By MIKAL MANN and KAITIE EDDINGTON
August 2nd, 2018
“Productive protesting just requires a different approach: engagement with the other side. “
Although it may seem it started after Donald Trump was elected, protesting has always been an American institution in response to controversies around the United States, with just about every major issue drawing a protest of some kind.
In recent months, concerns such as immigration, white supremacy, police brutality, and a host of others have drawn citizens into the streets. As concerned individuals, we stand with those striving to right genuine injustices in our society and to protect the vulnerable.
However, tactics employed by some protesters are disheartening in that they have caused more damage than good to the causes they sought to promote.
We believe there is a better way that can increase the efficacy of demonstrations everywhere and more effectively advocate for positive change.
Productive Protests vs. Counterproductive Protests
Think back to the most effective protests over the last century.
From the US civil rights movement of the 1960s to the Suffragettes of the 1910s, to the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstration, each has one striking similarity: the protesters convinced the public through obvious demonstration of who the “good guys” were versus the “bad guys.”
These events demonstrate that the public cannot see a peaceful group demonstrating for egalitarian rights and a voice in how they are governed, then hear those arguing against that fair request, and remain confused for long about which group is more reasonable.
In addition, a recent study by Matthew Feinberg, Rob Willer, and Chloe Kovacheff found a peaceful protest in the face of oppression to be the most effective at favorably changing public opinion.
Many protesters today follow in these methodological footsteps of peace, and generally, see great results.
However, others instead choose to verbally or physically attack those who gain their ire, as well as seek to stop their opponents from speaking. Such actions have disastrous consequences for the causes they seek to promote and tend to rally public opinion against them.
Simply look at the reactions of most pundits from both sides of the aisle to some members of ANTIFA, as well as some students at several universities, who have tried to prevent certain personalities from speaking on campus.
These journalists can hardly agree on anything, but they somehow concur on this topic. There is a principle of psychology that helps to explain why this is so: reactance.
Reactance Changes Minds, but in the Wrong Direction
Join us in a thought experiment.
Imagine the best dish you have ever eaten. Think of how delicious it was, and how much you would enjoy eating it again. Now imagine that a person brings you a large plate of that dish, cooked perfectly. Everything looks amazing, except for one thing. The person who brought the food grabs a handful of food and begins to force it into your mouth. No matter how hard you resist, the person continues, fistful after fistful, until the food is gone. We suspect your imaginary self, did not enjoy the dish, and likely would not want to eat it if presented with another batch in the near future.
Reactance works in much the same way, but on a mental level.
It is the feeling of resistance we experience when others attempt to force a belief on us, which leads us to adopt the opposite belief in reaction. We do this as an effort to preserve their own autonomy and freedom of thought, and so long as the effort to force belief persists so does the reactance reaction.
It is the feeling of resistance we experience when others attempt to force a belief on us, which leads us to adopt the opposite belief in reaction.
This helps explain why speakers like Milo Yiannopoulos and Ben Shapiro, who have been uninvited from speaking invitations on college campuses, have tended to see a spike in their popularity afterward.
This can partly be explained by understanding that those who are lukewarm fans are on the fence about the personality, or who even dislike the figure but reject censorship feel their freedom to speak or believe how they will is under attack and so they rally around the person being protested.
Thus, all such protesters accomplished was bring more attention to the ideas they sought to quash. The same is even more true of those who have used physical violence.
A Better Way to Protest
So what can be done?
Is protest bound to be counterproductive?
Should we all abandon the causes we espouse and go home?
No, of course not.
Productive protesting that avoids provoking reactance simply requires a different approach: engagement with the other side. For instance, rather than making the effort to stop figures from speaking, attend the speech and interact with them.
Productive protesting that avoids provoking reactance simply requires a different approach: engagement with the other side.
Listen to ensure you have a correct understanding of their beliefs.
Take advantage of the Q&A period and question the issues that concern you. Seek to persuade, not to force. If their position is unreasonable, the rational members of the public will recognize it. Public opinion will shift accordingly. If there is no Q&A planned, advocate for one.
Movements from years past achieved success through by the public realizing one side had better arguments than the other. This is still so. Many people have changed their minds on a large range of topics because they found the arguments of one side more compelling than the other.
It’s time we stop trying to force our beliefs and instead revert to the tried-and-true art of persuasion.
Mikal Mann has an Ed.M. in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard University and currently resides in Salt Lake City. Kaitie Eddington has a B.S. in Psychology from Southern Utah University and currently works at Dartmouth University.