Commentary: Time Names the Protester as Person of the Year, Sort Of

The magazine's annual naming of the influential person or people might have been a little more specific.

Posted: 12/14/2011 06:15 PM EST

(Photo: Courtesy Time Magazine)

Since it started its end-of-the-year salute to a prominent newsmaker in 1927, Time Magazine has stirred discussion internationally about its choice of the person, or persons, whom its editors determined to have had the greatest impact during the preceding year.


This year, the magazine announced, it selected the “protester” as its Person of the Year for 2011. It signaled the importance of protest movements that spread though the Arab world, the Congo and Russia earlier this year and those that found their way into the United States in the form of the Occupy Wall Street protests.


It’s an intriguing selection and one that Time’s managing editor, Richard Stengel, announced on NBC’s Today Show as winning the near-unanimous approval of the magazine’s staff. “Who would have thought that in the space of a few months, you would have lost dictators in Egypt and Tunisia?,” Stengel asked. “This is a kind of contagious virus of protest that’s going on around the world where people are feeling empowered, people feel frustrated and are able to get out in the streets.”


A compelling argument, to be sure. But it leaves me wishing that Time had walked the extra mile, to highlight the seemingly nameless people whose individual acts of protest ignited a groundswell of protest. That would have deepened in a poignant way the point that a single individual can indeed make a colossal difference on his or her society.


For example, the protest movement in Tunisia began largely by the actions of a single vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old unemployed graduate in the town of Sidi Bouzid. After feeling disrespected by authorities after they confiscated his wares, Bouazizi lit himself on fire as an act of protest. It unleashed a protest movement that ultimately led the country’s prime minister, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, to flee to Saudi Arabia.


Time began its annual conferral of the “Man of the Year” honor in 1927 with the selection of the aviator Charles Lindbergh (it would not be until 1936 that the magazine would anoint a woman to that status when it selected Wallis Simpson. She was the American socialite whose contribution to the world was to lead King Edward VIII of England to abdicate his throne to marry the twice-married and divorced Simpson).


Over the years, Time has highlighted some truly fitting figures whose mark on the world is undeniable. The magazine selected Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963, Haile Selassie in 1935, Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Anwar Sadat in 1977, to name a few.


But periodically, the magazine has done what it did this year: Lump into one broad category a phenomenon that was stirred and set into motion by some key players on the world stage. But there is value in tracking down those at the root of the movement and highlighting those people.


In that vein, it was refreshing to see that those who bestow the Nobel Peace Prize selected this year three women from Africa and the Arab world of various levels of renown. One, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is the president of Liberia and a significant player on the international stage. The others are fellow Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen, a pro-democracy campaigner.


By doing so, the Nobel committee has given a voice and visibility to individuals who would have remained unknown by the greater international public. What’s more, those selections underscore the importance of the handful of dynamic people who can stir an entire movement. It would have been nice for Time to consider that.


The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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