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Less Expletives and More Ideas: How Protests Could Be a Little More Democratic

26/05/2015 14:51 BST | Updated 23/05/2016 10:59 BST

Of course, the right to protest is vital for any healthy democracy. It provides a check on the power of government, ensures a plurality of political opinion, and allows anyone and everyone to be part of the democratic process. Recently though, it has struck me that the protest, our most direct expression of democracy, is often plagued with some ironically undemocratic elements.

Take the recent anti-austerity march in Bristol. Here was an opportunity to present a strong, united message to the government against the imminent infliction of extensive cuts. And it was a hopeful sight. Yet alas, bringing up the rear was an aggressive band of pseudo-revolutionaries, contributing nothing, but a rather uninventive chant, which went something like: "Tory, Tory, Tory! Scum, Scum, Scum!" No doubt, similar poetry was echoed up and down the country.

Needless to say, such words aren't exactly constructive. En masse (and sadly, they do seem to come in hoards), such chanting only serves to impair the legitimacy of the protest's cause. It draws attention away from the thousands of reasonable demands and downright good ideas of fellow protesters.

Inconsiderate, certainly, but is this truly undemocratic? Surely, as a liberal, I should support any use of our freedom of speech, never mind how hollow? Ordinarily yes, but such heckling is an abuse of this freedom.

"Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience," John Milton once wrote. Unfortunately, that last fragment is often forgotten. The label Tory extends far beyond Cameron and his pals, encompassing around 37% of the electorate. These protesters-within-a-protest weren't only dubbing the newly formed government "scum," but casting this net over each and every legitimate consertive voter whom they passed. Inciting political hatred, they were respecting neither the people around them, nor the democratic process.

Obviously, in a protest, the existence of one shared concern does not guarantee uniformity of opinion. However, there is an intrinsic element of unity. By haranguing passersby with verbal abuse, other protesters are tarred with the same brush. Queue responses such as: "Oh my! Look at all those protesters, defacing statues and calling everyone a c***!"

Simply this isn't very fair. In this hypothetical case, "Cameron is a c****!" probably wasn't the message that the majority signed up for. Sure, some may well agree with the sentiment, but they most likely had a more powerful rallying call in mind. Instead, their cause is devalued and defaced, as the aggressive minority are treated to the majority of the media's attention. A good cop-versus-protesters scenario always proves too irresistable (smoke screens, horses, batons, and bountiful tears: a reporters dream).

It only takes one riled individual setting fire to something they shouldn't to tarnish the entire group. Appearing on the news that night, their cause is lost in a story about out-of-control rebels in violent disarray.

If you are that individual, it's simple: leave the spray paint, the petrol and the expletive laden placards at home, and come up with something more purposeful to chant.

We shouldn't have to discipline democracy, but sadly it seems we must.