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Collective action and cognitive dissonance

Dec 01,2018 - Last updated at Dec 01,2018

A total of 43,000 Facebook users engaged digitally in the call for the November 30 collective action protest. During the few days after the call was announced, 10,000 users clicked the button “going” and 33,000 others expressed an “interest” in the event near the Fourth Circle, where the office of Prime Minister Omar Razzaz is located, to send a few messages to the government. Despite the fact that 4,800 digital activists shared the event on Facebook and called others to join, the turnout was only a few hundred. They protested for a few hours then left peacefully, under the protection of security forces. Before their departure, they invited attendees to come back on the afternoon of Saturday, December 1, to resume protest action.

How can the gap between digital and real protest be explained and what does it mean? Attitudes do not always translate into behavioural actions. Behaviour is a function of a few factors: cost-benefit, police tactics, past experience, role models, willingness to take action, attitudes towards behaviour, values and intentions. 

The perceived cost and risk reduce participation. Many potential protestors remain passive for rational calculation, although they are saturated with expressible grievances. The actual cost, monetary and time, associated with a “click” varies significantly from the cost of physically going to the protest site. Perceived political cost and government reprisal constitutes a barrier as “protest-pushers” are not seen positively by the authorities, despite lip-service statements to the contrary. For some, risk and cost create an opportunity. While many senior members of government would frame protesters as “trouble makers” or “unhelpful”, they find it perfectly proper to hire them to sell “trouble making” policies. This applies to at least four current ministers, who have taken part in anti-government protests and then were hired to sell the very policies they protested, displaying alarming degrees of cognitive dissonance: behaving inconsistently with one’s publicly shared beliefs. Those are often referred to as role models of lip-service democrats.

Past experiences of protest and protesters send contradictory and very confusing messages to activists. Most protests vanished to no avail. Some protestors ended up in prison, while others ended up endorsing and legitimising the putting of their comrades behind bars. Which one is the role model for protestors when protest demands are not addressed sufficiently, especially when it comes to the eradication of administrative corruption, which is crippling the economy and with it the national psyche. This process is contributing to the accumulation of frustration at the mass level and opportunism at the elite level. These models of grievance management and cognitive dissonance are heading to a dead-end.

Protest escalation is partly a function of police tactics. Evidence demonstrates that police brutality correlates in a linear manner with protest escalation. Since 2011, the police have not used brutal force to defuse protests. On the contrary, the norm is peaceful engagement with protesters and organisers. Hence, it is not expected that protests will be violent, but protest persistence may create a ripe environment for violence, which can take all current protests and grievance management models to a new litmus test.

Finally, why do Jordanians protest when there is explicit and implicit lobbying to advance interests through parliament, media outlets, social media, private networks of influence, political parties, professional associations, trade unions and civil society organisations? Why do they choose protest action to send their messages? What messages are they sending? And to whom? 

Simply, citizens protest when they feel that the existing channels of communications are insufficient to deliver their demands and messages to the concerned addresses in the political system. They do so to alert and remind institutions to be responsive to these demands and messages. Protest action is not a mainstream conventional political participation channel, but it remains an unconventional form of political action that people resort to when their level of frustration with public policies reaches a point of hopelessness. Their despair expresses itself outside institutional frameworks in an attempt to draw attention to their causes.

Those people chose protest because less than a third of citizens have confidence in the Lower House and political parties, according to recent polls by NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions. Furthermore, professional associations which led the May-June protests and toppled Hani Mulki’s government, have made their deals with Razzaz’s government behind closed doors to get their consent on the tax law. Contrary to what is to be expected from workers’ unions, they have been rather passive throughout the process. Civil society organisations have not been effective in swaying government policies on taxes because their attempts were inconclusive, sporadic and not donor-funded, as most donors favour the current income tax law. 

All polls show increasing levels of public frustration with institutional performance, which is contributing to lower levels of respect for authority, lower levels of social capital, interpersonal trust and a growing distance in state-society relations. Once more, business as usual is rather unusual.

 

The writer is chairman of NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions. [email protected] 

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