The last straw?

Professor Neil Verrall on evolving forms of protest.

The recent incidents of ‘milkshaking’ have generated some debate about its place within protest and activism; but does this behaviour constitute ‘non-violent’ direct action or does it begin to normalise such behaviours whereby the ends justify the means?

Research into protest and activist behaviour often refers to normative and non-normative behaviours, whereby normative behaviour tends to be legal, peaceful and non-violent (e.g. petitions, sit-ins, boycotts, strikes, marches), and non-normative behaviour is more extreme and tends to stray into more violent and/or criminal behaviour (e.g. trespass, sabotage, and at worst case, domestic terrorism).

Despite methodological criticisms of seminal studies such as Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment and Milgram’s electric shock conformity study, the issue of ‘moral drift’ is still of contemporary relevance and importance. In his 2017 book The Anti-Fascist Handbook Mark Bray highlights how the Antifa community justify extreme behaviours such a ‘doxxing’ (investigating people online – legally or via hacking – and leaking information about them with malicious intent) as well as the use of direct violence (‘In truth, violence represents a small though vital sliver of anti-fascist activity’). For some activists the ends do indeed justify the means.

Acts including modern forms of iconoclasm and the perceived airbrushing of history (e.g. #RhodesMustFall), ‘hactivism’, and cyber-attacks, along with milkshaking, may be seen as non-physical and non-violent, but are they? Incidents of doxxing have been linked to sackings from jobs, family break-ups and even suicide. The effects are certainly tangible and negative, intended or otherwise. We should not fall into the trap of believing that extreme expressions of activist behaviour are consigned to history and that we are more enlightened and superior in the modern age.

Our socio-politics appear to be drifting to the extremes (left and right), so we must be cautious that our behaviours do not undergo a similar drift and become more extreme or violent. The societal standard we walk past is the societal standard we are willing to accept; and if we accept milkshaking as non-violent and high jinks then what is next?

Professor Neil Verrall FBPsS

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber