“We activate audiences around things that matter.”

That’s Black Sheep’s descriptor, the thing we care the most about: motivating people to take action. 

But along with that goal comes a question, one that we revisit constantly, and in a million shapes and forms: Why do people do Things? Things with a capital “T.” The Things that matter. Not the reasons we peel dried glue or experience l’appel du vide, but the Things we deem important enough to make noise in the universe for.

As part of our series on activism, we’re asking this question about one very specific (and, lately, plentiful) phenomenon: the protest. 

When I first started to consider the reasons to protest, I had a theory in mind. I figured the decision to attend a protest was something akin to the reasons people get involved in punk rock: A little bit of unrest. A little bit of rebellion. Maybe a light chaos addiction or a little bit of an urge to set the world on fire and then watch it burn. Protests interest me because they’re a rebellion—much like a lot of counterculture. Taking on the man and all that. 

But the more I (very un-scientifically) asked around, the more I realized that I was in the minority with this whole watch-the-world-burn theory. It didn’t account for any of the most-cited reasons of other people I talked to, at least according to them. (This is also where I realize most of my friends are better people than I am.)

According to social psychologists, the first step in choosing to attend a protest is, quite simply, having a grievance. This seems obvious. I mean, it IS obvious—in order to protest, one must have something to protest. But not everyone with a grievance becomes a protestor; in fact, most don’t.

The next “filter” they say brings about participation in a protest: Efficacy. Believing in your own efficacy means believing you can affect change through your behavior and decisions. Interestingly enough, most people do not believe their attendance in a protest brings about change, but they do believe people in large numbers can affect change in a broader sense. This is called the “paradox of persistent participation.” Weird.

In more recent years, we’ve begun to be more aware of the roles of identity and emotion in protest participation. Identity, how you see yourself, informs what we care about and what we can see ourselves doing. Are we the kinds of people who would carry a protest sign? More importantly, do we share an identity with a group receiving unjust treatment? As far as emotions are concerned, are we MAD about the injustice? Or sad? Or worried enough to be motivated?

Filter five: Social embedded-ness. Do I have enough faith in the communities I belong to and in my social capital that I am confident participating in something as out-of-the-ordinary as a protest? And will people like me be there?

In the classic style of, well, all humans ever, we’re all motivated by different reasons. Everything from being able to get a ride to a protest (the sixth and very logistical filter, mobilization) to the ultra-trendy virtue signaling that comes with being noticed as someone who cares. But the one I find the most interesting is posited by the same social psychologists cited above: Protest participation “strengthens identification and induces collective empowerment.” 

Protests don’t save lives or write legislation or make money—but people do. And people become empowered to take action in OTHER ways when we identify as part of a group. That’s why we protest—to become a part of the dominant out-group, to identify as “the opposition,” to join the ever-romanticized underdogs. And collective empowerment achieves the results protests don’t.

We don’t protest because we believe it will effect immediate change, or because protests ever have. It turns out we DO protest so we can watch the world burn. It’s just more about watching it burn…together.

We’d love to know: What’s your motivation (or lack thereof) for attending protests? What has your experience been? Did you get a good Instagram photo? /s