Are Just Stop Oil’s art museum protests hurting their own cause?
Members of the protest group Just Stop Oil recently threw soup at Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” in the National Gallery in London. The action once again triggered debate about what kinds of protest are most effective.
After a quick clean of the glass, the painting was back on display. But critics argued that the real damage had been done, by alienating the public from the cause itself (the demand that the UK government reverse its support for opening new oil and gas fields in the North Sea).
The activist’s dilemma
Activists from Just Stop Oil spray painted the wall beneath a Leonardo pupil’s copy of “The Last Supper” and glued themselves to the frame. Credit: Kristian Buus/In Pictures/Getty Images
Protesters who undertook 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 kind of action on support for the cause were somewhat mixed (and negative effects may be specific to actions that incorporate the threat of violence).
Overall, these results 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 succeed in gaining attention, but may be counterproductive to their aims as they tend to make people think less of the protesters.
Hating protesters doesn’t affect support
Climate protesters of Last Generation after throwing mashed potatoes at the Claude Monet painting “Les Meules.” Credit: Last Generation/AP
Our experiments took advantage of this framing effect to test the relationship between attitudes to the protesters themselves and to their cause. If the public’s support for a cause depends on how they feel about the protesters, then a negative framing — which leads to less positive attitudes toward protesters — should result in lower levels of support for the demands.
We’ve replicated this finding across a range of different types of nonviolent protest, including protests about racial justice, abortion rights and climate change, and across British, American and Polish participants (this work is being prepared 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.
Protest can set the agenda
Another concern may be that most of the attention obtained by radical actions is not about the issue, focusing instead on what the protesters did. However, even where this is true, the public conversation opens up the space for some discussion of the issue itself.
Activists from Just Stop Oil glued their hands the frame of John Constable’s “The Hay Wain” and overlaid an edited image over the artwork. Credit: Carlos Jasso/AFP/Getty Images
Some people don’t investigate the details of an issue, yet media attention may nevertheless promote the issue in their mind. A YouGov poll released in early June 2019 showed “the environment” ranked in the public’s top three most important issues for the first time.
Dramatic protest isn’t going away. Protagonists will continue to be the subject of (mostly) negative media attention, which will lead to widespread public disapproval. But when we look at public support for the protesters’ demands, there isn’t any compelling evidence for nonviolent protest being counterproductive. People may “shoot the messenger”, but they do — at least, sometimes — hear the message.