Is there privilege in protest? Climate change activists leave their mark on parliamentary proceedings

6 Apr 2019

 

For most of us, regardless of how anguished we feel about Brexit proceedings, it is easy to agree that the endless parliamentary focus on the subject is somewhat tiresome.  So when a group of climate change activists interrupted a Brexit debate in the House of Commons, it could have become a moment of national consciousness, a break from the cyclical and often cynical debate that rages on amongst MPs.

 

Indeed, the protesters disrupted proceedings by standing semi-naked in the public gallery, their bodies emblazoned with slogans, hands glued to the glass that separated them from the MPs below.  Their message was simple: to sharply bring into focus the pressing need for parliamentary action on climate change.

 

But that message does not seem to have emerged in quite so coherent a way. Although a number of the protesters spoke to media outlets following their demonstration, the main focus during coverage of the event appears to be the participants’ nakedness.

 

It probably does say a lot about the society we live in.  A whole spectrum of newspapers from the Daily Mail to the Guardian have run news stories referencing the nudity of the protesters in the headline.  

 

Even left-wing platforms have taken little note of the messages the protesters intended to convey, and have instead detailed the minutiae of reactions by parliamentarians.  I can’t help feeling that somehow, amidst the shock-factor of the protesters’ chosen method of demonstration, the real sentiment behind their action has been lost.  It seems that even news outlets wishing to highlight the relevance of taking action to fight climate change have been unsure how to react to the protesters.  

 

In an article published the day after the protests, Caroline Lucas in the Independent writes about the importance of preventing Brexit from dominating the pressing issues surrounding our environment.  She makes no mention of the protesters, despite echoing their message.  It is almost as if the protest itself has not been deemed an appropriate backdrop for the issues it raises.  

Perhaps we are too prudish as a country, and that is naturally why this form of demonstration has caused such a stir, but I do struggle to see the relevance of this manner of protest to the topic at hand.  One of the activists, Mark Ovland, felt that their nakedness put the protesters in a vulnerable position, thus ‘highlighting the vulnerability that all of us share in the face of environmental and societal breakdown’, and while there is a certain amount of internal logic to his statement, he is nevertheless making a somewhat tenuous link.  It is certainly not a link that has been made by media outlets, essential for propagating messages about the protest.

 

And that is one of the major issues with what took place.  It may be easy (and often relevant) to criticise media interpretations and portrayals of events such as this.  There is no way that our broadcasters and news outlets should see any of their coverage go unscrutinised.  But at the same time none of them have reacted in such a way as to champion the protesters and their methods.  Hardly any of them have even mentioned climate change as a result.

 

When protesting, individuals have to work with pre-existing channels - a major one of these being media coverage and, crucially, the chance to have their cause potentially validated through that coverage.  This is the other issue I take with these protests.  There is something self-indulgent about the protesters’ actions, and this is particularly noticeable in their statements concerning Brexit.  

 

One, Iggy Fox, says that he is ‘tired of the time and resources our government wastes rearranging the deckchairs on the Brexitanic.’  Another, Savannah May is quoted as saying ‘Personally I don't care that much about Brexit. I think it's fine that people do but I think there are bigger things right now.’  The attitudes of both activists are apathetic, even blasé, when it comes to Brexit. 

 

I do understand why parliamentary processes surrounding Brexit can engender apathy; they have been going round in circles with no resolution.  More than ever the public may feel a disconnect from the MPs who represent them on this topic.  But though Brexit is a deal between nations, and may seem to have little do to with the ultimate future of this planet, it is problematic when we start characterising it as irrelevant.

 

For these activists to have deliberately attempted to derail a debate on Brexit suggests that they want to send a message of its irrelevance in the face of climate change.  But I feel that the only way that an individual can see Brexit as totally unimportant is to either be entirely disconnected from the political sphere or to feel that whatever happens with Brexit will have few ramifications for them.  Seeing as these individuals chose to protest in parliament, I have a feeling it might be the latter.

 

There is an undeniable privilege in being able to survey the facts of Brexit and decide they will be of little consequence.  None of us will be insulated from the effects of climate change, that is for sure.  But few people will truly be insulated from the effects of a Brexit-gone-wrong, and it is going to be those worse off in society who may suffer most from the conclusion of parliamentary proceedings.  To be able to look at Brexit and feel that the issue is beneath you is linked to a privilege which allows you to protest naked in parliament without fear of ramification.

 

And while the protesters were indeed arrested and many of them cite the vulnerability of their nakedness, we have to acknowledge that, however noble, those who protest most vociferously either have nothing to lose or will not lose anything through their action. 

 

I said that media platforms were distracted by the protesters’ nakedness.  But I think the protesters themselves have been too.  They have been distracted by the symbolism and boldness of what they have done, and have forgotten that nothing in the political sphere is binary.  It is not a case of Brexit or the environment, because whatever happens with Brexit will affect our policies on climate change.  And in times of economic hardship, when more people struggle to feed their children, or fear homelessness, issues like the environment are going to fall by the wayside.  A refusal to recognise that these issues can only be broached in tandem will lead to greater discord in our society.  And then, naked or not, we will all be hurt by our multiple failures to work constructively and together. 

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