Saturday, July 21, 2007

Protesters are Stupid

If I had to pick one reason why conservative political organizations are 100 times more successful than liberal political organizations it would come down to the difference between lobbying and protesting. An oversimplification, to be sure, and I don't mean to ignore the ever-important economic factors that are always in play, but there has to be a reason why conservative extremists like the NRA can keep semiautomatic weapons legal and liberal extremists like PETA have a hard time correctly identifying which fashion designer to hit in the face with a pie.

Was that a cheap shot? Yes, it was.

Make no mistake - I have no love for the NRA, but when they're on my TV they're serious, focused, and usually effective at achieving their goals, while every time I see PETA (whom I also have no love for) on my TV there's some celebrity taking her clothes off to protest the fur trade.

My abhorrence for the ineffectiveness of the public protest was brought home again on Friday as PETA protested outside the offices of the NFL in New York City in an effort to get Falcons' QB Michael Vick suspended.

It isn't their desire to see Vick suspended that I take issue with (though I think the NFL has taken the correct course in not giving Vick a major suspension; right now the burden of what to do with Vick rests with the Falcons, not the league) nor their right to protest. If they want to make hollow displays of genuine outrage, I'm all for their right to do it.

I just wish they weren't so damn stupid about it all.

Honestly, while I take the political passions and issues of concern to PETA with the utmost seriousness (whether I agree or disagree with them), and while I believe that the bulk of PETA's membership takes those same issues with the utmost seriousness, I don't understand the always-present cutesiness that accompanies the public protest. Pies, clever phrases, nude celebrities ... it's not hard for me to see why some people think they're a crank organization.

Dog fighting is an incredibly serious issue, as I'm sure PETA would agree, so why are they standing outside the NFL offices carrying signs that read "Sack Vick"?

Are we trying to get things done or are we trying to be clever with words? When the group hits Atlanta on Monday they'll also be carrying signs that read "Tackle Cruelty."

F***ing stop.

It's this silly mix of perceived cleverness and desperate attention grab that absolutely drives me crazy about PETA in particular and protests in general. Signs and chants ... to take a deadly serious issue and boil it down to semantic cleverness, I just don't get it. I don't. You're not going to change the world through a neat turn of a phrase; or if you are it's going to be a bit more than "Sack Vick." Why would an organization that uncovers such serious issues as Columbia University's history of animal abuse bother sending 50 people to New York to carry signs that they know won't sway the NFL?

For the publicity?

The Vick story is hot right now, so PETA's protest gets them in papers and on TV sets across the country today. Maybe that's why they do it, but is "Sack Vick" the message they want to get across? If so, why? It's a generic message read on its own. I'd rather see them carrying signs that read "Vick Tortures Dogs" because then the focus of the message is on the issue. Such a message would help brand Vick as the bastard he is (allegedly ...) and keeps the victims of Vick's abuse - the dogs - at the fore of the story.

I simply don't see protests of fifty people with cutesy signs moving the needle. PETA would better serve their cause taking a cue from the takedown of Don Imus or the scare tactics of the NRA. It's not about getting your name in the paper, it's about getting your target's name in the paper, rebranded in such a negative light that no one wants to be associated with that target. It's not about winning the the hearts and minds of millions of Americans; it's about winning the select few hearts and minds that can get things accomplished.

PETA's form letter urging the NFL to suspend Michael Vick can be found here.

The Humane Society's letter can be found here.

The ASPCA's press release on the Vick indictment can be found here.


Tommbert said...

Even as a PETA member, I would agree with what you say. (That said, I suppose that makes me sort of a dissenting member. But anyway.)

I think the issues with PETA's methodology are at odds the way things work in the United States. That is, it's a geographical issue. Protesting is amazingly effective in Europe and PETA models itself after European organizations. However, as the world's leading capitalist country there's no better way to get something done in the U.S. than to pump money into lobbying, as you pointed out. It's pretty obvious that, regardless of the ethical aspect of paying for change, this is the most effective strategy for policy changes. PETA does that too, thank god--their headquarters are conveniently located next to D.C. in Alexandria, VA--or else they wouldn't get much of anything done. The problem with the way PETA protests is that it doesn't get any new supporters (necessarily--admittedly it has worked in very limited ways), and paints the organization as too radical for mainstream consumption.

I get their desire to protest. It's old-fashioned, feels grassroots, and references the great political struggles in history. Also, and admirably, they stick to their guns and don't compromise like lobbying might entail. At the same time, the way PETA goes about protesting makes it seem as if the main purpose is to keep the organization in the news, not make change--there's definitely the preaching to the converted aspect.

Where PETA's protests are most effective are on the small scale where the people involved are open to receiving the message, like when they protest cruel and obscure animal experiments on college campuses. Students don't want to pay a place to do that type of stuff, and the members of the community surrounding the school don't want their town hit with a stigma. When they protest something like the NFL--to what end? Nobody's going to stop watching the NFL because of the bad behavior of one player. Every player arrest before this proves that. It begs asking why target the NFL? It ain't their concern. A better strategy would be to send the protesters to his (and every other) dogfighting trial in the country. Jurors and communities there would be more easily swayed and there might be more people open to receiving the message.

At least when there is a group out there like PETA, it makes more reasonable pleas from other groups more effective; you can at least call yourself less radical than PETA. So there's a small gain there. At the same time, if PETA's goal is to become a more effective group for policy change, they would be better off rethinking their strategies and tailoring their protests to the situation. Blanketing every single associated organization--whether they're right (like with Michigan's ape torture) or wrong (like the NFL)--with the same silly protests seems like a waste of resources that could be better sent to the right place all the time.

Jon Sealy said...

Well said. I was thinking similar thoughts the other day when I stopped at a traffic light behind a guy in a big pickup truck. He had a bumper sticker that said, "Fight Terrorism." Reading that statement as a protest of sorts, I as the Joe Public audience, had the same reaction MBQ did towards the "Sack Vick" signs. I think I actually shouted in the direction of his rearview mirror, "I will! I will! What the hell do you want me to do?" Then I shouted to my passenger, "Who is this guy? Does he think I SUPPORT terrorism? Does he think I LIKE the idea of a building blowing up on me?"

The thing about protests, as Tom noted, is that they keep a name or a slogan in the news, but they don't actually do anything (though maybe the civil rights protests in the sixties were effective?). Lobbyists are a small group of organized people arguing to senators about issues that most of us don't care about. Or, if we do care, we're not goign to waste time on. Sure, I think we'd be better without semiautomatic weapons, but I've got enough stuff to keep me busy, thanks, until I or someone I know gets shot. And a group of anti-gun protestors on TV shouting "Down with uzis!" is likely to make me say, "Yeah!" and change the channel, because, really, what do they want me to do? I write to my senator once in a while, and vote when there's a genuine option (SC usually ends up with one big-name Republican on the ballot who will get 80% of the vote and two or three independents), but I don't care about that many things enough to spend my free time on them. That's the power of special interests.

Or maybe it comes down to the difference between conservatives and liberals. Cool-hearted conservatives can work slowly and carefully towards a goal that will most likely make them richer, and liberals get passionately caught up in an issue and can't take the time to be rational.

Tommbert said...

At least the satisfying thing in recent years has been the emergence of the not-so-cool-headed conservative. Let's not be too quick to discount the crazies that exist on both ends of the political spectrum. I would admit, however, that the historically, the protest is the fieldwork of liberal politics, of only because the conservatives are already, presumably, in the status quo. On the other hand, you still see protesters in front of Planned Parenthood and what not.