What is protest? Vol. 0

The definition of the word 'protest' 

Introduction: protest in usage

Google can see how much certain terms are used throughout history. The graph of the word 'protest' in the English corpus shows a general overall increase now, yet in the last century there are some significant peaks in the 1920’s and in the 1970’s,[8] which are both times of significant social uproar. In the 1920’s due to economic crisis and the social struggles that had lead to the era of the world wars. In the 1970’s, we could argue, the use of the word protest has seen a rise due to the social and emancipatory movements.

            Nevertheless, the most interesting trend that this graph shows is the general decline since the 70’s in the usage of the word protest that google found in all the digital media it manages. Does this mean that protest ‘loses’ popularity? It could also depend on a broadening of different forms of protest, for example ‘non-violent action’[9], ‘demonstration’[10], ‘civil disobedience’[11], ‘revolt’[12] yet all show a similar trend. Except for ‘riot’[13], which is a violent disruption of the system, which has shown a slight increase over the past years. One important fact, is that civil disobedience and non-violent action as words did only arise since around the 1920’s, but in amount of usage they do not cover the decline in usage of the word protest or linked words such as demonstration. 

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 Image courtesy of Google Ngram viewer. Google Books. 2017 

A drop in popularity in these words can have many reasons. To find out, we first need to know what the word 'protest' actually entails? What could the definition of the word say about protest itself, and could it offer explanations to the sudden drop of popularity in the last 50 years? In this short article, I will be exploring the notion of protest through a series of definitions and approaches. Although this article will not offer a qualitative explanation for the drop, it does offer some premises that might add up to the cause of the sudden drop. We will find out that protest as term encounters a few conceptual problems, first that it is reflexive to that which it protests and thus rendered somewhat ineffective and secondly that it is paradoxical in its goals and methods. I will not argue against protest, but for new approaches to political engagement; for a reinvention of the concept of protest.

Definitions of protest throughout history

One important thing to know about words is that their meaning is defined according to the usage within a certain time. Usage not just phonetically or as a textual word, but also as a verb - how they are enacted and used in praxis. The term 'protest' is thus also defined by ways of protesting and all its methods and means which are historically contingent, meaning every time has its own way of doing so which is not directly compatible with different times. Therefore the present day protest will be a different than that of a hundred years ago, for simple material reasons such as the fact that we now have internet, plastics and phones - just to name a few technologies. Also protest today is different than any other times for social reasons (there are different struggles today). People had ‘different’ problems back in the day, and their means of communicating them thus also differed. That being said, protest today has one big difference regarding protest through history: it is of a way larger scale, and decentralised in the sense that through the visibility media such as TV, the internet and social media, we can now protest something that happened in America, in Europe. There is thus a higher alienation of locality, which makes it possible for protesters today to engage with larger subjects, internationally. This also means that people can protest subject that do not solely affect them personally. This alienation of the subject protested also applies to the wide range of usages of the word. Protest is in a way a container concept, that differentiates itself from conventional political pursuits; it thus does not use the explicit given form of other authorised political pursuits. It so to day functions only in the state of exception; when the other pre given methods of political engagement are deemed ineffective or neutralised by hegemony. This also means that there is not a single, bordered thing called 'protest': it differs and shapes itself to the situation in which it is used. Yet, it does often take very comparable shapes, for example the usages of signs is something virtually every protest today incorporates.

            Regardless of the relative shapeless shape of both the term protest and the praxis of protest (one protest is not the other), there is a part of the meaning of the term protest which stays relatively consistent through time. Let’s, therefore, take a short look at the history of the word protest, before looking at the dictionary meaning of protest today. Afterwards I will be looking at the issues that protest these days encounters

            The English word protest, stems from the 14th century French word prôtet, which was an abbreviation of the Latin protestari which meant to “declare publically, testify”. The visual aspect, which now often crystallises in signage, has thus for long been part of the word protest. Why, is implied by the word Pro, which means “forth, before”. One has to make her/himself known; the strong visual and phonetical element of protest (screaming, signage, songs) take such a prominent place, because the ones that need to hear the message, probably do not want te hear it. Therefore the word testari, is important. It means “testament” which is an abbreviation of “witness”.[1] The protester is the witness of that which is protested (experiences the problem), and the sensory aspect of protest is public for it to be witnessed; for it to be seen and especially to prevent it to be said not to be seen. It is so 'loud', because a single persons complaint is easily swept away and is easily covered up. This introduces an important part of the concept of protest: it oughts to show what is at stake; to make visible what is going on. This brings us to a few centuries later. Only from the 18th century onwards the word itself started to develop into a more contemporary definition. First with protest as a “statement of disapproval”[2]. The 'testament' has been replaced by 'statement', which carries a more powerful and different connotation than 'testament'. In relation to the second word, disapproval, a more formal approach comes clear. 'Disapproval' has a certain rationality to it, probably meaning to disapprove with an argument. (‘I protest your argument’). This might relate to the burst of the enlightenment in the 18th century, during which the rational capacities of the human being is advocated for. Rather than the more religious term 'testament', the 'statement of disapproval' implies that the protesters cause is to be regarded serious. Then, in the 1950’s, protest was defined as "expressing of dissent from, or rejection of, prevailing mores". Mores means “customs”[3] and is an abbreviation of morals which is about the valuation and interpretation of ‘what is good and bad’.[4] This implies that since the 20th century the expression of dissent regarded what was seen as good or bad and thus about the general ethical structures in society. Rather than an issue being protested, the prevailing intentions behind the policy that caused an issue is protested. To contrast this with 'testament', which implies a more religious sentiment and 'statement' which carries a formal element, 'mores' implies an ethicality which none of the other words imply. This could be related to the rise of emancipatory movements during that same period. Rather notable is that all three definitions I have set out above, put the premise on the act of making a problem know (differentiating only in the position of the one making known, and the tone with which something is made known). Let's first take a look at the contemporary definition of the word 'protest'. It will show a relation with concepts of public and private, which is where we will find a paradox in the concept of protest.


