Last month, two young activists threw tomato soup at a Van Gogh, kicking off thousands of truly horrible hot takes that honestly had me praying for Twitter to just die already. And then it did, so be careful what you wish for, friends.
If, unlike me, you aren’t poisoned by being extremely online at all times and you missed this story, basically these protesters threw soup at one of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers paintings and then glued their hands to the wall next to it, shouting “ “What is worth more? Art or life? Is it worth more than food? Worth more than justice? Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?”
The video of the stunt quickly spread around social media, and what I saw mostly was people expressing horror at someone destroying a work of art to make some kind of disconnected point about fossil fuels. I didn’t bother to make a comment on it because I knew I had incomplete information. It was nearly an hour before I was able to find anyone confirming that, well, actually the painting is already protected behind glass, so the entire thing was fixed with a roll of paper towels and the painting was back on display within hours. I’m honestly not sure how I’d feel if they really had “destroyed” a painting that couldn’t be restored, but with that out of the question I can confidently say that this is a perfectly fine way to get attention for the cause of stopping the fossil fuel industry from destroying the planet.
(And yes, I know, “the planet” will be just fine because it’s just a fucking rock flying around space. Please leave your semantics arguments in freshman year debate club where they belong.)
It was interesting to watch people learn that the painting wasn’t actually damaged, because they were SO ANGRY at these activists and they initially blamed their anger on the idea that a painting was destroyed. Now that the painting is fine, but they’re STILL angry, many of them frantically searched for a new reason to be angry. Like this guy, who Tweeted at me “Not really much of a protest if nothing is at risk then is it? Performative atupidity mostly. It’s like protest-lite.” And so I asked him point blank, “if they had destroyed a van gogh you would be on twitter celebrating them?” But alas, no, because then he had a new reason to be angry: “Hardly. It was a meaningless act, perpetrated by idiots. If you’re going to protest then it has to be meaningful, not symbolic.”
Honestly, I was fascinated: people were now angry because the protest is meaningless, or because they think it will have the opposite effect and turn people away from caring about climate change. In the end, all these angry people didn’t actually care about the painting in the least. 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.
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.””
So yeah, we already know that public opinion on protests isn’t actually the best way to figure out whether or not it’s going to be effective. But that, for some reason, did not stop prominent climatologist Michael E. Mann (famous for the “hockey stick” graph) from producing his own very poorly designed public opinion poll about the tomato soup protest.
Let me be clear, I have a lot of respect for Mann, not only for his research on climate change but also for his standing up to climate deniers for decades and continuing to engage in public outreach despite being constantly under attack. That said, this poll is bad and he should feel bad.
As I’ve shown pretty clearly, even if a poll found that a majority of people disliked the soup protest, even if they said they were now more willing to shove plastic bottles into dolphins’ blowholes, that is not a meaningful metric to determine the actual effectiveness of a protest. However, this poll didn’t even do that. I honestly think it could have, but it was too poorly designed to do even that much.
For instance, question one was “To raise awareness of the need to address climate change, some advocates have engaged in disruptive non-violent actions including shutting down morning commuter traffic and damaging pieces of art. Do such actions (decrease) your support for efforts to address climate change, (increase) your support for efforts to address climate change or not affect your support one way or another?”
A few issues with this: it already frames the protest as “disruptive,” it lumps in the art protest with “shutting down morning commuter traffic,” a completely separate protest that people might find more or less offputting than soup on a piece of art, and it falsely states that one such action “damage(d) pieces of art.” All of that will inflate the number of people who are turned off.
It’s strange that the first question contains that outright lie about damaging art, because Mann clearly knows that this did not happen. In fact, he accepts that people may have been unfairly biased against the protestors with that lie, because he makes an effort to determine if it matters that the art was ruined or not. He actually put out a SECOND survey in which half the participants got the original question with the lie about the art and the other half got a corrected version reading “To raise awareness of the need to address climate change, some advocates have engaged in disruptive non-violent actions including shutting down morning commuter traffic and pretending to damage pieces of art. Do such actions decrease your support for efforts to address climate change, increase your support for efforts to address climate change or not affect your support one way or another?”
That is absolutely not the way to test that hypothesis. You still have the other problems: the use of the word disruptive, and the conflation with shutting down commuter traffic. Respondents might care more about that then the art, so it’s not a huge shock that Mann found no significant difference between people who were asked about the lie and those who were asked about the truth. If you actually want to know if it makes a difference, you would JUST ask about the art protest. “To raise awareness of the need to address climate change, some advocates have pretended to damage pieces of art. Do such actions decrease your support for efforts to address climate change, increase your support for efforts to address climate change or not affect your support one way or another?”
As I say, I DON’T think there would be a big difference because I think most people are actually angry at something else entirely, but I do think there would be SOME difference. There definitely are people out there who were only concerned about the artwork, plus lying about the Van Gogh being damaged will absolutely take those angry-for-other-reasons people and fire them up even more.
One other issue I have with this survey is found in this big grey “no effect” bar. Personally, if I were polled for this I would have been in that group: I understand that climate change is real and is a serious threat to humanity, and there is absolutely nothing an activist could do to change that. Seriously. Soup on a painting? Climate change is still destroying us. Hand glued to a wall? Climate change is still destroying us. Kidnapping an oil executive and waterboarding him in front of his family? Climate change is still destroying us. I am at peak support for efforts to address climate change and nothing is going to make me care less short of an apocalyptic asteroid on a collision course with Earth due sometime next fall.
But Mann didn’t bother to gauge respondents’ existing support for climate change action, so we have no idea if the people whose support fell were climate change deniers, meaning it doesn’t mean much anyway. We don’t know if the “no effect” group are all-in like I am, meaning that the protest didn’t negatively affect the existing base (which is a good thing). And we don’t know if the 13% of people who said these protests increased their support were already mostly supportive, or if they were previously ambivalent or even climate change deniers. One random person being more supportive and one random person being less supportive doesn’t really mean much without context.
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.