Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Can, 1964

SoupGate and the politics of good taste

Earlier this week, James Ozden wrote an interesting blog on Just Stop Oil throwing tomato soup over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery. He pointed out that the video on Twitter has over 35 million views, and everyone is talking about it.

Ozden questions how talking heads in the UK have argued that disruptive protest is not the answer. I couldn’t help but laugh at someone on Twitter who gave the action “0/10 for theory of change.” But, I guess the correct score rather depends what the question is. What was the goal, what are the expected outcomes, and how durable are these likely to be?

For Ozden, the key outcome seems to be to ‘get you international media coverage and millions of people talking about you.’ Emma Jones of Just Stop Oil also said “it works, it grabs people’s attention,” and the soup-thrower, Phoebe Plummer, suggested that “we’re getting the conversation going so we can ask the questions that matter.” So, they seem to agree this direct action was about attention. I’m not at all convinced this is the most important outcome, but it frames the discussion.

“The evidence”

James Ozden presents “the empirical evidence” on radical tactics in his blog, largely drawing on a literature review his organisation published a few months ago. I distrust anyone who says the evidence. After all, there is no such thing. But, to give him the benefit of the doubt, I think this was probably just an incautious slip of the tongue on Twitter.

On a very quick review, the evidence presented appears to be only partially relevant to SoupGate. Ozden focuses attention on 5 quantitative sources in the blog. The first is a study of two web-based survey experiments. The second is a set of 4 experiments, each with a few hundred participants, some online. Most were given vignette statements constructed from news articles or ‘fictitious, but plausible contexts.’ Only one of these was on ‘real ongoing protests,’ and used correlational data from a nationwide survey in Israel. The third is a ‘generally quite representative… self-selected’ online experimental vignette survey in the USA. The fourth is Gallup Polling on the popularity of Martin Luther King in the USA between 1963 and 2011, and one source is an opinion poll commissioned by Ozden on Just Stop Oil. So, most of the key quantitative evidence presented comes from different contexts (1/5 from the UK), a sizeable proportion is on adjacent themes (gun control, animal rights, civil rights, disability benefits), as well as in different time periods (e.g., 1963), and much of it is focused on relatively narrow constituencies (e.g., movements themselves) rather than public opinion in general.

The argument that the presence of a “radical flankincreases support for a moderate faction within the same movement is interesting and merits consideration, theoretically at least. This paper notes that the ‘radical flanks literature has yielded inconsistent findings.’ In that paper, prominent social movement scholars Chenoweth and Schock are cited as saying that ‘social movement research on the radical flank effect tends to reflect biases of case selection and context.’ So, encouraging us to generalise from just two online experiments from the USA (only one of which is on the climate movement) seems highly questionable.

Much of this evidence has pretty limited relevance, appares to have low external and ecological validity, and low probative value for the issue at hand. Will the “radical flank” effect work in the UK in 2022 when the government is very distracted elsewhere? That’s the key question here.

However, one line of evidence is highly relevant. In public opinion polling for Just Stop Oil commissioned by Social Change Lab around a previous direction action, respondents were asked how likely they were to take climate action in the next 12 months. Below you can see the data:

Ozden and Glover, 2022

The polling found that despite approximately 60% of the public hearing about Just Stop Oil’s action, they found no negative effects on support for climate policies. On it’s own this isn’t too powerful a finding, but it broadly fits with the (problematic) evidence base above. So, it suggests that direct action doesn’t necessarily deter people from taking climate action, and it might even make a small difference to those who were already somewhat likely to take action.

Ozden helpfully disclaims that he’s the Director of Social Change Lab and this work hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet, and it was commissioned by the very coalition that took the action. So, there are all sorts or potential biases there. However, it was a representative poll conducted by YouGov. YouGov is not without its controversies, but they are still one of the UK’s most credible polling firms. So, I think we should take it seriously. After all, this is the most relevant evidence to SoupGate and this type of direct action.

Ozden’s paper further cites a (rather dated) meta-analysis by Burstein (2003) which suggests that in 75% of cases of policy change, public opinion plays a significant role. So, there’s therefore some reason to take note of such polling. It would be good if there were more such polling for us to compare.

The wrong kind of attention?

More important, I think, than most of the somewhat relevant quantitative evidence presented is the apparent change in the positions of influential opinion.

I first heard of SoupGate on Novara Media, an excellent left-wing media outfit I recommend. I was expecting them to wholeheartedly embrace the direct action. But, Aaron Bastani thought the tactics were potentially unwise by “attracting the wrong kind of attention” and that this might perhaps be poor strategy. By comparison, he criticised what he considered the “thoughtless, stupid direct action” of Extinction Rebellion when two members climbed atop a tube train and delayed London commuters. In his view, this was less defensible because it interfered with ordinary people going about their work rather than posh toffs like me going to art galleries. I think Bastani made some good points you can listen to below.

However, his co-host Michael Walker disagreed. Walker argued that:

“It doesn’t matter whether the public like the action, what matters is if the public care about your cause.”

I think that’s a very astute point. Emmeline Pankhurst made a similar one (“We don’t intend that you should be pleased.”). He then suggested that perhaps the public might call into talk radio and say ‘their ends are valid but I don’t care about [or for] their means.’ Such public support could be helpful.