The contemporary definition of the word protest

According to the Oxford Dictionary, there are two interlinking definitions of protest. The first is the general definition which defines the meaning of an act of protest: “A statement or activity expressing disapproval of or objection to something.”[5] The second definition elaborates on the activity of protest, stating that it is “an organised public demonstration expressing strong objection to an official policy or course of actions.”[6] The first definition closely adheres to the definitions through history as discussed above. The second though, introduces some interesting elements. The first thing that stands out is the word ‘organised’, which implies that protest is not something that you just do. It requires a structure that delegates its parts and formalises the statement that is being made. Second is the word public which implies a visibility for all to see, and thus also a certain vulnerability (making yourself known; stepping out of indifference; to expose oneself to the elements of politics). This makes protest very dependent on the notions private and public, which are firstly legal boundaries which define how rights and plights are divided in a certain space. It thus, secondly, is a certain way of formalising what can and cannot be done in a specific place, according to the authority of that place. Aside, public could imply that protest regards public issues, not private issues. It thus has to be a generally supported issue, which affects not just the sole individual, but an issue that organises a group making it a public issue. Protest is so deviated from court room trials. This becomes interesting when, further in the definition, we see the word official policy. Official here is used to imply the authority related or associated to issue that is being protested. The issue itself has to be part of a formal and general problem that arises in theory from a hegemonic power (that which defines what is to be regarded as 'official'), but in practice we would define as a governmental level. In relation to the word public this is interesting: one can only protest in a place offered by the government (public space), to protest that same government. This implies that the notion of protest has been incorporated in the constitutional structure of (the western democratic) state. This makes it possible to state that protest has been formalised into the structure of that which it protests. One last word that is interesting in this definition is demonstration, which is the act of showing that something is true by giving proof.[7] Proof depends on an institution that decides whether it is legit and which has to be convinced. Thus we return into the court room trial context. The institution that defines what is legit is of course, again, the government.

A conclusion to these definitions 

Is the definition as we have put it above problematic for protest? Does this challenge the effectiveness of protest? To give answer to that question, I would say yes. First protest takes place in public space, which is maintained, uphold and facilitated by the government. According to the definitions we have discussed above protest should regard public (thus governmental), official policy (thus governmental). This means that protest in itself is always responsive to the system that maintains it. Accordingly, in reference to the first sentences of this article, where I said protest is deviant from conventional methods of political change, we now have to conclude that is a false statement. Protest is one of the conventional methods for the simple reason that what it argues to be a problem, is proofed and decided upon to be a legit problem by the same institution that has caused the problem itself.


The series ‘what is protest’

In this series of articles, we will be exploring different notions of protest. Through this investigation I hope to arrive at a contemporary understanding of protest, and its condition. This ‘condition’, could maybe answer the question whether protest has been colonialized by the thing it protests?  

Written and published by Eef Veldkamp, 13-12-2017.
Updated on 05-01-2019.

[1] Harper, Douglas. 2017. "protest". Online Etymology Dictionary. Lancaster: Douglas Harper. https://www.etymonline.com/word/protest

[2] Harper, Douglas. 2017. "protest". Online Etymology Dictionary. Lancaster: Douglas Harper. https://www.etymonline.com/word/protest

[3] Harper, Douglas. 2017. "mores". Online Etymology Dictionary. Lancaster: Douglas Harper. https://www.etymonline.com/word/mores

[4] Harper, Douglas. 2017. "moral". Online Etymology Dictionary. Lancaster: Douglas Harper. https://www.etymonline.com/word/moral

[5] "Protest". 2017. Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/protest.

[6] "Protest". 2017. Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/protest.

[7] "Demonstration". 2017. Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/demonstration.

[8] “Protest”. Google Ngram Viewer. 2017. Books.Google.Com. https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=....

[9] “Non-violent action”. Google Ngram Viewer. 2017. Books.Google.Com. https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=non-violent+action&case_insensitive=on&year_st....

[10] “Demonstration”. Google Ngram Viewer. 2017. Books.Google.Com. https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=demonstration&case_insensitive=on&year_start=1...

[11] “Civil disobedience”. Google Ngram Viewer. 2017. Books.Google.Com. https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=civil+disobedience&case_insensitive=on&year_st....

[12] “Revolt”. Google Ngram Viewer. 2017. Books.Google.Com. https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=revolt&case_insensitive=on&year_start=1800&...

[13] “Riot”. Google Ngram Viewer. 2017. Books.Google.Com. https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=riot&case_insensitive=on&year_start=1800&y...