Are the protests at the Just Stop Oil art museum harming their own cause?

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Written by Colin Davis

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors. CNN features the work of The Conversation, a collaboration between journalists and scholars to provide analysis and commentary on the news. Content is produced solely by The Conversation.

Members of the protest group Just Stop Oil recently threw soup at Van Gogh’s ‘sunflowers’ at the National Gallery in London. The action again sparked a debate about what types of protest are most effective.

After a quick cleaning of the glass, the painting was once again on display. But critics argued that the real harm had been done, distracting the public from the cause itself (the demand that the British government reverse its support for the opening of new oil and gas fields in the North Sea ).

Proponents of more militant forms of protest often cite historical examples such as the suffragettes. Unlike the Just Stop Oil action, when suffragette Mary Richardson went to the National Gallery to attack a painting titled The Rokeby Venus, she slashed the canvas, causing extensive damage.
However, many historians argue that the suffragettes’ contribution to women’s suffrage was negligible, if not counterproductive. Such discussions often seem to rely on people’s intuitions about the impact of protest. But as a professor of cognitive psychology, I know we don’t have to rely on intuition – these are hypotheses that can be tested.

The activist’s dilemma

In a series of experiments, researchers showed people descriptions of protests and then measured their support for the protesters and the cause. Some participants read articles describing moderate protests such as peaceful marches. Others have read articles describing more extreme and sometimes violent protests, such as a fictional action in which animal rights activists drugged a security guard in order to break into a lab and remove animals from it. .
Just Stop Oil activists spray painted the wall under a pupil's copy of Leonardo

Just Stop Oil activists spray-painted the wall beneath a student’s copy of Leonardo’s ‘The Last Supper’ and glued themselves to the frame. Credit: Kristian Buus/In pictures/Getty Images

Protesters who took extreme actions were perceived to be more immoral, and participants reported lower levels of emotional connection and social identification with these “extreme” protesters. The effects of this type of action on support for the cause were somewhat mixed (and negative effects may be specific to actions that incorporate the threat of violence).

READ MORE: Three arguments why Just Stop Oil was right to target Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers”

Taken together, these findings paint a picture of the so-called activist’s dilemma: activists must choose between moderate actions that are largely ignored and more extreme actions that are successful in attracting attention but may be counter-intuitive. productive for their purposes because they tend to make people think. Some protestors.

Activists themselves tend to offer a different perspective: they say accepting personal unpopularity is simply the price to pay for the media attention they count on.”move the conversation forwardand win public support for the issue. But is this the right approach? Could the activists harm their own cause?

Hating protesters doesn’t affect support

I have conducted several experiments to answer these questions, often in collaboration with students from the University of Bristol. To influence participants’ views of protesters, we used a well-known framing effect whereby (even subtle) differences in how protests are reported have a pronounced impact, often serving to delegitimize the protest.
For example, the Daily Mail article reporting on Van Gogh’s protest called it a “stunt” that is part of a “campaign of chaos” by “rebellious eco-zealots”. The article does not mention the protesters’ request.
Last generation climate protesters after throwing mashed potatoes at Claude Monet's painting

Last Generation climate protesters after throwing mashed potatoes on Claude Monet’s painting ‘Les Meules’. Credit: Last generation/AP

Our experiments took advantage of this framing effect to test the relationship between attitudes toward the protesters themselves and toward their cause. If public support for a cause depends on what it thinks of protesters, then negative framing—which leads to less positive attitudes toward protesters—should result in lower levels of support for the demands.

But that’s not what we found. In fact, the experimental manipulations that reduced support for protesters had no impact on support for protesters’ demands.

We have replicated this finding in a range of different types of nonviolent protests, including protests against racial justice, abortion rights and climate change, and among UK, US and Polish participants (this work is in progress). preparatory course for publication). When members of the public say, “I agree with your cause, I just don’t like your methods,” we should take them at their word.

READ MORE: An Ethicist Explains Why Philanthropy Isn’t a License to Do Bad Things
Decreasing the extent to which the public identifies with you may not be helpful in building a mass movement. But high-profile actions can actually be a very effective way to increase recruitment, given that relatively few people become activists. The existence of a radical flank also seems to increase support for more moderate factions of a social movement, making those less radical factions appear.

Protest can set the agenda

Another concern may be that most of the attention gained by radical actions is not on the issue, instead focusing on what the protesters have done. However, even when this is true, the public conversation opens the space for discussion of the issue itself.

Protest plays a role in seeding the agenda. It doesn’t necessarily tell people what to think, but influences what they think. Last year’s protests in Insulate Britain are a case in point. In the months since the protests began on September 13, 2021, the number of mentions of the word “isolation” (not “Isulate”) in the UK print media has doubled.
Just Stop Oil activists stuck their hands on the frame of John Constable's

Just Stop Oil activists stuck their hands on the frame of John Constable’s ‘The Hay Wain’ and superimposed an edited image on top of the artwork. Credit: Carlos Jasso/AFP/Getty Images

Some people don’t investigate the details of an issue, but the media attention can still promote the issue in their minds. A YouGov poll released in early June 2019 showed “the environment” ranked among the public’s top three most important issues for the first time.

READ MORE: Sackler donations: why museums and galleries can get stuck with gifts, even if they don’t want them
The pollsters concluded that “the sudden rise in concern is no doubt spurred by the publicity generated for the environmental cause by Extinction Rebellion” (which had recently occupied prominent sites in central London for two weeks). There is also evidence that insulating homes has become the political agenda since the Isulate Britain protests.

The dramatic protest is not going away. The protagonists will continue to receive (mostly) negative media attention, leading to widespread public disapproval. But when we examine public support for the protesters’ demands, there is no compelling evidence that nonviolent protest is counterproductive. People may “shoot the messenger”, but they hear – at least sometimes – the message.

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