Since Donald Trump won the presidential election in November, and even more so since the inauguration, certain individuals and groups have been in a state of panic. People have taken to the streets in protest. Judging from the number and frequency of protests since President Trump’s inauguration, it would seem the very future of our republic, society, and most cherished rights are currently under constant threat.
Yet, our lives and liberties have actually never been better. Material wealth, social progress, and peaceful conditions are necessary conditions of the privilege of protest.
The privilege of protest requires material wealth. If you transported someone from the Middle Ages into the modern United States, they would probably think they had found a way to heaven itself. Gone are the days when a cut on your leg quickly resulted in disease and death. Gone are the days when traveling from one side of the continent to the other meant months or years of turmoil. Gone are the days when it was necessary to spend the majority of one’s time just trying to find food. We find ourselves in midst of heretofore unfathomable wealth and industry. Homes, cars, computers, access to food, access to healthcare, access to education, the internet, television, iPads, life-expectancy, the list goes on and on. Compared to the previous 99 percent of human history, even the very poorest Americans have it pretty good.
The privilege of protest also requires conditions approaching social equality. America has also made enormous social progress over the last 200 years. Two centuries ago, women under the system of English common law could not, with limited exceptions, own property. 100 years ago, women in the United States did not have the right to vote. Now they can. 50 years ago women did not have access to legal and medically safe abortions. Now they do. 60 years ago in many Southern states, public accommodations were racially segregated and civil rights protesters were attacked by police dogs and slammed against brick walls. No more. 20 years ago, it was still taboo to be gay, and marriage equality was out of the question. Now these concepts are unthinkable to most Americans. This is not to say that there still isn’t progress to be made. Far from it. Racism, sexism, and all manner of “isms” are still major problems in American society and the world. But we gain nothing by refusing to recognize how far we have already come.
Finally, the privilege of protest requires peaceful conditions. Many parts of the world are still riven by continuous war, famine, genocide, starvation, authoritarian rule. For many Americans, these concepts are inconceivable. But for many around the world, these atrocities are daily realities. It is one thing to pound the keys of your laptop in protest as you simultaneously clutch your mocha soy iced non-fat latte. It is quite another to be forced to duck from rubble pile to rubble pile, for fear of being shot, to constantly fear for the lives of your loved ones, or to cast your eyes to the sky in anticipation of the next drone strike.
There is already strong evidence that there are many reasons to be fearful of what policies this new administration will enact. However, under many measures, conditions in the United States and many parts of the western world, have never been better. Most people forget that the “natural” state of humanity is, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The privilege of protest consists in not having to worry where our next meal will come from, being able to purchase a plane ticket or take the day off of work. The privilege of protest consists in our ability to exercise the civil rights that past generations of Americans gave their lives, fortunes, and honor to defend and promote. The privilege of protest means being able to dress like a vagina, proudly hold our signs aloft, and not be in fear of being gunned down by militants or agents of our own government.
Now, this is in no way meant to diminish the importance of peaceful assembly under the First Amendment, which is one of our most cherished freedoms. But the value of rights on paper, and the ability to actually exercise those rights in reality, are two very different things. As bad as some may think things are going in this country, they could be a whole lot worse. If you are starving to death, treated as a second class citizen, or if you are living in a war zone, you do not have the privilege to protest politics that you don’t like.
The people currently protesting even the most minor of President Trump’s actions may not realize how privileged they actually are.