Hussh | When good becomes bad - The real cost of social activism

When good becomes bad: The real cost of social activism

You will no doubt have seen a number of environmental and activist groups grab the headlines over the past few years, often relating to campaigners finding new and innovative ways to bring attention to various causes — from halting motorway traffic by climbing up motorway gantries, to glueing themselves to prestigious buildings.

One name that has stood out over the past year, even peaking above household names such as Extinction Rebellion, is Just Stop Oil — a coalition of groups seeking to hold the government to account over the distribution of fossil fuel licences and production. 

Originating from a series of grassroots protests back in the early 2010s, the coalition have been highly critical of the world’s response to the use of petrochemicals and their effect on the environment, holding a number of notable protests including the 2011 “Occupy” protests (which shed light on social and environmental injustices), and the 2015 Paris Agreement (in which nearly 200 countries agreed to reduce carbon emissions).

The most recent target that grabbed the headlines in the UK, was at The National Gallery in London where two individuals associated with the group threw soup over one of the gallery’s most valuable treasures: Vincent van Gogh’s renowned painting ‘Sunflowers’. The artwork, which is protected by a layer of glass, did not suffer any lasting or permanent damage, however the incident still caused a disturbance among visitors and staff, with many taking to the internet to express their anger, even calling for the two to be criminally charged. 

The reaction was consistent with the general public’s sentiment for activist ‘stunts’ over the years. While the acts in and of themselves have been criticised as trespass and vandalism, the knock-on disruption they have caused has often incited the most anger and frustration for many who are happy for protests to take place, providing they don’t affect their personal lives.

Yet we can’t help but feel this is the exact reaction groups like Just Stop Oil are trying to make. 

Just as tensions at The National Gallery began to cool, the post-event interviews that surfaced made it clear that the aim of the activists wasn’t to destroy a work of art, but to draw attention to their cause. In an age where attention is a commodity proving difficult to gain, let alone hold, it looks as though many protest groups will continue to push the boundaries and modern conventions of society to stand out and make a point.

The approaches of social justice causes

Yet this isn’t new — especially in support of issues surrounding social injustice. The use of civil disobedience as a form of protest has a long history of success, and likely isn’t going to stop any time soon despite the UK government attempting to bring in new measures to curb highly disruptive and dangerous protests”.

The suffragette movement, which fought for women’s right to vote in the early 20th century, saw some of the most intense forms of protest in modern history in their quest for equality — including hunger strikes, vandalism, arson, and even physical assaults, which sparked public outrage and helped to galvanise support for their cause.

Across the Atlantic, the Black Panther Party stands as a seminal example of militant protest. Founded in 1966 in Oakland, California, the Party was established with the primary objective of tackling police brutality and racial injustice — a forbearer of the Black Lives Matter movement that formed in 2013 and rose to fame in 2020 with the murder of George Floyd. The Party took a unique approach to effecting change, utilising both armed self-defence and community-focused initiatives such as providing free breakfast to schoolchildren. The Party’s message struck a chord with many African Americans who felt that the nonviolent strategies of the Civil Rights Movement had fallen short. 

A lesson for the environment

So what does this mean? As we collectively become more aware of the disastrous impacts climate change is having on our local and global communities, the message from groups like Just Stop Oil are likely to resonate more and more. We’re already seeing a shift in behaviour, particularly in younger demographics who recognise that we must make changes to the way we live today if we’re to build a  world that we want to live in in the not too distant future.

That said, it feels like the real question will be based on how much we’re willing to give — especially the luxuries we have come to take for granted. While we’re happy to hold up placards and shout out catchy slogans, our response to any form of disruption to our daily lives puts us immediately on the defensive. Marching on the streets is OK, but stopping motorway traffic isn’t. Calling for government change online is great, but glueing your hand to a wall is too far. 

At what cost are we willing to make those sacrifices and when does it become too far? Even when that very question will dictate the survival of our own race.