A few weeks back I wrote a blog post about what I called “Liberal Protest Activism”, in response to both the infamous souping of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, and to the general response to said souping. What I didn’t mention was that that post was, in part, inspired by a Twitter disagreement with Michael Mann. Basically, someone had called the protest inappropriate, and I responded by pointing out that more conventional protest had not resulted in adequate action. Mann quote-tweeted me, and basically said I was lying, and that saying “nothing has been done” is being used to justify extremism. I pointed out that I hadn’t said “nothing”, and he blocked me.
Honestly, it hurt a little. I’ve looked up to Mann for a long time, and I still do. The work he’s done on climate science and advocacy is valuable, and he gets entirely too much hate. On the other hand, as I’ve said in the past, being an expert in climate science does not make you an expert in sociology, politics, or policy. Having him not only disagree with me, but point to me as someone being extremist and wrong was a shock, so I spent time thinking about it, which generated the blog post mentioned above. I also deleted that tweet, because I didn’t want to keep getting notifications from people responding to Mann calling me a liar. As far as I can tell, trying to “defend my honor” would end up benefiting no one worth considering. I wrote that blog post partly as a way to deal with my bad mood. I ended up writing this post, because Rebecca Watson has a new video out about the same subject, so now I feel a little braver in talking about it.
There’s a lot there that I agree with (as always, the transcript is at the link above), but I wanted to pause on one point that Watson made:
They were angry simply because young people were doing something for a cause they cared about, and the angry people know deep in their hearts that they do not have even a fraction of that courage and that conviction, and they know that the cause is a good one that SHOULD inspire us all to that kind of courage and conviction. But instead we’re at home eating Cheez-its and doom scrolling Twitter, and channeling our guilt by getting angry at someone who is actually out there doing something. My hypothesis is that NO protest these people could have done would ever have been widely considered to be “meaningful,” and “good” and “effective,” and despite that, there’s a good chance that this protest will historically be seen to be all of those things.
Oof. That hits a little close to home. Regardless of how you feel about their tactics, there’s no question that what they are doing takes courage, especially given the consistently hostile response they have gotten. They’ve put far more on the line for this cause than I have, and they’ve generated a great deal of conversation with the art protests – more conversation than came from their more direct act of spraying paint on the Bank of England to protest its investment in fossil fuels. I think I should have given them a bit more credit. I also very much agree with the guess that no protest the did would have gotten wide support
The reality is that protests generally aren’t popular, and the people who make headlines for protests share that unpopularity. From Watson’s video:
And that hypothesis is based on decades of research: as I said two years ago during the Black Lives Matter protests, “in 1961, 57% of Americans said that sit-ins hurt the cause of those fighting against segregation. By 1963 that number had risen to 60%. By 1964, after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, it was 74%. Three quarters of Americans thought Martin Luther King’s “extreme” tactics were hurting the Civil Rights fight. He was one of the most hated men in America. And yet, the Civil Rights movement succeeded.” And even though “79% of people said the (LA) riots were not justified…nearly 30 years later, scientists can see that those riots helped “build support for policy by mobilizing supporters.” They found that both white and African American voters “were mobilized to register (to vote), that new registrants tended to affiliate as Democrats, and that voters shifted their policy support toward public schools, net of a general shift in support for education spending. This mobilization appears to have persisted: those mobilized by the riot remained regular participators over a decade later and remained more Democratic than the general population, even after accounting for demographics.””
She then goes on to talk about Mann’s response to the protest, and the result of his decision not to avoid getting embroiled in pointless internet arguments over tone. I knew he had an article tut-tutting about it, but I didn’t know he made himself a dishonest push poll to “back up” his opinion, and continued arguing about it. I expected better from him, but it’s a good reminder that people are just people are just people. What matters is that we keep working as best we can.
As of this recording, Mann is kind of losing it on Twitter and really insisting that this survey proves something about the relative effectiveness of the soup protest. It’s understandable, because I think he does good work in his own field (which is climatology, not public relations or sociology) and so he’s probably not accustomed to being corrected by people who actually know what they’re talking about. I hope he is able to take a step back and realize that this is just bad science with a dash of “bad understanding of history” thrown in. A well-designed survey could certainly find that people largely were turned off by this protest, but the people who study movements and social change understand that protests – nonviolent, disruptive, or outright violent – might work or not work, regardless of whether or not you like it.