A more positive understanding of protest

The events of a long hot summer prompt research into some of the vocabulary of public gatherings. 

Thilo Schmuelgen/Reuters
Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan wave Turkish flags during a pro-government protest in Cologne, Germany.

There is such a thing as too much history, and we are having it.

That line floated up recently from the deep recesses of memory. It was an aperçu from a perhaps equally tumultuous time as today. I was just beginning to follow what our teachers called “current events” and to suspect that the grownups did not have it all figured out. 

More recently, we had a week in which it seemed that the first sound out of the kitchen clock radio every morning was a recording of gunfire somewhere. Then came reports of a coup under way in Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called for his supporters to take to the streets to protest. They did, in their legions. 

We are at a moment when much of “the news” consists of public events, e.g., mass gatherings to protest, mourn, celebrate, and even, occasionally, to deliberate – if convention halls full of people in funny hats can be construed as “deliberative bodies.” 

Coup is a short French word meaning “blow” or “strike” or “stroke.” The Online Etymology Dictionary traces it all the way back to the Greek kolaphos, “a blow, buffet, punch, slap.” In English, coup is almost always short for coup d’état. That phrase very literally means “blow of state” or “stroke of the state,” as the dictionary has it: “Technically any sudden, decisive political act but popularly restricted to the overthrow of a government.” 

After the Turkish coup failed, Mr. Erdoğan “made a brief public appearance amid a phalanx of heavily-armed bodyguards,” as the Daily Mail reported. 

Phalanx is another Greek-derived word we’re seeing a lot of lately. At the convention in Cleveland, “[A] phalanx of cops on bikes wearing headlamps circled the central square next to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument.” With a less technical usage, a Daily Kos headline said, “CNN hires phalanx of contributors to praise Donald Trump.” 

A phalanx is “A large group of people, animals, or things often placed close together,” according to Merriam-Webster’s “simple definition.” The dictionary notes that the word originally meant “log” but has come to refer either to a military formation – a group of soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder – or to a bone in a finger or toe. 

The metaphor seems bidirectional: Bones of hands and feet work together like an effective military formation, and a group of soldiers works together like the fingers on a hand. Phalanxes of cops have been much deployed lately keeping “pro” and “anti” protesters apart. 

But aren’t protesters by definition “anti”? Not necessarily. Protest is rooted in Latin words meaning “witnessing forth” – from the same root as testimony. From about 1400, the word meant “avowal, pledge, solemn declaration,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Only much later did it come to mean “statement of disapproval.” 

This may indeed be a time when we’re having too much history. But as the long hot summer wears on, I’ll be giving some thought to the positive protests I can register. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.