By Matthew Herzog
*As a disclaimer, this article contains ‘I’. Finding a hypothesis, then an article from the Guardian to back it up, felt like a standard issue term paper. ‘I’ decided a separate route.*
How do you gauge sincerity? How do you know what you or others express is proximate to truth? (Or as the courts demand, ‘the whole truth’?) As protest material turns personalized, accuracy and honesty become themes under the thumb of the individual. Protest material has developed, at it’s foundation, an expression of one’s experience similar to a Facebook post or a tweet. It is best employed when true, when it is clear, and when it strikes others in a way that stays with them. That’s a tall order yet as we’re finding, it is one many have triumphed. I.e. ‘Take back the night’ from the 1970s to the present example, ‘Am I going to see you nice white ladies at the next Black Lives Matter protest?’.
People of all backgrounds, intellect, and ingenuity have portrayed their truths within the difficult brackets of protest structure. How do they do it? Secondarily, if ‘I’ defines the content, is the big ‘we’ being fully portrayed?
As I look over past images of protest material, I see their echoes and alterations within our present. I engage a mixed sentiment of joy, validation, and disheartenment. To compare and contrast protest material from the 1997 Million Woman March in Philadelphia with the 2017 Women’s March on Washington is to witness history emerge, repeat, be lost, found, appropriated, and so on.
What posters I could find from the 1997 march, since there were drastically less than the 2017 march, not only offered quasi validation but a queasy aftertaste. It was all too familiar yet completely missing from my knowledge.
As I dove deeper into contemporary marches and their history, I encountered similar reformations. To research where slogans came from, and how we use them today, moved whole narratives like pillars, a historical readjustment like goliath stones rolling through a synoptic channel. ‘The More You Know’ annoyingly rings in an offbeat.
1997 Philadelphia was about black women’s representation being lost from mainstream women’s organizations. And there I was in 2017 Washington, a white gay dude, suddenly surprised by this black woman holding a sign asking where I had been all this time. It made me wonder when I was holding signs or yelling the slogans others chanted, did I unintentionally fold into a narrative with hidden origins. To be partial, yep.
I’ll provide a little defense for myself. I wore an upside down pink triangle sewn to a jean pant leg I wore around my arm. It was in honor of the persecution of gay men and women in Germany during WWII. I was also hesitant in repeating the rally cries that ebbed. But that’s because my engagement with suspicion came from growing up in the country. Awareness of who I was around and what I said saved my gay ass from being mauled. It certainly would have saved a few of my friends but that’s a different article.
In a way, me wearing a pink triangle in a march with uneasy ties to its predecessor, highlights a conflict between ‘whole truth’ and ‘individual truth’. My ‘individual truth’ does not contain black rights and so I missed catching the origin of the march. Yet my ‘whole truth’ as a participant in society does contain black rights and I missed an opportunity to stand in solidarity with another person.
Because I like creating extremes as a way of finding the subtlety in life, I’ll be melodramatic. If I immerse myself in the whole truth, I must fully engage with all examples and histories of discrimination - even at the risk of cultural appropriation and the blurring of personal identity. If I engage in the individual truth, I must fully undertake my personal discriminations - even at the risk of perspectival/intellectual/emotional isolation and evading fellow citizen’s strife. I don’t think I have enough body space for one and the other might cut out the gradation of reality. It’s quixotic to do either.
To return to reality, one can at any moment learn swaths of historical information and personal records - a privilege of modern technology. And then, in another moment, one can sense how it fits within the historical formation inside their mind - a movement informing of inaccuracies and how far the ripple of alteration travels along the archival fleshy web. It’s possible that the use of the two is a potential navigation between ‘whole’ and ‘individual’. I would have worn the same pink triangle even if I knew what the woman’s sign referenced. The only difference would have been the nod I would have given or that I would have extended a hand to hold her own.
Instead of assuming I would have to hold the entire world like a lot of white people argue when approached with issues outside their own - hell, I just did it earlier in a hyperbolic definition of ‘whole truth’ - I could have triaged what was important and stood along side her, overcoming what was my lost understanding in that march. I believe that was what my fellow Co-Founder, Abby King, was tackling when she yelled ‘My body, my choice.’ while holding a sign saying End Islamophobia.
