Over the past few weeks, activists across Europe have presented famous artworks from Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” to Claude Monet’s “Haystacks” with puppets of tomato soup and Mashed potatoes to try to get rid of complacency on the climate crisis. “How do you feel when you see something beautiful and priceless seemingly destroyed before your eyes?” One of the protesters asked who Just stop the oil After affixed to glass to protect Vermeer’s painting in Holland. “Do you feel angry? Good. Where does that feel when you see the planet being destroyed?”
In each case, the protesters Arrested for their actions, last-generation activists who threw mashed potatoes at Monet at a museum in Potsdam, Germany, are said to be under investigation for property damage and trespass.
On the Last Generation website, the group says it accepts “criminal charges and deprivation of liberty Courage” over her protests.
While some historical frameworks were damaged, the paintings themselves were protected by glass. But the style of throwing food at famous artworks to protest climate inaction has sparked an international outcry. Many wondered whether it was detrimental to support the cause.
Backlash: disapproval of subversive protests
In a non-representative poll, DW asked Twitter followers how they felt about acts of civil disobedience such as the Monet mashed potato incident.
Of the 491 people who answered, 22% said they had raised awareness and helped. But 56% said such actions are detrimental to the climate movement.
One follower wrote: “This kind of climate activism is nothing less than a hooliganism and a publicity stunt.” “We must fight for good causes in a responsible manner within the limits of respect.”
Although nonviolent and disruptive forms of protest appear unpopular, they may still be effective, in part because they are getting attention, said Oscar Berglund, a lecturer on social policy at the University of Bristol in the UK.
“If you don’t disrupt anyone or anything, if you just try to make your voices heard, those voices will often not be heard and you won’t achieve any change through your protest,” said Berglund, who researches climate change. Activity and use of civil disobedience.
Radical protests are getting more media attention
The stunts definitely garnered a lot of attention, making headlines around the world and creating waves on social media. For example, a video showing protesters throwing soup at Van Gogh in London has been viewed nearly 50 million times on Twitter alone.
“This disruptive action has put the climate issue back on top of mainstream society once again,” said James Osden, who directs the Social Change Lab, an organization that conducts research in the social sciences to better understand how movements can effect positive change.
“People around the world have been talking about it in a way that hasn’t happened since the student climate strikes in 2019,” said Osden, who was also part of the climate protest group Extinction Rebellion UK (XR) strategic team. who uses civil disobedience tactics.
Phoebe Plummer of Just Stop Oil said in a video posted on social media that raising the profile of climate change was exactly what motivated the Van Gogh Soup protest in London.
“What we do is start the conversation so we can ask the important questions. Questions like is it okay for fossil fuels to be subsidized 30 times more than renewables when offshore wind is currently nine times cheaper than fossil fuels? A conversation we need to have now because it is not We have time to waste,” she said.
Of course if all that is being discussed is the subversive tactic itself and not the reason behind the protest and the activists’ demands, then their goal is missed.
“Although perhaps half the public debate is about tactics, half is about climate, which is still more than if the radical protest had not occurred,” Osden said.
For Berglund, the interest and resultant conversations that such protests have sparked open enough space for some discussion of the issue itself.
“Unpopularity doesn’t matter in that sense and I don’t think it can hurt the climate issue in this way, because it also gives room for more reasonable and less extreme voices to talk about these issues,” he said.
Are protesters’ tactics affecting public support for climate demands?
But Rob Wheeler, a professor of sociology and social psychology at Stanford University in the US, says his previous work, which looks at social movements more broadly, suggests that some extreme protest actions may undermine popular support for a cause.
Wheeler said the public generally reacts negatively to protests that involve property destruction. And while they may be effective in getting attention, this attention may not be helpful if the perceptions are negative.
“These art desecration tactics are precisely the type of protest behavior that leads monitors to view activists as extremist and unreasonable, alienating monitors and possibly reducing support for their cause,” he told DW.
It is difficult to apply research on past protests to current events, but a survey by the Osden Social Change Lab found no negative effects on support for climate policies during and after the disruptive protests by Just Stop Oil in 2020.
Similarly, experiments conducted by cognitive psychologists with the University of Bristol found that lower support for protesters had no effect on support for their claims.
Another small representative survey conducted by Cambridge and Oxford Brookes universities indicated a slight increase in people’s desire to participate in non-disruptive activity such as rallies after the 2019 XR disruptive protests.
“It’s not simply that people are turning against climate action just because some activists are teasing you,” said sociologist Berglund. “It doesn’t mean you then say, ‘Okay, that’s fine, then let’s burn the planet. Let’s burn more oil, let’s not use renewables. “We don’t see that kind of shift in opinions at all.”
Osden says there is a strategy behind the disruptive protests called the radical wing effect. He hypothesizes that the presence of a radical wing in a social movement can increase support for moderate factions by making them appear more rational.
“It’s kind of a good cop, bad cop situation – but at the level of a big social movement,” he said. “And this tactic has worked really well in the past.”
So even though XR, for example, has had some less public support in the UK, their actions still fuel concern about the environment and climate, Osden believes.
Do radical protests increase the criminalization of protesters?
Osden and Berglund worry that one negative effect of extremist tactics could be the general criminalization of climate action and other protest movements.
The UK has already passed bills imposing restrictions on the protests, including tightening provisions and limiting noise.
“This is very harsh because the protests are meant to be loud and disturbing,” Osden said. “Now anyone who disagrees with you can say it’s too loud and makes your protest illegal.”
After protests that have seen activists stick to pieces of art and block roads, the UK government is looking to pass a public order bill that creates a new offense called “lock-up”, for protesters attaching themselves to objects or causing disruption by interfering with transport work or key infrastructure.
The bill would see some protesters barred from communicating with certain people, attending protests, using the internet, or having to wear an electronic target that monitors their whereabouts.
Support for such laws could grow if the public perception of protester tactics worsens, according to Berglund.
“The danger is that if these protesters are truly unloved and hated, it could lead to support for these very unpopular authoritarian laws,” he said.