2011-11-10

Does Mass Protest Violate the Non-Aggression Principle?

Suppose you are a wealthy banker. Suppose your neighbors believe that it is morally wrong that you have done so well for yourself, considering what else is going on in the economy.

Now suppose one neighbor decides to sit on the sidewalk outside your front door in protest of his situation relative to yours.

No problem, right? You're one person, he's one person. He's sitting on public property, voicing his opinion, and you're otherwise going about your day. You might find it annoying that you have to steer your car around him when you back out of your driveway, but hey - that's protest.

Now suppose your neighbor convinces hundreds of other people to sit on the sidewalk outside your home in protest.

When we were talking about just you and your neighbor, this seemed like a harmless protest. In this second situation, though, a hundred discontent people are sitting outside you home, protesting you livelihood. My question to you, the reader is: Does a peaceful protest of this kind violate the non-aggression principle?

Think of it this way, would you be okay if one hundred people camped outside your home and refused to leave until your way of life was systemically altered, even if they "promised not to hurt you?" In other words, can a crowd of discontented people who refuse to move until their demands are met ever be considered peaceful? Or, is the very act of assembling a mob and making demands inherently violent?

The purpose of a large protest is to make known to others how many people agree with a given position. Why is this necessary? What does anyone stand to gain from collecting into a large group and making a set of demands?

I'm circumlocuting this a bit, so let's get to the point. The purpose of mass protest is intimidation. In terms of rhetoric and validity of opinion, there is no difference between a large protest and a sign hung up in a conspicuous location. So the difference is literally not rhetorical. The size of the crowd has no bearing on the strength of one's argument. Logicians would call this a bandwagon fallacy.

Perhaps my giving protesters the benefit of the doubt would be to suggest that such people are guilty of committing a logical fallacy. However, I don't think it's as simple as that. I think the purpose of staging a large protest is to intimidate people into meeting their demands. It is always some kind of a threat, and therefore always aggressive.

In some cases, we may prefer this form of aggression to others. For example, the Arab Spring is a much better solution to a political problem then a bloody civil war. Much better to demonstrate that the government is illegitimate and avoid unnecessary bloodshed than to take up arms and attempt to improve one's situation via an armed coup.

On the other hand, the Occupy Wall Street mob is not actually avoiding any unnecessary bloodshed, nor any other form of violence. The only ones engaging in any kind of aggressive tactic in this situation are the protesters.

To sum up: Yes, mass-protest violates the non-aggression principle; and no, this is not an ethically valid solution to the matter at hand, because only one side is engaging in aggression (or, the OWS folks started it).