The Earth is warming at rates as fast as the rise of “Gen-Z” led public activism. Some of the most recent and outspoken activists have come from younger populations: Greta Thunberg, who started the School Strike for Climate movement at 15; David Hogg, who co-founded the March for Our Lives movement and nonprofit in 2018 as a newly 18-year-old; and Hunter Schafer, a transgender actor and activist who as a teenager aided the repealing of North Carolina House Bill 2, a trans-discriminatory bathroom policy. Lesser known people, like local high school valedictorians sacrificing their graduation speeches to uplift certain platforms and university students demanding more attention from their institutions regarding the death of Mahsa Amini and violence in Iran, have taken a bite out of activism as well. A Yale-based report in 2020 found that younger generations are much “more likely to support and/or identify with climate activists who urge elected officials to take action to reduce global warming.” However, a decade before this report, the same institution found the opposite: that U.S. young adults and youth were less likely to show concern about global warming.
Nonetheless, as engagement amongst younger people in social issues continues to grow, a conversation needs to be had regarding the best way to go about activism; is it better to advocate to the masses in order to get people behind your movement, or to purposefully make people uncomfortable or irritated through resistance and dissent?
Young people arguably have it the hardest when getting involved in social justice. They are often regarded as too immature, ill-informed, or opinionated to reasonably express their viewpoints. A 2017 Atlantic article called “campus activists” too “engag[ed] in intolerance,” stating that young activists turn “politically useful activism into useless performance” when “their approach becomes judgmental and unyielding.” However, it can be argued that this is the whole point of protest in and of itself; the people who seem averse to the activism perpetuated by the youth are those who were never really interested in what they had to say in the first place.
This can be seen with recent acts of protest and opposition; On October 14, two young women threw a can of soup on van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London to protest fossil fuels and a lack of climate action. As she glued herself to the wall below the soup-covered painting, one of the activists asked the room: “What is worth more–art or life?” She continued to speak and question the crowd: “Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting, or the protection of our planet and people?...Fuel is unaffordable to millions of cold, hungry families. They can’t even afford to heat a tin of soup.”
While this outspoken demonstration in particular gained worldwide attention, both praise and criticism, this event was not isolated; these two Just Stop Oil protestors were only one attention-grabbing stunt amongst a long sequence of demonstrations that have taken part in recent years, targeting art, consumption, and materialistic possessions that appear to be valued at higher than humanity itself. Connected to this event, in July of this year, five Just Stop Oil protestors glued themselves to a copy of DiVinci’s The Last Supper. Before this, various members of the group were seen glued to another Van Gogh in London, a painting in Glasgow, one in Munich, a Botticelli in Italy, and a painting at the Manchester Art Gallery among many more.
The whole point of protest is to cause a disruption or disturbance as a means to express disapproval–in recent times, this means getting bold and loud. I think the whole form of protest is to be indigestible, to actively make people feel uncomfortable. Thus, it is evident as to why people are outraged regarding this event. The goal was not to destroy something materialistically beloved (the protestors had made sure of this), but to express how this object is given more attention than climate change itself. The protestors' point was proven by the response elicited by their actions: an immediate, intense emotional reaction regarding their degradation of art. However, we promote the degradation of our planet, our only home, every day; if the planet becomes uninhabitable, there won’t be any art at all.
Throwing a can of tomato soup on a century-old painting is not the same as Iranian women and students cutting their hair to protest the death of Masha Amini and Iran’s morality police, just as marching through streets to halt traffic and protest racial injustice is not the same as chaining yourself to a tree or petitioning congress about voting rights and suppression. However, what all these forms of protest do is publicly exhibit anger, opposition, and defiance. With this, I wonder, what makes one form of protest more easily supported or digested than another? It seems that it’s not the way or style of advocacy that activists employ, but it’s what they’re protesting, and whether or not the masses care to listen.