The Intangible Rewards of Protest

A few years ago, on NPR, I heard part of an interview with Derrick Bell (a long-standing civil-rights advocate and legal scholar, as well as the first tenured black professor at Harvard Law School; his 1973 book, Race, Racism and American Law, became and remains a staple at law schools nationwide). It's a good interview but the phrase that stuck with me was based on the idea that protest and activist noise is often met with no tangible results - that standing up for progressive ideas is often met with an insurmountable wall. Certainly, it feels that way when confronted by the increasing evidence of deeply racist and violent police officers and the Big Corporate Fight against increasing the Minimum Wage. Bell gently insisted that one should stand up anyway because, he claimed, the very action of fighting for a cause, even a Lost One, has "intangible rewards." 

The idea of intangible rewards to positive behavior smacks a bit of humanist spirituality. "It's good for you in ways that I can't genuinely explain or quantify."

  • You should read more because you will be more informed. 
  • You should be charitable to those in need because you will be a better person for it. 
  • You should give a gift without expectation of return. 
  • You should laugh at yourself because you'll be more self reflective. 

But we are a consumerist, self-involved culture and we want tangibility in our rewards. We want a sense of measurable accomplishment. We want immediate gratification. Kids often require some sort of physical payoff for merely doing chores or homework. The belief in Karma smacks right into the wall of our hunger for Concrete Prizes. And, in light of the capitalist ideal that equates having stuff and being rewarded with money with success and happiness, Karma doesn't have a fucking chance in the WWE Throwdown between the Emotional High received in holding the Blue Ribbon and The Slowly Developed Sense of Well Being. 

It's a curious thing, this almost infantile need for immediacy and concrete payment for any sense of accomplishment. Children want what they want when they want it and the tantrum that follows is not distinct from the venting rage of a woman incensed that she has to pay fifteen cents for a glass of water or a man dressing down a McDonalds counter person because he had to wait an extra two minutes for his McRib. 

The flip side is the intangible punishment. The idea that, say for instance, the police officers who shoot rubber bullets and tear gas at the Ferguson protesters won't be held accountable for this violence but will feel real fucking bad about it late at night. Which is kind of a bucket of dog shit, in my opinion. And, while I type that, I find that I DO believe in the idea of intangible reward. In fact, I can't think any rational being who would argue that one should NOT do smart, charitable, and activist things because there is no external reward OR that there should NOT be any external punishment for those who harm others. 

Intangible Reward = an individual benefit from Positive Behavior. 

Intangible Punishment = a bunch of crap. 

Part of this division in my belief is due to the fact that I think Shame, while incredibly effective as a deterrent of bad behavior, is a shitty way to punish people. Shame gets up under the soft parts of the psyche and damages one for life. On the other hand, Praise is cool (Over Praise can create a sense of invulnerability, which isn't a great thing in a person because it leads to an egomania hard to swallow). But Praise alone, just like Shame alone, doesn't really do the trick. 

So, let's break it down a bit. Reward exists to encourage behavior; punishment exists to deter behavior. Sound about right? 

The payoff to showing up to work every day and, you know, working is a tangible check. The recompense for working out at the gym is a healthier weight, a spring in your step, and the abstract extra years of your life (which, let's be honest here, isn't really much motivation because those are likely the years when you're peeing on yourself and forgetting your pants when going to the grocery store...). What, then, is the benefit of fighting the Oligarchical Powers that routinely create an economic strangulation on those not "in the club" when anything short of violent revolution will likely result in incarceration and a lifelong banishment from the basic economic freedoms of the Promised Land?  What is the advantage gained with the fighting of police authority routinely killing black men as if it was standard operating procedure?


No one stands up to The Man without the hope of possibility under his wingspan. The Mythos of David slaying Goliath is too pervasive to simply ignore. But the Genuine Possibility that has substance is NOT retribution. Yup - I'd love nothing more than to see the various CEO's of the major banks in a 4'x8' cell right next to Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and ol' Georgie Bush (yes, I'm still incensed by the multiple fiascos of that regime even though he has become sort of doddering and adorable) - but it simply isn't a plausible ending to the story. They have too much fucking money. And, even if they were imprisoned, it wouldn't slake our thirst for retribution.  Like the dirty cops who torture people into false confessions, vengeance is the tangible punishment that will NEVER be enough. 

There are three aspects to deterrence to determine whether the undesirable behavior will be curtailed: 

How soon will the punishment occur? 
How likely is it I'll get caught? 
What is the severity of the punishment? 

We only seem to give a shit about the third when the first two are the deal clinchers. The severity of the punishment means almost nothing if one can continue to obfuscate the law with endless litigation and the chances of being caught are even less than the chances of a gay man getting a babysitting job in Kansas. 

It boils down to finding the Possible in the Tangible. 

In our religiously capitalist mass cult, the Tangible is Cash. Money equals Power and Influence and the ability to commit crimes - both legislatively forbidden acts and those inhuman acts that are harder to legislate against - and, therefore, the activists that target the finances of wrongdoers are the most likely to see actual change. 

So, leaving all the acrimony at the Robber Barons and their bought off politicians aside for a moment, tamping down the outrage fomented by violently racist cops, how do achieve the goals of both sticking it to the people who would do harm AND making the world a better place for the rest of us?

  • Locate methods of mass boycott that hurts the bottom line of those organizations and individuals who keep getting away with it. Take away their money and you take away their power.
  • In the absence of regular church going, find and create organizations that inspire people to do things of import that do not require fealty to the cause or time to accomplish things. 
  • Recognize that there are too many problems for most people to devote their time fighting and stop shaming folks for not joining the 24-hour a day activism that seems expected. 
  • Use social media to communicate activist intent in short bursts. 
  • Turn away no allies - if you want to knock on the doors of Power, numbers count and lecturing men on how to be a better feminist or whites on how to be better racial activists is more about personal empowerment than activating real change.
  • Make the activism fun. 

At the heart of most successful movements is a sense of the theatrical.  Rosa Parks was not the first person to refuse to sit at the back of the bus.  A movement coalesced around her primarily because King decided to take her moment and theatricalize it.  The Occupy moment was a huge piece of performance art that fizzled out as soon as the art became secondary.  Abby Hoffman was a showman first.  So was Malcolm X.

If you want a thousand people to storm City Hall in defiance of closing schools (instead of 200) make it a show and get Goose Island Beer to supply a free beer for everyone who shows up.  Showing up provides intangible reward.  A beer is tangible. Outrage is fun for the core of any movement but tangible rewards get out the numbers. The Koch Bros. pay people to show up and picket.  We're just offering the idea of being among the Righteous (and, in our own sense of Self Righteousness, alienate those not quite as fucking pious as we are).  The Right has money, we have creativity.  Get creative.

Until then, we'll have to settle for the character-building intangible rewards.

Attention, Attention Must Finally Be Paid

The Company You Keep Defines Who You Are