October 3, 2022 - 12:15pm

If you thought “shitposting” was just a metaphor, think again. This week, a climate activist group poured human blood and faeces over a statue of Captain Tom, in protest at the continued existence of private jets. Nor is this the only recent incidence of dirty protest: a few weeks ago, trans activists left more than 60 bottles of human urine outside the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

It’s tempting to dismiss such stunts as perverse internet incentives at work, with the competition for clicks incentivising not just the best or truest voices but the most grotesque or extreme. But this would be a mistake. There are plenty of causes that don’t inspire adherents to extreme breaches of social norms, and where such breaches occur, we should take them seriously. Indeed, such ‘radical’ acts can succeed in moving the political needle.

Covering statues or public buildings in sewage doesn’t directly inspire people to agree with your cause. In what sense, then, could it be an effective strategy? Well, by comparison we might consider the role of violence in political or religious activism. For example, anti-Christian blasphemy remains common today, while anti-Muslim blasphemy is considerably rarer, even in the ostensibly secular West. This is because you stand a much greater chance of being stabbed, blown up, or otherwise at the sharp end of real-world violence for the latter.

As far as death and mayhem are concerned, Islamist violence and dirty protests by environmental or transgender activists are of course not in the same league. But considered as a breach of civil norms, throwing human effluent around is as profoundly taboo as physical violence, even if the consequences are less horrific for targets or bystanders. Both make a clear statement these adherents are so rabidly certain of their cause that they’re willing to breach every social norm in its pursuit, even absolutely basic ones like “don’t murder people” or “don’t throw blood and shit around in public places”.

And the side which just cares more will often prevail over time — in no small part because they’re willing to breach civil norms in order to win. Politics is a long game, and even violent rulebreakers can end up as political insiders over time: Sinn Féin, after all, no longer has a paramilitary wing, but some decades on from the Troubles it’s now the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly. While they’ve embraced more conventional politics, their cause is unchanged: yesterday the party announced they’re no longer “treading water” on pushing for a united Ireland.

We may be tempted to dismiss dirty protesters on trans or environmental issues simply as nutters. But while we may not like it, history suggests that in the long run, and especially in conjunction with more conventional campaigning, terrorism is often a remarkably effective political strategy.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.