Sexuality Policy Watch

Paradoxes and dangers of anti-lockdown protests

A summary of the article “Corona protests: The cross front for trivialization” authored by Nils Markwardt and published at Die Zeit in May 2020.

By Alrik Schubotz

Saturday, May 16th, 2020 nineteen demonstrations took Berlin’s streets to protest against quarantine and social distancing measures enacted by the German government. These acts were organized in front of the Parliament by neo-Nazi groups, adepts of conspiration theories and of meditating esoterism, but also by some anti-Fascist groups.  The main tone of the demonstrations was defined by the contrast between a “bad elite” and an “us, the good and just”, self-proclaimed by each of these formations to distinguish themselves from other participants. The result was a confused agglomeration of people who could not agree with each other and much shouting persisted among the protesters.

The various press reports on these protests have all employed the same semantic field to characterize the mobilizations, such as chaos, turmoil, disorientation, and lacking content or properly articulated demands. It was an agglomeration of an “anti” camp,  imagined as a collective, but which, in practice, unfolded into a lack of cohesion. What is, perhaps, most worrisome, is the convergence and co-optation in what concerns the performativity of resistance. In an article published by Die Zeit, Nils Markwardt describes the protests as a “Diskursnapping” phenomenon, which can be literally translated as ‘discourse hijacking’. It reads as follows:

The moment in which our collective physical becoming, the performative personification of an ‘us’ is suspended because for any person, who defines his/herself as a reasonable democrat, the protection of others undoubtedly takes precedence, this ‘us’ is now occupied by an increasingly transversal front.

The author then refers to Butler’s performative theory of presence and the “right to appear” elaborated by Hannah Arendt:

If the solidarity effect of mutual proximity becomes a threat under the imperative of the pandemic, as the crowd not only symbolizes the personification of the people but also functions as a real center of the virus, Butler’s praise of the presence reaches a biomedical limitation… This is precisely the reason why anti-vaccine demonstrators are those who are now protesting,  through and with their bodies, against the limitation imposed on bodies. This does not make their mobilizations any less cruel, less confusing, or less dangerous. But it constitutes another example of how certain discourses are extracted from their liberal and leftward contexts, to be distorted and then transported to the right extreme of the spectrum or even across borders,  as a criticism of globalization, of ideology or of institutions.

This co-optation, the author argues, forces the left to search for and employ much more complicated narratives to distinguish itself:

The freedom of assembly and the physical becoming of a ‘we’ are central principles of democracy, but the pandemic imperative of mutual protection weighs more heavily in this case, so that the right to appear in a crowd is temporarily suspended.

This urgent need to differentiate between individual civil rights and collective responsibilities has many strategic implications. One of them is that those who, in societies,  seek for simple and less complex answers, in these times of uncertainty and fear, will increasingly find them more easily in the parlance of conspiracy theorists and right-wing populists.

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