Banning broccoli? You protest too much

The censorious clicktivists desperately searching for new causes to ‘like’ and products to ban are doing more harm than good.

A few days ago, a call for urgent action pinged into my email inbox. Something had to be done, I was told, about the scandal of broccoli being sold in Waitrose and Sainsbury’s. Broccoli as a political issue, I thought? How very 1990s.

This type of broccoli was being opposed not because there was anything unusual about it, nor because it was diseased, or riddled with radiation. Instead the problem was that it was marketed to the chain stores by Monsanto, a biotech company the protesters who wrote the email held in very low regard. It wasn’t even that the broccoli was genetically modified – a technique that eco-campaigners have often attacked Monsanto for. Instead, as the email message made very clear, ‘although the Bellaverde [broccoli] isn’t a GMO product, it is “conventionally bred” by the biotech company that co-created Agent Orange and just last year won Natural Society’s award for “Worst Company in the World”’.

So, in sum, no complaints had been received about the broccoli by either of the supermarkets and there had been no health concerns. But someone (in Portsmouth, as it happened) was shocked, nonetheless, that such ‘conventionally bred’ broccoli was being sold by a company he disliked, so he sent out a rallying call to bombard Waitrose and Sainsbury’s with calls to withdraw it from sale.

This email was just the latest in a regular stream of messages from campaigning organisations, such as 38Degrees, Care2 and Change.org, to which curiosity initially made me subscribe many months ago, but whose choice of subject matter now appears to be scattergun and more than a little plastic in its sincerity.

There was a time when - perhaps unlike the broccoli – campaigns were organic. Everyone reading this will have heard or read about local groups opposed to anything from the closure of a local library to the opening of a drive-thru McDonald’s. Sometimes, single-interest campaigners won a seat in parliament, or even a Nobel Prize, but – whether you agreed with their cause or not – the one quality which made even the more modest of them potentially laudable was that they felt deeply about their protest and were respected for it.

With the advent of professional, online, politically motivated rabble-rousers, the age of the heartfelt campaigner dedicated to bring about change looks to be coming to an end, in favour large-net trawling for causes to pump out in daily bulletins.

Whether it be demanding green messages be placed in Hollywood films; petitioning on behalf of Malian refugees; urgently requiring animals to be banned from circuses; saving the Arctic; objecting to legal tax avoidance; calling for email bombs to force Swiss theme parks to stop using performing dolphins; or banning broccoli – on these online sites you can find someone who’s hopping mad about it.

If short of an idea, there is always the ‘suggest a cause’ page on a campaigning website, inviting all and sundry to put forward their personal gripes which, as long as they agree with the general ideology of the site, will be embraced and broadcast. This, presumably, is how an email ended up being sent out to thousands of people, including me, encouraging people to support denying the vast majority of the public a natural vegetable on the grounds that someone on the south coast doesn’t like something else the company that produces it is involved with.

At times, the groups themselves aren’t even sure exactly what they should be objecting to. The government’s proposal for a cull of badgers, for example, created somewhat of a dilemma for 38Degrees. Were they to rally their troops to protest against the cull, or to protect cows which reportedly suffer tuberculosis due to the diseases contracted from badgers?

Not at all dissuaded by the fact that they collectively held no burning conviction either way, ignoring the subject wasn’t an option. So they held a poll, after which – despite differing opinions – they decided they were now deeply angry about the cull and it was most urgent that their readers write to their MP and petition and scream from the rooftops about it.

Where once protests came from the heart, now we see dogmatic agitators desperately searching for causes to present to readers. At the click of a mouse, readers’ mild disapproval is turned into righteous outrage after being presented with a menu of options delivered to their inbox on a regular basis. In the place of respected and genuine campaigners of old, we now have one-stop hypermarkets of politically righteous causes; an objection multiplex for the minority aggrieved.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with having a view on something. But the tone has been transformed by these cause-aggregating sites. Think-tanks, commentators and sections of the press have always long sought to influence opinion one way or another by way of commentary or recommendations. Where the new campaigning websites depart from this approach is the change from passive-aggressive to outright authoritarian insistence.

The objection to Monsanto broccoli pulls no punches. It seeks not to promote a voluntary boycott, but instead to force the withdrawal of the product. It skips past moral suasion and moves straight to the endgame. It is of no concern to the campaigning organisation that the overwhelming majority don’t share their point of view - it still demands that its own minority view should prevail.

It could be argued, as I’m sure these sites would do, that there is some kind of empowerment in action here. However, there is something very disposable and anti-social about the whole process they have involved themselves in.

It is debatable whether the constant stirring-up of trouble where none previously existed can be advantageous for society as a whole, while incessant calls for action over sometimes quite trivial subject matter must surely lead, at some point, to protest fatigue which detracts from truly important issues. Additionally, it is increasingly clear that many of the causes promoted are judged successful only if they restrict, or curtail entirely, the liberties or enjoyment of others.

When demanding a disinterested public is denied a few florets of broccoli is considered important, you just know that these campaigners have too much time on their hands, and very little concern for those who don’t share their unconditional ideology.

Martin Cullip is a columnist for the Free Society.

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