On his nightly soapbox, CNN’s Chris Cuomo requested, “Please, show me where it says protesters are supposed to be polite and peaceful.”
Of course, you won’t find these instructions written in the protester’s handbook anywhere, but they are reflected in common sense and a new study.
The study, which conducted six experiments with 3,399 participants, was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In sum, it concludes Americans stop caring about causes when protesters riot.
Using a handful of conservative and liberal causes, including the Black Lives Matter movement, animal rights, and the pro-life movement, researchers examined how different protest actions influence support for the various movements. (In their report, they refer to the pro-life movement as the “anti-abortion movement,” suggesting the authors are not conservative.)
Across the board, researchers found “protest behaviors perceived to be harmful to others, highly disruptive, or both — typically reduce support for social movements.” They also concluded that “these effects were largely independent of individuals’ prior ideology or views on the issue.”
The results are no surprise. When protesters cross the line from peaceful to obnoxious — or worse, when demonstrators block firefighters from reaching a burning building with a child inside or murder a small-town former police chief — Americans lose their emotional connection for the cause.
Worse, researchers found that highly disruptive and extreme behavior at protests backfires, increasing support for the opposite cause.
“We found extreme anti-Trump protest actions actually led people to not only dislike the movement and support the cause less, but to be willing to support Trump more,” said Matthew Feinberg, the corresponding author of the study and an assistant professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto. “It was almost like a backlash.”
As our cities light up in flames from protests that broke out in response to George Floyd’s unjust death, the science on the psychological effects is important to hear. Science, after all, is often what people on the political left say undergirds their positions and arguments.
When lawmakers, activists, Hollywood, and the media excuse violence and destruction as “the language of the unheard,” Americans are turned off to the cause, diminishing opportunities for important conversation and policy solutions. Moral compasses go on high alert, noting the difference between wrong and right. No amount of media gaslighting will change that, as rioting is so obviously wrong.
The study explains the recent poll that found 58 percent of registered voters, nearly half of whom are Democrats and 37 percent of whom are black, now say they would support cities using military force to address the recent protests. It’s the exact opposite of what protesters and the media want.
Peaceful protests and demonstrations are an American tradition. Hysterical meltdowns and violence are not. If the current protesters, media, and their celebrity supporters care about having conversations and finding policy solutions, they’d demand the violence stop. Yes, many have, but not enough, as riots continue in our streets.
The study’s authors describe their conclusion as “an activist’s dilemma.”
“Taken together with prior research showing that extreme protest actions can be effective for applying pressure to institutions and raising awareness of movements, these findings suggest an activist’s dilemma, in which the same protest actions that may offer certain benefits are also likely to undermine popular support for social movements.”
In a democracy, there’s no dilemma. Institutions don’t change themselves — people do. In order to do that, protesters must convince enough Americans to get behind their cause. Then they must convince them to vote.
To go back to Cuomo’s original question, protesters aren’t required to be “polite and peaceful,” but science says they probably should be if they want to be effective at drawing support to their cause.
Perhaps some people rioting and protesting don’t want to change minds. If their only goal is to sow division and hate, then science says they’re doing it exactly right.