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There exists a phrase or device, somewhat akin to the parables of Paul Bunyan or John Henry, when your efforts at protest are futile against a struggle, but you are compelled to struggle against it anyways -- usually because it's a seemingly noble cause.

Would anyone have a suggestion as to how to phrase this device? Or is there a widely known idiom for it? I'd suppose the single word "futile" might accurately describe this situation, but that's not what I'm looking for.

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Why do you put anyway into the plural? It is not idiomatic to use anyways in quite that way in Britain - but perhaps it is in America. – WS2 Jan 18 at 19:21
While anyways is nonstandard, it isn't plural. It exactly means anyway. Likewise, Britons say towards where Americans say toward. – Benjamin Harman Jan 18 at 19:26
Doing it for the principle? – Andrew Grimm Jan 18 at 23:27
@ws2 did you really not know the answer to your question? i find that very hard to believe ... there are differences between british and american english. time to accept that. neither is more or less correct. – sgroves Jan 19 at 23:48

11 Answers 11

up vote 5 down vote accepted

The term Sisyphean comes to mind:

(of a task) such that it can never be completed.

This alludes to Sysiphus, who was punished by the Greek gods by being forced to constantly roll a boulder up a hill, just to watch it roll back down.

More colorfully, "pissing into the wind" might also apply, depending on your audience:

to be ​trying to do something when there is no ​hope of ​succeeding

Hopefully you can imagine what this one is referencing.

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Sisyphean is the best answer, IMO. Maybe it's just my interpretation, but I always think of "pissing into the wind" to have an element of backfiring: if you try it, you end up covered in piss. Howling at the wind might convey the sense of futility without the adverse consequence. Sting wrote it's like singing in the wind or writing on the surface of a lake, but he stole that from Catullus. – Caleb Jan 19 at 21:34
After looking over every possible suggestion here, Sisyphean does appear to most accurately describe knowing the futility of one's actions -- and continuing them nonetheless (the why being kind of irrelevant). Thank you. – Cyprus106 Feb 11 at 16:29

"Fighting a lost cause" is a common term that expresses a continuing struggle against a foregone conclusion.

lost cause

  1. a cause that has been defeated or whose defeat is inevitable.


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Agree this is correct, but I think it suggests the protesters are unaware their cause is lost. I think the 'symbollic' answer best describes the situation where the protesters are aware of its futility, but defiantly continue. – jhabbott Jan 19 at 1:08
I respectfully disagree that it implies a lack of awareness that the cause is lost. People sometimes fight knowing they are going to lose but wanting to perhaps delay the inevitable. People invoke saint Jude looking for divine intervention when they know they have lost but still won't give up. Although I also like the "symbolic protest" phrase, to my mind that also implies putting up a minor statement but not really fighting. The "I want my opposition noted on the record" sort of thing, which isn't really fighting anymore at all. – Michael Broughton Jan 19 at 14:46
What @Michael said. In general, if you're pointing out to someone that they're [promoting] a lost cause the implication is they don't already know that (i.e. - they still think their cause will win the day, a misconception you're trying to dispel). Conversely, if you say someone is making a token/symbolic protest the normal implication is that the protester is already aware his protest won't change anything. – FumbleFingers Jan 19 at 16:44

I think tilt at windmills may fit the context you are describing :

  • Engage in conflict with an imagined opponent, pursue a vain goal, as in Trying to reform campaign financing in this legislature is tilting at windmills. This metaphoric expression alludes to the hero of Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote

(The American Heritage Idioms Dictionary)

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First thing that came to my mind! – Tim Ward Jan 18 at 20:56
Another way to describe this protest, based on this same allusion, might be to say that it is "quixotic". – Doug Warren Jan 18 at 21:47
Eventually no-one may know what windmills are. I'm sure there's a whole generation of children who already don't. – Kzqai Jan 19 at 15:58
@Kzqai - you may be right, but they may understand the meaning anyway, that's generally the strengh of idiomatic language. – Josh61 Jan 19 at 16:02
@Kzqai Perhaps it's time to update the terminology to "wind turbines"? =) – 200_success Jan 19 at 16:49

Protests in which no immediate concessions are expected are sometimes described as symbolic. This sense of the word is defined by oxforddictionaries.com as "significant purely in terms of what is being represented or implied".

