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The Cathartic Power of Protesting

Writing by Jamie Calder. Artwork by Rosa Rucola (soon to be found @rucolasexternalbrain)

It may be a somewhat cynical view but I believe that the catharsis effect protesting has on us is rooted, in some part, in our self-serving animal instincts. Our need for both belonging and security, as well as acceptance and potentially even glory is interlinked with our desires for a better life, and a better society. Not only do we feel this sense of relief as the societal pressures to conform and belong are eased, the protest itself can create catharsis for the people directly affected by the issue at hand as the stigma and sense of being alone are eased, even if it is just for a moment. Therefore, protesting can be a huge form of social catharsis as it appeals to our human instinct to find a community which we can flourish and belong within as well as our somewhat selfish desire for recognition.

As humans, we long for acceptance and belonging, and it is something we seek out without even noticing it. We tend to become friends with people who share similar political and social beliefs, fall in love with the people who allow us to express ourselves freely and without judgement, and we create families, communities and society as a whole because we need to be amongst others. When being a part of a mass movement with people who believe the same things you do creates both these things. You develop an instant bond with your fellow protesters, building a new community that you feel accepted into, even though you have likely never met the others. This community provides you a safe space to express your opinions freely, without judgement. This is a well known part of protesting, with entire movements being built up to the size and power they are because of the commonality of the protesters. school pupils are now central to the movements trying to tackle the climate crisis, and without the ‘youth strike’ popularised by Greta Thunberg, the movement may have failed to gain the power it now has over the general populace and world governments. Community building is key to a protest movement’s success, as if the protesters feel a deeper connection to the movement and to their fellow protesters, the likelihood of their return increases.

Protests aren’t just cathartic because they appeal to our natural need for belonging. There are other subconscious factors at hand, such as the fear of rejection, the seeking of glory, or, at the least, the claim to denied recognition. Again, protests provide these for us, as we know the people around us share the same beliefs,. Therefore, the feeling of catharsis can come from the easing of our fear of rejection and our more selfish side is satisfied by the pride we feel as result of a protest succeeding, and the sense of righteousness this provides.

So, with this newfound sense of community, we are relieved of the pressure of needing to find this safe space where we can feel secure, understood and respected. We are provided a cathartic release of stress, worry and repression of thoughts and feelings as we now know that we have been accepted, and therefore belong within this community and can continue to flourish within it without the fear of being rejected.

The second way protesting provides a great sense of cathartic relief is through a collective expression of the pain and trauma experienced by many, if not all the protesters. The online publication heyalma, which focuses on giving marginalised women and Jewish people a place to be heard, discusses the worldwide #metoo protests surrounding the trial of Harvey Weinstein and how they provided a sense of relief as the trial and the movement began a kind of easing of the stigma surrounding sexual assault and the victims of the crimes committed.

A similar kind of emotional release can be seen in a variety of different movements. The student newspaper Coppel Student Media discuss in their article, protesters sometimes resort to violence to get the catharsis they need, the shock of the event will force people to finally start to listen and pay attention to their struggles. Their article highlights the Baltimore riots of 2015 and states that the protesters resorted to rioting because; ‘ When considering the riots in Ferguson, Mo., it was not until protests became violent that it hit national news’. In these cases, the cathartic release of emotions actually has a direct impact on the protests’ success – in the same the heyalma article, they discuss how the global chants of ‘Y la culpa no era mía, ni dónde estaba ni cómo vestía’ (And the fault was not mine, nor where I was, nor how I dressed) were a unifying force, one that gave the movement even more power and momentum as the sense of community discussed in the first paragraph of this post was spread further than ever before, it crossed continents, languages and virtually every societal or cultural line.

The cathartic power of a protest cannot be understated - it appeals to our natural inclinations, and helps to free us of our trauma, all while being a force for good. The ability for the masses to provide the sense of community and belonging similar to family and friends that we have known for years, despite only knowing them for a few hours, is incredible, and the ability for them to unite the victims of oppression across the world under one banner and provide some sense of catharsis for them from their trauma is equally impressive.

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