Social science has a way of confirming what we humans already knew about ourselves. Data that validate one’s intuitive gleanings about the species make a timeless gift, always in season. “Extreme Protest Tactics Reduce Popular Support for Social Movements,” from sociologists Matthew Feinberg of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School and Stanford’s Robb Willer, is also delightfully of-the-moment, reports the Weekly Standard.
“It was coincidental,” said Feinberg. The research was a year-and-half’s work. Eighteen months ago, former reality TV stars Josh Duggar, Caitlyn Jenner, Donald Trump were copping to Ashley-Madison-aided infidelity, facing manslaughter charges, and rallying in the Deep South, respectively.) “By no means are we trying to make a political statement,” Feinberg told me, further downplaying his and his coauthors’ apparent futuresense.
The first official month of the Trump era saw a burning limo and a viral Nazi punch, a window-smashing black bloc at UC Berkeley, and a steady pace of “cathartic” Resistance marches. “Not My President’s Day” having come and gone, MoveOn.org’s next feast day is April 15th when the observant will join a multi-city Tax March. Hey, it’s a living. Plus, if someone smashes a window or starts a fire? It’s great TV, and free publicity for the cause.
That’s just the problem, found Feinberg, et al.: The more extreme a protest or demonstration, the more media attention it gets. But the more extreme the protest, the less likely it is the folks at home will identify with its motivating spirit. This trade-off, between publicity and influence, they call “the activist’s dilemma.”
“If you’re a protester, and you’re wanting to get attention and strategically raise consciousness, then you’re going to want to do something more extreme to get the media’s attention. But as our research shows, if you do that, you will risk undermining support for your cause and possibly having it backfire,” Feinberg told me.