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It's a close-run thing! But 4130 hits for a token protest in Google Books just pips the 4070 for a symbolic protest :) – FumbleFingers Jan 19 at 13:06
@FumbleFingers Those aren't necessarily synonyms. A "token protest" may be a perfunctory protest, as in a "token effort". A symbolic protest may well have the same effort put into it as a protest that's expected to have more than symbolic value. – recognizer Jan 19 at 19:20
@recognizer: I don't understand. Are you saying there's a clear semantic distinction between a token protest and a symbolic protest? They're pretty much equally common, and I for one can't see any real difference between the two at the level of meaning. – FumbleFingers Jan 19 at 19:23
@FumbleFingers "Symbolic" does not necessarily imply lack of effort. A great deal of effort is often expended on symbolic gestures, particularly in the arena of politics. "Token", however, often implies a feeble or perfunctory effort. The terms can overlap, but it's not always clear whether "token" is used to mean "symbolic" or "perfunctory". – recognizer Jan 19 at 20:25
@recognizer: Okay, I see what you mean. Interestingly, "token effort" is more common than "symbolic", but with gesture it's the reverse. – FumbleFingers Jan 19 at 20:56

A futile protest might suggest that even though they hoped to make a difference, the protesters failed to achieve anything at all. But if they'd staged a...

token protest (About 4,130 results in Google Books)

...the implication is they always knew perfectly well this wouldn't affect policy decisions. The only aim is to publicize the fact that they don't agree with those decisions.

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Good answer! I suppose it does represent the same situation. – Cyprus106 Feb 11 at 16:26

Beating a Dead Horse

Flogging a dead horse (alternatively beating a dead horse, or beating a dead dog in some parts of the Anglophone world) is an idiom that means a particular request or line of conversation is already foreclosed or otherwise resolved, and any attempt to continue it is futile; or that to continue in any endeavour (physical, mental, etc.) is a waste of time as the outcome is already decided

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This phrase strongly connotes continuing to do something after it has become futile; you wouldn't use it if the situation were hopeless at the outset. – Caleb Jan 19 at 21:40
@Caleb, Agreed. From the original poster's question it was not clear if the situation was hopeless from the beginning or became hopeless during the act. – Konstantin Jan 19 at 23:22
@Konstantin The question says "you are compelled to struggle against it anyways -- usually because it's a seemingly noble cause." Beating a dead horse is usually a voluntary excess, not a noble cause you have to keep going at. – Barmar Jan 25 at 20:54

In elections, you may "cast a protest vote" for a candidate who you know won't win, but whose vote total you want to increase. This helps show support for the candidate's message or ideas. Or, it helps show public dissatisfaction with the other candidate, even if that candidate wins the election anyway.

In other contexts, you may do or say something "just to make a point" or "just to make a statement."

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This is similar to the "symbolic" answer. – Barmar Jan 25 at 20:55

Perhaps: Going down with the ship.

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Oddly enough, the first thing that sprang to mind when I read the title was the musicians on the Titanic continuing to play as the ship sank... +1 from me. – pjs36 Jan 19 at 23:35

I'd suggest, beat the air

Also, beat the wind. Continue to make futile attempts, fight to no purpose. For example, The candidates for office were so much alike that we thought our vote amounted to beating the air . These phrases call up a vivid image of someone flailing away at nothing. [Late 1300s] The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms

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It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. From The Phrase Finder:

Several people are associated with this proverbial saying, notably John F. Kennedy. It was brought to the public's attention by Peter Benenson, the English lawyer and founder of Amnesty International, at a Human Rights Day ceremony on 10th December 1961. The candle circled by barbed wire has since become the society's emblem

I like this because it is hopeful. Causes are not lost until everyone stops fighting for them. It can be a long time before the cause is won, but "Progress happens one funeral at a time" is overly pessimistic. I think.

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It's nice, but I think particularly because it doesn't have the meaning asked for. – mattdm Jan 19 at 19:43

Die with your boots on. an exercise in futility

The Flat Earth Society's protest against NASA for lying about a spherical Earth, was an exercise in futility, but at least they died with their boots on

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