07/12/2015 09:43 EDT | Updated 07/12/2016 05:59 EDT

Civil Disobedience Isn't Helping Your Cause

Kevork Djansezian via Getty Images
VANCOUVER, BC - FEBRUARY 12: Protesters tie string across the street to demonstrate during the Olympic torch relay on February 12, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada. The torch relay had to be rerouted due to demonstraters blockading the streets in downtown Vancouver. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Last week, activists protesting the climate summit blocked off a street near where I live. Not a big inconvenience for me since my schedule for the day only included binge watching Shark Week, but it was met with a fair amount of negativity from those I share a building with.

Having spent most of my adult life working with environmental organizations I was aware of what the protesters were blockading the street over, but those around me were not, nor did they care to be.

In the lobby somebody asked someone else what the protesters were protesting, and the words chosen to answer that question have stuck with me for the last few days: "I don't f'n know or care"

Was this a case of one person's apathy, or a symptom of a culture of activism in Canada that frequently employs tactics which ceased to be effective decades ago?

There have been times and places where civil disobedience has changed the world for the better, there can be no doubt about that. Civil disobedience has ended wars, given women and people of colour the right to vote, and on a personal note once got me one-third off my cell phone bill for a period of a year.

I can't help noticing however that the years I spent protesting pipelines and angrily shouting about tar sands developments didn't actually yield any tangible results, in fact we are in a worse place now than we were when I started all that yelling. So what do you do when nothing seems to be working?

A study from the University of Toronto recommends that a change in tactics is long overdue for Canada's culture of activism, one that does not include civil disobedience, shouting, or getting angry at all.

University of Toronto psychologist Nadia Bashir studied the ability of certain types of activists to have influence over the opinions of the general public. The results were considered "troubling" to some, but were confirmation for me of long held suspicions over the work I had been involved with.

Study participants were asked to read a variety of statements, and were given one of three possible biographies of the statement's author. The study participants were told a statement was either written by an aggressive activist who organized disruptive protests, a more moderate and less aggressive activist, or there was no biography of the statement's author given at all. The subject was then asked to rate how likely they were to be persuaded by the statement. The first group, the more aggressive activist, had statistically significant less influence over a person's opinions than the other two. The conclusions of the study were undeniable: the more aggressive and angry the activist the less influence they had over the opinions of others.

Despite statistical proof that engaging in aggressive and negative-toned actions and messaging causes the general public to not only turn a deaf ear to your message, but to actually be driven in the opposite direction, these actions are still not only commonly used by Canada's current crop of activists, they are being taught to the next generation.

The researchers said that the negative reaction to aggressive activists "plays a key role in creating resistance to social change."

"By aggressively promoting change and advocating unconventional practices, activists become associated with hostile militancy and unconventionality or eccentricity. [People] may be more receptive to advocates who defy stereotypes by coming across as pleasant and approachable," Psychologist Nadia Bashir was quoted as saying.

It's not that civil disobedience has never been effective, or that it isn't still effective if utilized only in certain situations. But today, in Canada and in most cases, not only are such actions not helping, they are actually hurting.

Oddly enough the conclusions reached by this study mirror those found in one of the best books ever published: "How to Win Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie.

To sum up this book in a paragraph or so, Carnegie makes the case that those with the most influence are those who show a sincere interest in looking at an issue from all angles, respects the opinions of others, promote solutions, and are genuinely good people.

The theories of Carnegie, and the research by Bashir demonstrate that those who wish to create positive change in the world would be best to follow a pattern of promoting positivity:

  • Want to fight climate change? Promote solar and wind energy.
  • Want to stop a pipeline? Promote subsidies for electric vehicles.
  • Want to end factory farming? Promote small-scale sustainable farming practices.

Change is possible if we tone down the aggression/yelling, allowing others to drop their defences and truly listen. One criticism of this approach however, would be that considering the severity of some of the issues we face that people have a right to be angry, which they do, I am only stating that expressing your opinions through anger reduces your ability to have influence.

In Universities all across the country, well-meaning OPIRG offices are teaching young activists that civil disobedience is the answer even before they teach them what the questions are. That's the advice I had been following for years.

A big part of me now wants to just drop all of it, sell some solar panels, and make some money while achieving at least a mild amount of positive change from my work. Maybe I'll retire early, move to Belize and live the rest of my life playing beach soccer until climate change-enduced rising sea levels wash me and my new neighbours away, bringing my life to a near-ironic and full-circled end.

It is my hope that before that happens however, that the ideas expressed in this post will resonate with a few of you and you will share these ideas as widely as you can, because in order to really achieve change, we first need to change how we approach achieving it.


Evolution of Green Activism