We usually think of protest as a collective act. Conventional wisdom tells us that to be a change maker you have to have other people standing behind you. The Napoleons, Mandelas and Lincolns of this world are considered exceptional individuals. However, in the last year, the use of twitter as a medium to express dissatisfaction has become prominent. While the conviction of trolls has shown this isn’t always a positive force, the ability to protest solo is a power we are becoming increasingly aware of.
There are some infamous examples of individual protest that have set precedents throughout history. Rosa Parks’ decision to remain seated is rightly regarded as one of the bravest and most definitive protests ever made. While out of context the act would have been unexceptional, her choice to make a stand without any immediate support indicates bravery to a degree that few of us can comprehend. The most visually impacting instance of standalone protest in the twentieth century must be the tank man of Tianmen Square. While protest in China was widespread at the time, this single act of personal endangerment was extraordinary given the political context it occurred in and the image will be burned on our retinas for decades to come.
Individual protest is far from a twentieth century phenomenon. In an age when citizenship was divine, Henry Thoureau demonstrated that the relationship between the individual and government should be that of equal partners when he refused to pay poll tax in protest at the continued existence of slavery in the Americas. The emotive impact of an individual protesting can effectively prompt historical events. Prominently, the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi is widely regarded as the instigating moment of the Arab Spring.
While acts of personal endangerment have clearly been favoured forms of protest over the centuries, art has been the one medium through which protest can be starkly recorded without fear for one’s life. The poets of the Great War are the definitive exemplification of individuals standing alone to protest events without sacrificing themselves. Similarly, the protest songs of the twentieth century, which reached their pinnacle in the 1960s, have gone on to inspire individuals globally to react against tyranny in peaceful protest.
Although it may require a degree of bravery that is inconceivable for many of us, individual protest has impacted history to an unprecedented level and is continuing to do so in the Internet era.