Solidarity with Quebec Student Protesters
May 9, 2012

Solidarity with Quebec Student Protesters

Quebec students, outraged over a 75% tuition increase, have sparked the largest protests in Quebec's history and have already managed the rare achievement of achieving genuine, if minor, concessions that would have almost certainly not happened were it not for the protests. As is common when protests rise up, there have been many attempts to denigrate or diminish the protest and the reaction is often overly negative.

I believe that in a democracy, citizens not only have the right but also the responsibility to take the issues that they care about and that affect them, and to push for those issues. You and I may disagree on what issues are important, or what the right answers are to certain issues, but we should not disagree on the fundamental importance of citizen action and engagement in their democracy. Indeed, apathy on behalf of the citizenry is precisely the source of why the more egregious aspects of our society are allowed to perpetuate.

I believe that affordable higher education is such an important issue that we all ought to care deeply about. Higher education has enormous benefits to individuals and to society at large, and is strongly correlated with just about any positive social metric one can name from higher societal wealth to greater equality. Because it is not just providing benefits to individuals, but additionally has a positive externality on society, it is precisely the kind of thing that is optimally assisted by government spending. Lifetime earnings are concentrated in the third quarter of most people's lives, a system that effectively subsidizes other portions of life (through taxation of work and then payments for education or old age benefits) makes sense. For these reasons, and many others, supporting affordable higher education is logical.

Is it thus not the case that anyone ought to stand in solidarity with at the very least the basic concepts and goals of the student protests in Quebec, and others like it around the world?

...but they have cheaper education than the rest of Canada!
True. Even after the increases over seven years, tuition in Quebec will be considerably cheaper than it is in the rest of Canada today. Every discussion of this topic I have read seems to feel the need to point this out as if this somehow detracts from the legitimacy or importance of these protests. This argument makes no sense. Surely, the legitimacy of a protest in one jurisdiction in invariant under whether the situation is worse in another; as members of a wealthy and progressive first world country, if we bought that argument we could never fight for any change in our country. For people living in Ontario, with far more expensive tuition, this should be more of a guide on how to try and prevent further increases than it is something to denigrate. This is as true for this example as it was for expressing solidarity with the massive student protest in the UK or any other example around the world.

...but they are irritating and obnoxious!
I don't care. I have trouble thinking that the minor nuisances caused by most protests come even remotely close to the importance of fighting for social change and standing up for your beliefs in a functioning democracy.

There is a question of tactics here. Part of the way support for ideas and change in society occurs is by spreading your message and awareness of it. This is why I write this blog. It is very important for any social movement to be visible and any theory of change, as it is called, which manages to persuade people of your views, necessitates awareness of your views first. Visibility, however, is not enough. If one is visible in a way that angers or irritates others, or makes you appear otherwise unappealing, you do yourself a disservice because it puts people off this cause. Thus from a tactical point of view, I think protest should aim to maximize visibility while minimizing the nuisance of it. This let's us easily dismiss (and indeed condemn) actions like breaking windows or causing other forms of civil disobedience which despite being illegal and morally reprehensible are also flat out ineffective. But there can be a balancing act between these two. Things like shutting down a subway station or blocking entrances to a University is a real nuisance but at least it makes people aware of the cause; there would be little value in protesting in the middle of nowhere, for instance. However, I think the balance lies in the occupying (to use the rhetoric of the movement which that namesake) prominent and visible public places but without actively annoying people by, say, slowing down their day if they aren't interested.

...but they hardly accomplish anything!
The Quebec protests have managed to accomplish some small concessions. The increases are going to be spread out over 7 years opposed to five years, and the creation of a transitional council that would aim to reduce the incidental fees students pay. These differences make real differences, and should be scored as accomplishments, even if they are a far cry from what some may want. However, these kinds of movements cannot and should not be judge on their short term accomplishments. A lot of the value of protests is in building long term movements and, indeed, every major social movement that we laud today from civil rights to women's rights to LGBT rights takes decades and not weeks or months. Further, such protests provide a backstop that makes it politically painful to push for further cuts in the future and in other areas. If legislators are aware that a strong and vocal protest will arise given this example, there will be marginal improvement on future policies. I have written more on this issue of the larger picture of activism here.

...but they are violent and selfish!
It is an unfortunate reality of many protests that there is a usually very small subset of people who do go and turn out just to cause trouble and use the protest as cover. Being the most visible, there is thus extensive coverage and commentary on the violence and how bad it is - and it is certainly bad - while often largely ignoring the core issues being raised by the majority of protesters. Beyond the violence coverage, there is often attempts to essentially create a homogeneous, anthropomorphized ad hominem character attack again the protests as whole. Take this caricature of the protests written by a Globe and Mail columnist:
"The Quebec uprising is a farce, led by a group of self-absorbed brats, basking in the glow of often fawning media attention. They are nothing more than spoiled kids demanding to have their way. It is time they are ignored until they stop their whining and grow up."
Comments like this contribute nothing to the discussion. But every time, whether it is the G20 protests or the Occupy Movement or any other, it seems as if it is necessary to defend the very concept of protesting and fighting for what one believes as citizens in a democracy, before one can actually discuss the efficacy of various policies in a reasonable way.

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