I’m not entirely clear who the protesters’ public opinion target was. Are you? As a member at both the National Gallery and the Royal Academy, is it me? I used to work on climate change quite a bit when I worked for CARE International in Bolivia, so I ought to be a captive audience. I don’t like desecration of art (unless that is the art — e.g., Michael Landy’s Breakdown), especially because it ineluctably paints protesters as being uncultured, or anti-culture. It unhelpfully, creates the hysteria of Hannibal at the gates of Rome.

Of course, “life is more important than art,” but I have no idea why these are considered mutually exclusive options. Moreover, I don’t understand the targeting. Do you? Why are art galleries are the target and not, say, statues of oil Barrons or disreputable politicians? And if you really want to attack the National Gallery, why not attack the Sackler room? There are better trophies to deface, more problematic histories to tell, and more nefarious funding to expose. Or go next door to the National Portrait Gallery (were it open) which ended BP sponsorship earlier this year. If there was a strategy, it’s wasn’t ostensibly clear what it was.

However, on Owen Jones’ show at the weekend, Emma Brown of Just Stop Oil referred explicitly to the “radical flank” theory as their strategic inspiration. Ozden claims there is a clear strategy being used, and this was it.

I suspect many people who argued that they got the tactics wrong are people like me. For example, when Andrew Marr says the following, we have to consider that he is himself an artist of expressionist art with thick impasto. Of course he would be lost by this action.

The Department for Media, Culture and Sport tells us that roughly half the nation visit museums and galleries. Hence, half the nation probably don’t care about this action (or art), and thus probably wouldn’t see this action in a negative light. Those visiting museums and galleries are more likely to be rich, professional, middle-aged, white, and from the South East (i.e., me). Yes Minister once famously referred to art subsidies as a “middle class rip off.” When we say “public opinion,” we’re often referring to the received perception of “sensible” middle-class opinion.

Just Stop Oil’s peers Extinction Rebellion has very low levels of public support in general. Nonetheless, it’s also plausible as Ozden suggests, that they played at least some role in the wider increase in Britons saying that the environment is a top national issue, even if that role is likely overstated. Today, according to YouGov, only 26% of the public think the environment is the most important issue, far behind the economy at 67%. So, Just Stop Oil does have an attention problem to address, and perhaps they do need to “get the conversation going” again, as Plummer suggests. But, will greater attention translate into influence, as expressed in a theory of punctuated equilibrium?

Which members of the public support or oppose likely matters at least as much as support from the general public. The media landscape is a key part of this. It matters relatively little whether Novara Media support you, I’m afraid, but as Ozden suggests, if talk radio opinion leaders like James O’Brien admit they’ve changed their views on Extinction Rebellion and there are opinion pieces written about them in The Times newspaper admitting they were right, then there’s clear progress in the discourse.

Beyond the politics of attention though, what matters is what such attention translates into and whether any of this is durable. Ozden notes that:

‘Even though Extinction Rebellion has some of the lowest public support, they seem to have caused an increase in UK climate concern, led to new environmental groups in over 1100 cities and probably significantly reduced UK carbon emissions.’

As Naomi Hossain reminded me, this might fit Tarrow et al.’s argument on unity and numbers in their Worthiness, Unity, Numbers, and Commitment (WUNC) conceptual framework.

Backlash

There are also important considerations regarding the negative effects from direct action, and protests more generally. Ozden acknowledges this rather begrudgingly in footnote as the “activist dilemma.” A recent study on key protest issues in the 21st century found that 62% of protests globally between 2006–2011 resulted in arrests, surveillance, injuries, and deaths. Especially when only 40% of these protests were argued to have had positive effects, we should be serious about weighing the relative costs and benefits. Home Office figures also show that over 350 Just Stop Oil protesters have been arrested in London since the start of October.

When Owen Jones asked whether this will provide a rationale for the government to clamp down on all forms of protest, Emma Jones argued that “I think we are putting government in a difficult position.”

Yet, in direct response to Just Stop Oil’s efforts over the last fortnight, Home Secretary Suella Braverman has vowed to crack down on “eco-zealots” in the Public Order Bill. Did Just Stop Oil give her further ammunition? We already have hostile legislation on protests in the UK, and it seems this direct action will amplify the tenuous justifications from the Home Secretary regarding supposed “public interest.” The Home Secretary brought forward an amendment with harsher sentences for protesters on the 18th October 2022 (see here for details). The two protesters themselves have been charged to pay £5,000 in damages. So, if Just Stop Oil’s target were government policy, the action probably backfired in the short term.

Whether raising public attention through direct action translates into significant policy change for the better over the medium term is still a matter for reasonable debate. We should be debating whether Just Stop Oil’s tactics fit within a coherent strategy or not, as Bastani suggests. We should be assessing their “theory of change,” as that economics blogger mentioned, and the underlying “radical flank” theory itself. We should also be asking questions about the relative costs and benefits, as Ozden recognises.

Only time will tell whether SoupGate may contribute to greater concern, favourable opinion towards an existentially important cause, and whether that translates into any meaningful policy change in the UK. If indeed it does work, we’ll have to rethink plenty of ideas about what works in campaigning, and those theories of change. Will the “radical flank” soon become a canonical theory? Either way, there’s no question SoupGate has raised public attention.

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I'm an independent consultant specialising in theory-based and participatory evaluation methods.

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Thomas Aston

I'm an independent consultant specialising in theory-based and participatory evaluation methods.