Yesterday, a bunch of people in New York City took all their clothes off in front of the Stock Exchange Building as a protest/piece of performance art.
The naked protest was staged by artist Zefrey Throwell, who organized the event to make a point about "transparency in US financial dealings." He was, he said, inspired by the plight of his mom, who had lost most of her retirement savings in the financial crash three years ago, and was forced to return to work.
The whole thing recalls the antics of Dutch animal rights activist Peter Janssen ("The Vegan Streaker") who a while back ran onto the set of live TV personality Paul de Leeuw wearing only a thong, and the words "Stop Animal Suffering" painted on his bare chest. Under the fairly liberal laws for showing skin in the Netherlands, Janssen could not be charged with indecency, so he was charged (I couldn't possibly make anything this weird up) with carrying a concealed weapon, a thought that leaves me torn between guffawing and gagging.
It brings up the question, however, of what the point is to such theater. If I'd been in New York City yesterday and witnessed the naked people walking around in front of the Stock Exchange, it's not like I would have suddenly said, "Wow! This makes me realize that the US financial system seriously needs to be overhauled RIGHT NOW!" It's much more likely that I would have said, "Dear god, why are all of those people naked?" Or, given that it was New York City, maybe I would have just ignored it and continued to look around for the nearest Starbucks.
So, why? Why do people do such things? It may be a facile explanation that they are simply attention seekers. I know that must be part of it; heaven knows there can be little other explanation for someone stripping on the streets of New York City. I'm forced to the conclusion, though, that people who engage in such behavior really think that they're accomplishing something. They believe that their antics are somehow going to bring enlightenment to the masses, to bring their cause to the forefront, to create some sort of epiphany in the minds of the onlookers.
And it's not limited to the financial mess, nor to the animal-rights issue; the same arguments could be used for the pro-choice/pro-life debate, gay marriage, the anti-immigration controversy, the tax-reduction issue, and a variety of others. How many people have honestly had their minds changed by someone waving a placard that says, "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve?" I suspect that the main effect of protests and controversial t-shirt slogans and bumper stickers (and naked people in public) is to make half of us go, "good job! I agree completely!" and the other half to go, "wow, what a bunch of idiots." In other words, all that it accomplishes is to crystallize the opinion we already had. Which, when you think about it, is not all that useful.
In my more optimistic moments, I'd like to believe that the only way to change people's minds is through well-reasoned argument, but I suspect that's not true, either. I think that large-scale, rapid changes -- those epiphany moments I mentioned earlier -- only come when something big happens. Our whole view of the Middle East changed on 9/11. Whatever our views of what came afterward, none of us wil ever look at that region in the same way. My Lai did the same a generation earlier, and Pearl Harbor a generation before that. Sea changes, for good or evil, don't come easily.
That's not to say that things can't change gradually. Our view of race equality, gender equality, and (probably to a lesser extent) our attitudes toward homosexuality, have been improving slowly but steadily for several decades. When I was in high school, it was unheard of for a mixed-race couple to date; now it's commonplace. I can't think of a single gay or lesbian teenager in my high school who was out until years after graduation; there are several in last year's graduating class at the high school where I teach. None of these changes came about with some kind of sudden shift, and none of them happened because of someone with a placard jumping about in front of the school screaming and shouting. They were incremental, ground-level changes, which actually may be the only way to have any sort of long-lasting effect.
The flashy antics of some protest-types may make the news, but chances are, they and their causes will be forgotten within a week or two. It might be entertaining to bare it all in public for the cause of your choice, but you should be aware of the fact that other than being brought up on public indecency charges (and hopefully not concealed-weapon charges, as well) you will probably have negligible effects on anything. Slow, dogged persistence by committed individuals, changing one mind at a time, is the only way to make any real headway in altering attitudes. It may not make headlines, but if you're looking for deep, substantive shifts, it's the only game in town.