If you haven’t seen one, you have probably heard of one. Happenings are performances organized by activists in a public space, which seem to take place spontaneously. They are typically illegal and are designed to shock passers-by and obtain mediatic coverage. As more and more such events made it to the headlines these last months, analysts observed that most activists participating in happenings were concerned by their government’s climate inaction, quite young (20-30 years old), mostly female, post-graduate students or students, with various professional backgrounds.
But from throwing food on a Van Gogh painting to interrupting a politician’s press conference topless, how effective is this flamboyant way of action? As an attempt to help you build your own opinion on this matter, this article (also the last of our activism series) dives into two examples of activist movements known for their happenings: Just Stop Oil, which “commits to halting new fossil fuel licensing and production and Femen, whose “goal is to protect women’s rights”. Each point takes into account an argument that says their happenings are not effective, based on the assumption that they do not succeed at rallying more people to their cause.
Argument #1 “Happenings promote violence”
Recently, the group of climate and social justice activists Just Stop Oil provoked multiple reactions about its happenings, namely throwing food on paintings exhibited in major national museums.
Among such criticism was violence to the point where American art critic Jerry Saltz described the events as “Taliban-like”. In parallel, the French Minister of Interior Security described other climate activists blocking a construction project as “eco-terrorists”. To rephrase it, the illegality of happenings is threatening to some people, which generates negative reactions among the public, possibly polarizing debates, rather than convincing new people of the need for urgent climate action.
Stop Oil Now activists explained that they are not violent as they targeted, on purpose, pieces of art that were protected by glass and couldn’t be damaged; represented nature to highlight their goal to protect the environment; were in national museums to obtain their government’s attention. Moreover, the French professor of political sciences Simon Persico explains that government officials often use words like “eco-terrorism” to justify the security measures they deploy to stop activist happenings. An observation that somewhat echoes Just Stop Oil’s slogan: “Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?”.
Just Stop Oil targeted museums to demonstrate how urgent they believe the climate situation to be while breaking the law. As a result, government and cultural actors perceived it as an attack against their institutions and the public.
Argument #2 “They are only doing this to get their 15 minutes of fame”
Femen is a feminist movement founded in Ukraine in 2008. It is now present around the world and became known for its happenings’ features: vehement topless women with activist messages painted on their bodies, wearing flower crowns, targeting politicians and events.
Critics, including other feminists, accused Femen of seeking fame as they organised photoshoots with pop-culture magazines such as Les Inrockuptibles, and of instrumentalizing young women’s bodies to get media coverage. Their main point: Femen happenings bring more attention to female nudity than the protection of women’s rights.
Howerver, former Femen member Elvire Duvelle-Charles explains that the risks taken while disturbing political events (e.g. aggressions, prison) are too numerous and serious to think that their actions are motivated by fame. Notably, Femen leader Inna Shevchenko had to seek asylum in France because she was targeted by the KGB as she publicly expressed her anti-Poutine stance.
Femen activists also argue that their aesthetics echo their slogan – “My Body, My Weapon!” – to desexualize the female body and empower women. They want us to ask ourselves why their nudity disturbs as much as it attracts the media.
Femen activists are often accused of adopting sensationalist tactics to obtain fame. They respond that they take many risks to make their voices heard and that their aesthetics are perfectly effective when it comes to obtaining media coverage and making a memorable impression.
Argument #3 “Happenings discredit other, more traditional, activist movements”
More traditional, yet ecologist too, activist organisations have been critical of Just Stop Oil and others’ happenings. They believe happenings, which systematically involve civil disobedience and breaking the law, discredit their fight against climate inaction to the point where it could slow down their progress. The same goes for Femen and other branches of feminist activism.
Indeed, happenings are not systematically more efficient than demonstrations or petitions. As they are organized spontaneously and with fewer means, their failures are more numerous than within an association with more funding and experience like Greenpeace.
The main problem: these illegal actions are carried out to irritate and question very broad causes that are not necessarily understandable for the general public, whereas legal modes of action block specific projects and are therefore better at spreading a message.
According to some sociologists, this opposition between “responsibility” and “radicality” is a recurrent theme among activist circles, that shows illegal actions emerge when legal organizations are perceived as too consensual with the status quo. It simply is a cycle, for example, Greenpeace was created in 1971 because other anti-nuclear movements were considered not effective enough, Extinction Rebellion was founded because Greenpeace was too “soft” and many Stop Oil Now members were previously members of Extinction Rebellion!
More than rallying public opinion around their cause, their goal is to saturate the media space until governments act. Despite criticism, radical activists and happenings are more and more numerous and frequent. Finally, climate justice and feminism are increasingly discussed by more and more people, meaning there is no evidence that the radical nature of civil disobedience is slowing down activist movements defending the same cause.
No one is capable of answering whether illegal activism, as long as it is non-violent (e.g. happenings, civil disobedience) is more or less effective than legal ways of action (e.g. demonstrations, petitions). But some research has demonstrated that there is one thing we can observe: illegal actions do not discourage new people from joining both illegal and legal movements.
Argument #4 “Happenings do not generate public support”
Marches with tens of thousands of people hardly get any attention. Blocking a road or occupying a building, on the other hand, is much more effective in attracting media interest. However, happenings require annoying other citizens that have nothing to do with the movement’s target.
Here, the argument against happenings is based on the same reasons given above about discrediting moderate ways of action: people don’t like it, which would lead them to oppose the social and climate justice movements led by radicals like Just Stop Oil and Femen.
Again, the radicals will respond that getting the general public on board is not their goal. What they want is to get their voice heard and to get attention. But how? Two sociological concepts explain it: the radical flank effect and the Overton window:
- The radical flank effect argues that even though public opinion is opposed to the form of happenings, they are not to their substance. The strategy is to trigger great media coverage to reach an audience, that will give their support to more moderate activists. Those moderate activits’ legal means of action may not get them as many articles, but allow them to work alongside governments and get more funding. As a result, the changes desired by radical activists are pushed forward.
- The Overton window is “the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time” and the goal of a series of happenings is to make their topic increasingly mainstream so that they become unavoidable discussion points of most political campaigns.
If you are bothered by activists blocking your commute, chances are you are displeased by their tactics. That said, they will tell you that their goal is not to turn you into a radical activist, but rather to get you to think about their struggle, so that 1) you will support their more moderate peers fighting for the same cause and 2) activist topics become mainstream politics.
Food for thought
If you still haven’t made up your mind, it is 100% normal: even researchers specialized in activism are not capable of determining whether happenings are an effective way of changing lifestyles and societies. However, there isn’t proof that they are ineffective either! It seems that it heavily depends on the cause defended, at what time in history happenings take place, and where (is it in a place and time where the topic is already publicly discussed? Or quite the contrary?).
What they do know is that happenings do not discourage other types of action led by activists with similar goals and, when looking into media coverage, both Just Stop Oil and Femen have excelled at getting attention, let it be supportive or critical of their provocative strategies.
And you, do you believe that happenings are effective ways of triggering societal change or at least provoking a shift in public opinion? We’d love to hear your thoughts, please let us know by writing to us!
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- From October, 14th to April 30th, young people (15-29yo) worldwide are invited to take part in Youth Talks, a massive collective intelligence consultation
- The Higher Education for Good Foundation, which is launching this initiative, is expecting tens of thousands of respondents, hopefully including you!
Why should you participate?
- The results of the consultation will help the Foundation imagine new higher education models to grow future generations into empowered individuals able to overcome the challenges of their times.
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