’s recipients perceive a different message from what the demonstrators mean to say. This was, in my opinion, the tragic flaw of Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day in August: Some ate Chick-Fil-A because they disliked gay marriage, and others ate Chick-Fil-A because they liked free speech, and others ate Chick-Fil-A because they disliked the backlash against Chick-Fil-A, and all of this poor communication and disunity somehow translated into outsiders hearing an unequivocally anti-gay message. (On that note, the less-publicized Kiss-In a few days later was equally muddled and ineffective to the point of being detrimental.) Spirit Day defines its message as an opportunity “to stand against bullying and support LGBT youth,” but it’s almost inevitable that people on both sides will hijack the day to make it about any number of other causes or questions or debates that are only distantly related to standing against bullying and supporting LGBT youth. Any time you participate in a protest, you run the risk of outsiders hearing something different from what you’re trying to say, and you have to decide whether the risk of that potential misunderstanding is worth the reward of what you might effectively communicate. That risk nearly always dissuades me from participating in any given demonstration, much to the chagrin of my inner activist.
Demonstrations also involve the danger of cloistering, since they provide a too-tidy visual for who’s on your side (Us) and who’s on the other side (Them). This became sickeningly clear to me a few years ago when I stopped by a Westboro Baptist Church protest at military base, where even the geography of the situation—WBC on one side of the highway, patriotic counter-protestors on the other side—drew a sharp division between the conflicting groups. The vitriol of the Phelps family (“Thank God for dead soldiers,” read one sign, in addition to variations on their infamous “God hates _____” format) met its match with the vitriol of the flag-wavers (I won’t repeat some of the vulgarity they shouted), and I found myself incapable of imagining a scenario in which either group would ever empathetically listen to those across the highway. When Spirit Day arrives, there will be many who purposely wear purple, but there will be many who won’t—most because they’re unaware or indifferent, but some out of an intentional decision not to participate—and you won’t have any trouble recognizing whether someone actively supports this particular cause. Whereas life usually leaves room for gray areas and spectrums of opinion, demonstrations like Spirit Day force people (at least people who are aware) to make a decision in one direction or the other.
For all the pros and cons of demonstrations, I’d wager the most significant social change comes through ongoing relationships, through the substance of regular conversations and shared experiences and slow influence. Whereas demonstrations might communicate poorly, relationships foster richer communication by putting people in the same room and giving them the chance to talk and listen and clarify over a period of weeks or months or years. Whereas demonstrations might push people farther apart into stricter polarities, relationships emphasize areas of overlap and resemblance because they depend on love and connection. If you ask people why their beliefs on LGBT issues have changed in either direction, you can usually expect them to answer in the language of relationships, talking about friends or family whose life experiences slowly challenged their preconceptions about LGBT people. (You’ll rarely hear anyone explain how a parade or a boycott opened her eyes to the virtues of an opposing position, even as those efforts might put additional pressure on someone.) Demonstrations and relationships are entirely different animals: Although demonstrations require a sort of brazen chutzpah, relationships require more persistent courage and patience, a willingness to take seriously the arguments of opponents even as you stand firm in your own convictions. There’s also a different power dynamic in play: When I lead a demonstration, I set the tone and run the show, forcing others who might engage to do so on my terms in my territory. When I live in relationship, I have to submit to the natural give-and-take of human interactions on a level playing field, and I lose the authority that a megaphone might grant me.
Nevertheless, the most off-putting problem with the kind of slow reconciliation I’m describing—regardless of your particular issue or your particular position on that issue—is that it’s unglamorous or, to put it bluntly, boring. There will be sporadic breakthroughs and moments of startling harmony in this kind of work, but there will be many, many more moments of overwhelmingly sluggish progress, exasperating ignorance, and hope-stealing resistance. The real work of reconciliation often means having the same conversation again and again with different people, constantly pushing yourself to continue to engage and ask and listen, and regularly reminding yourself every person is on a unique journey with a unique schedule. When reconciliation gets boring, it’s easy to lose hope in the power of God to work through the process, and optimistic engagement with the other side may devolve into caustic accusations and shallow name-calling.
I thought The Marin Foundation’s I’m Sorry campaign this year was an excellent example of how a demonstration can function within the ongoing work of reconciliation. The main event, of course, involved wearing shirts and holding signs at Chicago Pride, but in preparation for that demonstration, the organizers asked everyone who would participate to spend time giving serious thought to why they needed to apologize (so their participation wouldn’t be meaningless) and to how they could actively make the situation better (so their participation wouldn’t end with the last parade float). The event itself fell in line with a number of ongoing projects The Marin Foundation utilizes throughout the year, like Living in the Tension gatherings, to have difficult conversations and make significant progress in the lives of people who seek to be reconciled. During the campaign this summer, one woman asked me with some skepticism, “What’s the point of a demonstration like this if you’re just going to leave after today and let the situation remain as bad as it is?” With joy, I was able to tell her that the Foundation wasn’t leaving, that it was committed to the ongoing work of bridge-building in that specific community. Because of the relationships that existed within the community, I suspect the demonstration ran a much lower risk of poor communication or polarization.
On Friday, I’m going to wear a purple shirt. It’s not going to save any lives, it’s not going to change any hearts, and I doubt it will conclusively heal the animosity between the LGBT and Christian communities. But it has the potential to be—like all of the most effective demonstrations—an opportunity for those who have committed themselves to the ongoing work of reconciliation, boring as it may be, to reiterate their active involvement and invite others to come along.