In Defence Of Protests

This editorial appeared in The Age in 1987. It stands as an eloquent defence of protest and dissent.

Saturday Reflection

A cartoonist has drawn a long-haired, scruffy-looking youth holding a blank placard and asking his room mate of similar appearance: “What shall we protest against today?”

Protesting, dissenting, complaining can become a habit even in a world is which there is so much to be thankful for.

Nevertheless, we smiled at the cartoon while inwardly protesting that not all protesters are way-out, and most know why they are carrying placards.

Some among us see all demonstrators simply as troublemakers, bent on causing disturbance, who ought to be suppressed. That, of course, is what Hitler and Stalin did to dissenters, and other dictators still do today.

We cannot have it both ways. The freedom most people would vote for includes freedom to protest, provided it is peaceful and does not infringe the freedom of others.

Our generation owes a debt to earlier protesters. As Walter Murdoch once wrote: “If it had not been for some unpopular, disgruntled cave dweller, I would today be living in a cave, gnawing the bones of strange beasts.”

Civilisation has developed largely as a result of people who challenged the status quo. Some continued so loudly and long – others quietly and passively – that they forced reforms in government, industry, commerce, social relationships, the Church.

Without them, children would still haul coal skips in mines, slaves would be auctioned, and workers sweated in factories. Women would be barred from the ballot box, not to mention sitting in Parliament.

But we have come a long way in this century. Many remember when in their own lifetime no redress existed, apart from sometimes costly litigation, for victims of oppressive landlords, scurrilous journalists, misleading advertisers, sub-standard service, or discrimination because of color, nationality, sex or religion.

Society today is geared to facilitate protest. The microphone gives dissenters a louder voice. Television multiplies a thousandfold the visual impact of public demonstrations.

People who believe they have been harshly treated may take their protests to a range of tribunals. There is the Arbitration Commission, Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Prices Surveillance Authority, Small Claims Tribunal, Equal Opportunity Board, Tenancies Tribunal, the Press Council and others.

For citizens unsure where to protest, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs publishes informative guides.

Yet, in spite of all the facilities, society still endures intolerable ills. The atmosphere and rivers continue to be polluted. Excessive noise afflicts our ears. Unethical traders thrive. Some industries exploit human weaknesses. Vast numbers of people are homeless. Millions are denied civil rights.

Everybody faces the spectre of war, and fears the blast of the bomb. They will continue to do so until enough people feel deeply enough to raise their voices, and placards, in protest.

Those who do may be butts for cartoonists. But they will be successors of those who helped to elevate society from caves, where their ancestors gnawed bones of strange beasts, to the level of life which, despite its shortcomings, we all enjoy today.


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