I'd like to repost a quotation from Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue for your consumption. What triggered my interest in this passage--though, I don't require much a trigger to re-read MacIntyre--is that I have a friend who is currently writing manuals for activism. I'll save the specifics for another time, if ever at all. Suffice it to say, however, I wanted to share with him what MacIntyre said about protest.
It is easy also to understand why protest becomes a distinctive moral feature of the modern age and why indignation is a predominant modern emotion. 'To protest' and its Latin predecessors and French cognates are originally as often or more often positive as negative; to protest was once to bear witness to something and only as a consequence of that allegiance to bear witness against something else.
But protest is now almost entirely that negative phenomenon which characteristically occurs as a reaction to the alleged invasion of someone’s rights in the name of someone else’s utility. The self-assertive shrillness of protest arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure that protestors can never win an argument; the indignant self-righteousness arises because the facts of incommensurability ensure equally that the protestor can never lose an argument either. Hence the utterance of protest is characteristically addressed to those who already share the protestors’ premises. The effects of incommensurability ensure that the protestors rarely have anyone else to talk to but themselves. This is not to say that protest cannot be effective; it is to say that it cannot be rationally effective and that its dominant modes of expression give evidence of a certain perhaps unconscious awareness of this.
MacIntyre consistently returns to the idea that indignation ensues because no one can ever "win." To determine a winner, we'd have to have some agreement on what would constitute or determine a win. As the entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy captures the problem:
MacIntyre claims that protest and indignation are hallmarks of public "debate" in the modern world. Since no one can ever win an argument – because there's no agreement about how someone could "win" – anyone can resort to protesting; since no one can ever lose an argument – how can they, if no one can win? – anyone can become indignant if they don't get their way. If no one can persuade anyone else to do what they want, then only coercion, whether open or hidden (for example, in the form of deception) remains. This is why, MacIntyre says, political arguments are not just interminable but extremely loud and angry, and why modern politics is simply a form of civil war.
My friend's task, as I see it, is to write his manuals, acknowledging that he will be speaking to those with whom he already agrees, or, in the least, already shares foundational presumptions. But how can he universalize his message?