Photo by Phil Clarke Hill
Artillery Row

I don’t protest for my health

Kill the bill to save democracy — not self care routines

The term “self care”, once understood as some kind of innuendo, has become mainstream. Everything we do from what we wash our faces with in the morning to what we read at night can now be linked to our mental health, and what we are doing to take care of it. Neither is self care simply the preserve of bored millennials who have spent too much time blogging — more often than not, discussions about watering the plant of our mental health focus on what children should be doing to stave off anxiety, self doubt or worse.

Self care has normalised what a previous generation might have called self absorption

Despite this normalising of what a previous generation might have called self absorption, it was still shocking to read an open letter signed by numerous child psychiatrists and psychologists claiming that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill “will have a profound negative impact on young people’s mental health”. That’s right — you should be opposed to the Bill’s illiberal assault on the freedom to protest, not because that freedom is a fundamental part of a democratic society, but because activism is intrinsic to children’s self-care routine.

“We cannot think of better measures to disempower and socially isolate young people who are already suffering the devastating mental health consequences of disrupted education and prohibited social contact imposed by the pandemic,” the letter writes. The sentiment is right — it’s no surprise that the government feels ballsy enough to criminalise protest, including bringing in new stop and search measures, after almost two years of mandated isolation. But the idea that protest should be viewed in mental-health terms is telling, too. Whilst the government seeks to treat protesters like noisy neighbours, subject to a police visit if they turn the volume up too loud, these health professionals degrade the idea of political action by turning it into a mental five-a-day.

Predictably, the letter is not addressing those youths who joined the likes of myself on Brexit demos over the last six years, or the kids standing in solidarity with their parents on picket lines fighting for pay. No, what kids need to feel better is to join the #SchoolStrike movements — “shouting and singing” to help stave off doomsday feelings about climate change. Quoting research published in the BJPsych Bulletin, the signatories claimed that “there is increasing evidence that youth engagement in activism is one antidote to despair, and that it increases children’s positive skills and capacities”. Instead of teaching children about the environment, and cultivating a new generation of minds to invent the solutions we’ll need for a healthier and more productive planet, we must encourage them to paint pictures of mother earth to help them sleep better at night.

Protest should not be seen as a means for young people to let off steam

Encouraging young people to form opinions about the world they live in is vital — but engaging in politics is not an act of self care. Neither should protest be seen as a means of young people simply letting off steam. The letter warns that as a result of the government’s attempt to crack down on protest, “some may deliberately choose to escalate their actions to be more disruptive and possibly violent, given the severe consequences for even minor nonviolent activity”. Holding the government to account is one thing; blackmailing the government with threats of unruly teenagers who haven’t been allowed to lock themselves to the school gates is quite another.

Why are we so reluctant to argue for the freedom to protest on its own terms, as a core commitment to a healthy democracy? Perhaps it is because opposing the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill on the fundamentals would mean standing up for free speech — not just for Extinction Rebellion and school strikers but for anti-vaccine-passport and indeed anti-vaccine protesters who have had their heads cracked by police throughout the pandemic. It means being able to differentiate between disagreeing with an idea and defending other people’s right to espouse it, a lesson sorely lacking in many young people’s political education.

Perhaps the most irksome part of this open letter is that it reveals a sad truth — that much of today’s activism has become apolitical. From parodies of clicking student organisers and mandated kneeling at sporting events to the middle-class carnivals of pro-EU parades and papier-mâché-clad environmentalists, so much of today’s protest is less about changing the world and more about displaying who you are as a person. You could argue that Priti Patel and the government’s other freedom-hating cabinet members don’t need to bother criminalising protest, when so little of it poses a challenge to the status quo. And yet, despite the narcissism that poses as direct action today, the freedom to protest can not be undermined by whining psychiatrists or headline-hungry politicians. Kill the bill — not for our mental health, but for the health of our democracy.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover