If you go to The Guardian’s website these days you can find a section that is just labeled “Protest.” So now, with your morning coffee, you can get your news, weather, sports – and protests. I found stories there headlined, “Five Fresh Ideas for the Street Art Agitator in 2016,” “Muslim Woman Ejected From Donald Trump Rally After Silent Protest” and, appropriately, “We Are Living in an Age of Protest.”
We sure are. This week alone Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany faced huge protests after her justice minister declared that Arab immigrants – let in under Merkel’s liberal refugee policy – were largely responsible for the mass sexual assaults on women in Cologne on New Year’s Eve and used social networks to coordinate their attacks. President Barack Obama actually cried – that was his unique protest – while trying to channel his outrage, and many other people’s, into fixing our nation’s crazy gun laws.
In my view, this age of protest is driven, in part, by the fact that the three largest forces on the planet – globalization, Moore’s law and Mother Nature – are all in acceleration, creating an engine of disruption that is stressing strong countries and middle classes and blowing up weak ones, while superempowering individuals and transforming the nature of work, leadership and government all at once.
When you get that much agitation in a world where everyone with a smartphone is now a reporter, news photographer and documentary filmmaker, it’s a wonder that every newspaper doesn’t have a “Protest” section.
I asked Dov Seidman, the author of the book “How” and CEO of LRN, which advises companies all over the world on leadership and how to build ethical cultures, for his take on this age of protest.
“People everywhere seem to be morally aroused,” said Seidman. “The philosopher David Hume argued that ‘the moral imagination diminishes with distance.’ It would follow that the opposite is also true: As distance decreases, the moral imagination increases. Now that we have no distance – it’s like we’re all in a crowded theater, making everything personal – we are experiencing the aspirations, hopes, frustrations, plights of others in direct and visceral ways.”
Indeed, we’re being intimately exposed to footage of outrageous police brutality, terrorism victims jumping from the windows of a Paris theater and racially biased/sexist corporate emails revealed by hackers. Who wouldn’t be aroused?
”Think about this,” said Seidman: “A dentist from Minnesota shoots a cherished lion in Zimbabwe named Cecil, and days later everyone in the world knows about it, triggering a tsunami of moral outrage on Twitter and Facebook. As a result, some people try to shut down his dental practice by posting negative reviews on Yelp and spray paint ‘Lion Killer’ on his Florida vacation home. Almost 400,000 people then sign a petition in one day on Change.org demanding that Delta Air Lines change their policy of transporting trophy kills. Delta does so and other airlines follow. And then hunters who contribute to Zimbabwe’s tourism industry protest the protest, claiming that they were being discriminated against.”
That we are becoming more morally aroused “is generally a good thing,” argued Seidman. Institutionalized racism in police departments, or in college fraternities, is real and had been tolerated for way too long. That it’s being called out is a sign of a society’s health “and re-engagement.”
But when moral arousal manifests as moral outrage, he added, “it can either inspire or repress a serious conversation or the truth.” There is surely a connection between the explosion of political correctness on college campuses – including Yale students demanding the resignation of an administrator whose wife defended free speech norms that might make some students uncomfortable – and the ovations Donald Trump is getting for being crudely politically incorrect.
“If moral outrage, as justified as it may be, is followed immediately by demands for firings or resignations,” argued Seidman, “it can result in a vicious cycle of moral outrage being met with equal outrage, as opposed to a virtuous cycle of dialogue and the hard work of forging real understanding and enduring agreements.”
Furthermore, “when moral outrage skips over moral conversation, then the outcome is likely going to be acquiescence, not inspired solutions,” Seidman added. It can also feed the current epidemic of inauthentic apologies, “since apologies extracted under pressure are like telling a child, `Just say you’re sorry,’ to move past the issue without ever making amends.”
With all of this moral arousal, it’s as if “we’re living in a never-ending storm,” he said. Alas, though, resolving moral disputes “requires perspective, fuller context and the ability to make meaningful distinctions.”
That requires leaders with the courage and empathy “to inspire people to pause to reflect, so that instead of reacting by yelling in 140 characters they can channel all this moral outrage into deep and honest conversations.” If we can do that – a big if – Seidman concluded, “we can be truly great again because we’ll be back on our journey towards a more perfect union.”