Good Causes, Lost Effects (Part Two)

Is protesting effective?  I am asking a scientific question.  Put another way: do protests work?  As a general question, perhaps it doesn't have a yes/no answer.  As a question about specific protests, it's not a question we ask at all.  Why?


In 1969, the newly wed John and Yoko Ono Lennon took advantage of the publicity surrounding their wedding to promote the cause of world peace by spending their honeymoon publicly in bed.  The press were allowed into their hotel suite between 9am and 9pm every day for a week, during which time the pyjamed celebrity darlings, having a sizeable bend on the world's ear, took the opportunity to discuss peace and war and the state of the world at that time.  The Vietnam War was raging and the Beatles were putting the finishing touches to their breakup.

The press reacted with confusion, as the press has a history of doing toward anything it hasn't invented itself.  When asked whether he thought their protest had been a success, John is quoted as saying, "It's part of our policy not to be taken seriously. Our opposition, whoever they may be, in all manifest forms, don't know how to handle humour. And we are humorous."  Which isn't really an answer.  Which was of course the point.

The Vietnam war continued for another six years.

Does this mean that John and Yoko's bed-in was unsuccessful?  Even asking such a question seems facetious.  I don't mean it that way.  John Lennon was a radically-minded fellow in a time when radical ideas were mainstream to an extent that is hard to appreciate today, He was also one of the most famous people in the world.  He could do and say pretty much anything he wanted.  The idea of the "bed-in" was a new idea: an eccentric offshoot of the "sit-in", but in the same radical spirit.  It was an experiment.  Was it a success?  Of course not.  But it wasn't supposed to be.  In today's parlance, you might say that John and Yoko pulled their artistic stunts to "raise awareness".  In this respect, they were immensely successful.  Decades later and the bizarre - perhaps naive, perhaps beautiful, certainly more than a little self-absorbed - antics of a celebrity couple have taken their place as a significant moment in 20th century history.  However, as you may have noticed, the world is not at peace.  Wars still happen.

On February 15th 2003, literally millions of mostly not famous people in 60 different cities stages protests against the imminent invasion of Iraq by the USA and its "coalition of the willing".  Motivation for the invasion wasn't really made clear, although given the history of the two presidents Bush and their relationship with Saddam Hussein, speculation wasn't difficult.  The war killed hundreds of thousands people, cost trillions of dollars and destabilised the Middle East still further, just to put to rest any doubts that such a thing was even possible.  Given the part it played the amorphous, Orwellian "war on terror", whether or not the war was a success is impossible to say.  (Certainly Saddam Hussein isn't in power any more.  And for beheading, religious sadism and sexual slavery enthusiasts, I hear Iraq is just lovely at this time of year).  What we can be absolutely sure about, though, is the protests against the war were not a success.  The Iraq War of 2003 was another of the wars that happened despite the best efforts of well-intentioned humans.  Has an anti-war protest ever achieved its aim?  Which brings us back to where we started: do protests work?

What is protest for?  If you're not John Lennon, and I think you're probably not, this should be an easy question to answer.  Protests are demonstrations against a powerful institution or course of action being taken by those in power.  In one way or another, they are an attempt to disrupt or prevent an institution from acting in a certain way.  Protests happen all the time.  As noted in Part One, you only have to wander through a city centre on a normal day to find yourself bombarded by a plethora of good causes and their worthy proponents.  On Saturday, Manchester Animal Action organised a protest as part of the World Day for Animals in Laboratories, demonstrating against the use of non-human animals in scientific experiments.  They gathered at Piccadilly Gardens and marched to the Stopford Building at the University of Manchester, which houses its Faculty of Medical and Human Sciences.  The university's webpage confirms that the research conducted there, "may involve animals where absolutely no alternative is necessary" in their studies of "major causes of concern for human health and quality of life...[including] cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and dementia, Parkinson’s disease, arthritis, schizophrenia, ADHD, autism, and the many different types of cancer."  Details on animals "used" there are not forthcoming: a somewhat petulant request for information in 2012 received a polite response confirming the use of over 45,000 mice, as well as several thousand rats and fish, as well as a number of frogs, sheep, marmosets, goats and pigs during that year.  Numbers confirming what animals have been used, how, and for what purpose more recently than 2012 does not seem to be readily available.  The assumption must be that animal testing still takes place there but in what form, and for what purpose is not clear.  A cursory survey of the recent publications from the Cancer Research UK Institute, which is affiliated with the University, suggests that rodents are still being used there.  This makes the University and sensible target for animal rights protestors.

The details are important, because without them we can't answer the questions that need to be asked.  What are the goals of an animal rights protest?  It seems to me there can only be two: a) getting people to go vegan and b) saving animals' lives.  If you can do both at once, so much the better.  If a protest succeeded in persuading those in control of the University of Manchester's Faculty of Medical and Human Sciences to go vegan, and thus to cease immediately from using animals in their research, this would be the best possible outcome.  The important thing here is that both these outcomes are, in principle, measurable.  Either people are influenced to go vegan, and actually do, as the result of a protest, or they aren't.  How many is a matter of numbers.  Either fewer animals are abused and killed as a result of the protest, or they aren't.  That's a matter of numbers too.  As far as I'm aware, protests are not usually proceeded by follow-up studies.  I wonder if it would be of greater benefit to the cause if they were.  Why not apply the scientific method to protest movements?  We could use statistical analysis and empirical observation to determine which forms of protest are the most effective, in which context.

If these seem like strange questions, or just to be missing the point, I think it's worth asking why.  If no anti-war protest march has ever achieved its aim, why do anti-war protest marches still happen?  The protest march is a standard technique of the left and radical movements.  Why?  They're motivated by a powerful impulse - to change something - and pick up momentum with the size of the group on the march.  Ten people looks sort of pathetic and can and will be ignored as readily as a street evangelist.  One hundred will probably merit police attention.  A thousand or more, perhaps a television crew.  Ten thousand, and only the most charismatic leader could prevent a peaceful protest tipping over into a a riot.  On Saturday, while World Day for Animals in Laboratories protesters were still gathering, I spied this lonely sight:


Nobody approached this man.  Nobody took a leaflet.  My standing there and filming him was conspicuous in a way it wasn't when I grabbed some longer clips of the larger crowds later on.  It goes without saying that this man's protest was not a success, and he appears to acknowledge that himself.  This isn't to mock or belittle him - his passion is worth celebrating, and he's motivated by that very same impulse to just do something.  He wants to "raise awareness".

But do protests even achieve that?  They have become such a common sight, such a cliched and uncritically accepted method of effecting change, that at the level of a whole society, whose change as a whole is what is really being sought, all the causes seem to bleed into one.  Millions of animals still suffer and die needlessly every day.  That matters.  Every life matters.  So we should look into whether protests save lives or not.  Saving one life might make the efforts of several hundred people worth it, but is this the best use of our resources?  Are we only raising awareness, or are we doing nothing at all?  Might it not be time to change tactics?  Perhaps we could all spend a week in bed.  As far as I'm aware, there's no evidence that to do so would be any less effective.