Are the Women’s Marches More Sign Than Substance?

When the Tories were voted into power in 2015, thousands of angry lefties took to the streets to protest David Cameron and his government.

When Britain voted for Brexit, Remainers marched again in anger and in heartbreak.

When Donald Trump was elected — and when he was sworn in, and when we reached the anniversary of his pitiful inauguration — women and non-binary people around the world flooded the streets once more in global marches.

While women, minorities, and the disenfranchised have been marching in protest for centuries, these new marches — these #ToriesOutNow and #TimesUp marches — seem to mark a new era of protest. Where once we marched solely for specific causes and with specific aims, now the Western world takes to the street to express their general anger and disappointment with the world at large. The Women’s March has no specific aims other than to express disgust at the Trump administration. The Brexit marches, which have since fizzled out, had no agenda beyond ‘We’re really f*cking unhappy about this’. While ‘undoing Brexit’ and ‘overthrowing Trump’ might seem like concrete goals, they’re far more general, far more vague, than the demands of protests past.

“Sometimes you just need to shout and have others shout with you.”

On the face of it, these generic protests are fine. They might not reap particularly tangible results, but there is definitely something to be said for the atmosphere of hope that they foster. Activism is hard, thankless work. Sometimes it’s nice to get together with thousands of people who believe broadly the same thing as you, and show the world that you exist and that your voice matters. Sometimes, you don’t need a concrete end goal. Sometimes you just need to shout and have others shout with you.

Protests also start conversations — and broad conversations lead to specific conversations which lead to specific change. Marches themselves might be enormous echo chambers, but even the most ardent Tory or Trump campaigner can’t see three thousand people walking down the street holding signs without stopping to at least consider what it is they’re marching for.

“If we’re not careful, we could be heading towards an activism that values clickbait above content and action.”

But we need to be honest with ourselves about the extent that these ‘umbrella’ marches generate conversation. It’s easy to tell yourself that walking up to Downing Street with a sign is creating a global conversation, but in reality, George the Neo Nazi doesn’t give a damn, and Jane the Disenfranchised Voter won’t remember what your snazzy sign said tomorrow. In the age of constant news coverage, today’s story is quickly forgotten, and if our marches are not specific we run the risk of being just a passing fad and a timely Instagram photo. Read more about what are side effects of headphones?

None of this is helped by the obsession with snappy signs that these new-wave protests seem to have created. Poignant signs have been a part of protest culture for as long as protests have existed, but where once signs were simple but powerful, now signs carry a lot more weight. Following big marches, news outlets, Instagram profiles and Twitter threads all collate the best or wittiest signs. People are praised for how creative and shareable their sign slogans are, more than they’re praised for protesting in the first place. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with a nice sign or an Instagram collage, this emphasis on how ‘good’ a sign is — as to opposed to what it’s actually trying to say — is worrying. If we’re not careful, we could be heading towards an activism that values clickbait above content and action.

white women after making a sign w/ a harry potter reference to take to the women’s match

— rei (@tunahater) January 22, 2018

Of course, like protests themselves, signs can be a great way to start conversations. Marches, if nothing else, are a great way to meet like-minded people, and what better way to signal to thousands of potential friends and allies the issues you care about than a snappy sign? What better way to convey that you strive to be an intersectional feminist than a colourful sign declaring ‘If it ain’t intersectional, it ain’t feminism’? But, like with protests themselves, we have to be careful that we don’t overestimate the impact of a well-designed sign.

Ultimately, marches and protests should be about generating change, and despite my misgivings about this new era of general anti-right wing protests, even I can’t deny that things like the Women’s March do have an impact. If nothing else, the recent wave of protests have caused Trump to cancel multiple state visits to the UK for fear of protests and riots. But we must make sure that we don’t mistake walking with a piece of cardboard for actual impactful actions and work.

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