The art of gentle protest

Greg Morrison

From boycotts and letter-writing, to marches and rallies, activism has many faces – and has achieved much success throughout history. But the culture and identities often associated with activism can seem angry and ‘anti’, putting some people off. Could ‘gentle protest’ be a more accessible, and perhaps even more effective, way to campaign?

“If we want our world to be more beautiful, kind and just, then our activism should be beautiful, kind and just,” says Sarah Corbett, founder of the Craftivist Collective and headteacher of the School of Gentle Protest.

This March and April, the organisation I’m working with – 1215.today, an online platform that engages young people with political and social issues – partnered with Sarah to deliver The School of Gentle Protest, a six-week curriculum of vlog-based lessons, learning resources and homework covering the gentle protest movement.

“Gentleness is not a weakness, it’s about treating everyone how you would like to be treated, whether they are a victim, perpetrator or bystander,” says Sarah. “It’s about encouraging them to be their best self and improve our world for all. Gentle protest has been used effectively throughout history for long term change by people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. They never demonised anyone and not only helped change laws but hearts and minds too.”

If we want our world to be more beautiful, kind and just, then our activism should be beautiful, kind and just

So, why do we need it? I’d like to suggest seven reasons:

1. It’s time for a change

The effectiveness of old protesting techniques is limited. Often they are not the correct approaches for certain issues. Marching, for example, can raise awareness and provide catharsis, but it is too often followed by very little real progress. Moisés Naím, writing in The Atlantic, suggests: “Aerial photos of the anti-government marches routinely show an intimidating sea of people furiously demanding change. And yet, it is surprising how little these crowds achieve. The fervent political energy on the ground is hugely disproportionate to the practical results of these demonstrations.”

As Sarah suggests, isn’t it time that activism better reflected the kind of world people are trying to create?


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2. It’s clever

In today’s media-saturated world, the heavily-wrought analytical infrastructures upon which our opinions rest are primed for a gentler approach. Marshall Rosenberg, the late US psychologist and mediator, believed that ‘a difficult message to hear is an opportunity to enrich someone’s life’. Starting in the early 1960s, Rosenberg developed Nonviolent Communication, a process for resolving conflict within people, in relationships, and in society.

Rather than getting bogged down in analysis, Rosenberg’s approach crystallised the core of conflicts: he focused on creating empathy and resolution rather than anger.

3. It can help make you friends

Building on Rosenberg’s idea about the enriching potential in ‘difficult’ viewpoints, the gentle protest approach encourages us to make ‘critical friends rather than aggressive enemies’. Taking the example of an acquaintance making a sexist joke, John-Paul Flintoff (a journalist including for Positive News, and a teacher in ‘the art of conversation’) advises us to ask questions in a friendly way.

For example: “Wow, did you mean for that to sound so rude?” By asking open-ended questions you can keep the mood amiable and express your true feelings. Anger can further alienate people and solidify their opposing views. But coaxing them into a self-revelation is more likely to allow them to digest the situation and carry their new perspective through to their own interactions.

4. It lasts

From signing online petitions to applying filters to profile pictures, there are myriad ways to mark the activist tick box from home. However, their immediacy can mean that, though well intentioned, these methods are not supported by the thoroughness of thought that serious issues require.

A vital string in the gentle protester’s bow is craftivism, in which people use craft as a tool for influencing long-term change. Craft involves a certain level of focus and solitude, and the calmly formed musings that come out of these moments of reflective making can carry through to our lives more profoundly than a few clicks online might. The products of craftivism are also so unusual that they evoke a unique level of engagement from those who see them. Fostering an ongoing relationship with someone as their critical friend allows deeper, lengthier connections to be made than those you might forge with an aggressive enemy.

5. It works

In 2015, the Craftivist Collective partnered up with ShareAction, a charity dedicated to responsible investment. They wanted to address the Marks & Spencer’s board members at their AGM and put the Living Wage on the retailer’s agenda. Armed with 14 Marks & Spencer handkerchiefs customised with messages tailored to each board member, the Craftivists let their gifts set the tone of the conversation. Marks & Spencer’s chairman said the campaign was ‘a test case for how these campaigns should be run’ clarifying that it was the manner and tone of their approach that made the board so willing to meet in private and chat. Marks & Spencer eventually increased their staff pay above the Living Wage, a move owed in part to the positive attention the handkerchief campaign drew. Marks & Spencer increased their staff pay to the Living Wage and Craftivist Collective is now campaigning for Marks & Spencer to achieve Living Wage Employer accreditation.

6. It’ll save you money (and make you look cooler)

Another concept discussed during the School of Gentle Protest’s term has been that of visible mending. Breaking away from the wasteful consumerist treadmill borne of fast fashion and expendable incomes, is Tom van Deijnen, founder of Visible Mending.

Introverts, extroverts, talkers, doers and thinkers; gentle protest can come in every size and shape

He lists the benefits of mending your clothes so that people can see the repair work, literally wearing your values on your sleeve. Although it’s not a conservative look, the results are certainly eye-catching and can breathe new life into your worn and torn items. The more visible your mending, the more likely a conversation about slow fashion and ethical manufacturing or buying practices is to happen. (And the less money you spend on new clothes!)

7. Anyone can do it

Some of the great champions of peaceful protest, such as Gandhi, are extraordinary in part due to their oratory abilities and resilience to pressure. But simply marching – parading your values in public – can prove too daunting for some people. Anyone can pick from the array of techniques covered by the School of Gentle Protest. Introverts, extroverts, talkers, doers and thinkers; gentle protest can come in every size and shape.

To read more about the concept of gentle protest, visit 1215.today


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  • PositiveBear

    This is great! We need to stop making anger the fuel of change. It is time for a gentler approach.

  • David Solomon

    “For example: “Wow, did you mean for that to sound so rude?” By asking open-ended questions you can keep the mood amiable and express your true feelings.”
    True but still very confrontational. Better is to make an “I ” statement, e.g. I feel embarrassed for you when hearing that joke.

  • RuthiB

    Lets not confuse nonviolent protest with gentle protest, at least the way it is described here. Ghandi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela did *not* do gentle protest. They were confrontational, loud and very tough. There was nothing gentle about how they were treated because, and during, their protest. They were exactly what is pictured when people think of “activists”.

    That’s not to say that the type of protest advocated here isn’t useful or important – changing minds, social norms and economic frameworks are huge undertakings, which need all the tool we have. But ultimately, without also someone standing firm in front of riot police which are there to protect the current system (whichever it may be), we won’t be able to make changes as big as these three men were involved in bringing.

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