In a related note, I’m thankful the Mothers of the Movement were there to drown out the celebrity screams of Madonna. Talk about personhood overriding greater purpose. I like you Momma MAD but when it’s time to march, you should probably use your legs, not the mike.
This brings up a good transition. Research, knowledge, and sincerity, help us understand greater narratives and our relation to the ‘whole truth’. They also aid when attempting to understand personal narratives and our representations of ‘individual truth’.
If feeling honesty is anything like how I encounter emotion, it would be an experience between myself and my body. Stress connects to my stomach. Attraction reddens my skin. Heartache closes my throat. Anxiety makes me need to pee. Theoretically, the measurement of sincerity could be in the severity in which it manifests. Maybe my sternum parallels my belief. The reality of my words might arrive in the tension of chest muscles. In that example, another’s sincerity might physically grace me. It could inform me of the weight and texture of my own conviction. A person’s simple sound and composition - expressing doubt, or affection, or hope - could inspire real movement. People could duplicate truth as if it weren’t their words that spread to others but the same experience to which they endured. By one person telling of strife, another would become a tethered victim. People would wipe other’s tears and cry because they burn them. This can’t be too out there of a hypothesis, especially if you’ve worked in relief efforts or read anything by Woolfe, Dostoevsky, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. You might be able to tell where my literary allegiances lie. Here’s to forever feeling shit.
Whether the above is a possible marker of sincerity or not, the underlying theory that truth can be measured by its proximity to our experience would be the device by which we could bridge how we feel with what we write. The woman I saw at the march was right when she asked where I had been during Black Lives Matter protests because it was proximate to her experience with repression and systematic racism. The same can be said of Amir Talai when his protest sign, saying the same message, went viral. Abby King was right when yelling the slogan and holding the sign against islamophobia. I was right with my pink triangle. And millions of people were right when they sat and thought about their individual messages. Protest, writing, and art, could first be an experience in unapologetic narcissism. To put it more kindly, they are a delving into the elemental principles of our case.
To phrase protest as ‘a delving into the elemental principles of our case’ acknowledges that our perspective on our experiences are valid as such but need research and contemplation to stand the offense of how it fits amongst others. Protest is a case. In order to make one, clarity, appeal, and acumen are needed. In an odd way, sincere protest is born from the suspicion and doubt of our experience. I must question myself within the entitled adventure of being human.
When I was sewing the pink triangle across jean, I was reading articles on how gay men were treated post-war. Paragraph 175, a provision in the German Criminal Code that criminalized homosexuality, wasn’t retracted after 1944. In fact, many gay men were simply re-imprisoned. I sat and sewed looking at images of the men and contemplating who they were and how labeling, imprisonment, discrimination, identity, and even the color pink was being represented today. It’s only in hindsight that I wish I could have contemplated how that inherited history was similar to and different from the lineage of the marches I was attending.
*Paragraph 175 was not officially stricken from the Criminal Code until 1994. It was during the 'period of reconciling laws' between the then freshly united East and West Germany.*
Protesting will always be about mediating ‘whole truth’ and ‘individual truth’. We’re not talking about journaling here. When I hold a sign, I’m not in my bedroom, legs up, tear ducts warming, content in the knowledge my words won’t escape because I can burn it later. Protest is public discourse which layers individual rights with cultural urgencies.
If I read my own words and believe them in perpetuity then a responsible citizen engaging in public discourse is one that does not sacrifice personal history for the current topic but one who invites it into their lives. The individual in context to the whole is not a mediation of experience, nor is it solved with savior complexes. It simply means, the image of ‘We the People’ might appear in a group where one wears a pink triangle, another yells about our bodies, another yells Black Lives Matter, and another is holding a sign demanding the end of Islamophobia. The honoring of discriminatory, protest and personal history appears in the sincerity of words, the triage of topics, the nod of compassion and the comfortability of our gate. Community means ‘We’ is a prominent choir of ‘I’. And societal responsibility means ‘I’ is within the overture of ‘We’.
*I hope you realize how hard it is for me not to make a thousand literary or philosophical references. But I’d rather you disseminate my words. Email Velvetglovephilly@gmail.com to let me know this is utter shit.*