Physical activity for liberation and repression

Many governments are trying to “nudge” their residents and citizens to be slightly more active.

But some governments are doing the opposite.

Some governments are trying to repress their citizens to be more docile.

We see only glimpses of the brutality. But these glimpses are enough to convince any reasonable uninvolved onlooker to side with the unarmed peaceful protesters, the children in schools, the girls sitting on benches.

Belarus (a country I have never been to) has seen 80 days of peaceful protests by citizens demanding fair elections. The “government” has censored media, tried to expel opposition political leaders, and begun a brutal regime of repression against the protesters. The repression has resulted in deaths of many, and physical trauma and mental trauma for hundreds, if not thousands of detained people.

But people in Belarus persist. For months they have staged powerful demonstrations of their commitment to their cause. As someone spectating from afar, I could be criticized for succumbing to propaganda campaigns. But I have seen enough footage to be convinced of whose side I choose. When faceless goons brutally repress protesters who are simply standing, talking or walking, one side loses any claim to legitimacy. The goons have kidnapped children from school.

And still the protests persist. In response they sing more, march more and dance more. It is politics through physical activity. Muscular goons versus peaceful marchers. Who will win?

John Lewis, the USA civil right campaigner and congressman spoke about the “good trouble, necessary trouble” he got into. One of the most important methods for change was marching. Being present, occupying physical spaces and antagonizing the “official” order of things were seen to be a legitimate action in the face of oppression.

Can we and when should we teach and encourage “good trouble”? And how can we it be used most effectively? The risks of engaging are in good trouble are very real. Physical, spiritual and material harm may result and the is no guarantee of success. Can this form of physical activity be called “healthy”? Perhaps it will be for the protesters in the future, but not immediately.

Control of physical activity

On the other side of creative, celebratory protest, are the officials ordered to maintain … order. Denying people movement is a well established form of punishment. Shackles, locks and walls are all used to limit people’s physical activity, both on an individual level and a population level. Yet wherever there is dominating power, there is resistance to it. For example, Mark Norman (2017) notes that while prisons are institutions built to physically contain certain individuals, they are also sites for the development and expression of vibrant physical cultures.

Outside of prisons too, there is a ever-present interplay between autonomy and control. In the day to day hum-drum of life:
Individuals spend time, attention and money trying to control their own bodies, their emotions and health.
Governments spend time, attention and money trying to control other people’s bodies, emotions and health.
Organisations spend time, attention and money trying to control their members.

Good control for physical activity

Control is often an unpalatable word though. Instead, policies in relatively peaceful nations which promote physical activity use terms like encourage, inspire, manage, nudge, and educate as proxies for their desire to control. Most often, physical activity promoters emphasize the liberating potential of physical activity. The idea that being physically active will somehow free oneself from stress and other people is appealing, and the therapeutic effect of activity is increasingly popular in policy, with its association to mental well-being. Physical activity policies cannot impose strict regulation of physical activity (expect perhaps for school physical education), and so increasing emphasis is given to controlling  physical landscapes to facilitate increased population physical activity rates.

A final thought

There have traditionally been 3 “domains” of physical activity – work, leisure and routines of daily life (including active transport). I wonder where a protest march would fit? Hmmm, we might need a new domain.

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