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10 Woeful Attempts At Activism That Backfired Spectacularly

by Morris M.
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Activism is a useful thing. It ended segregation, helped shut down apartheid in South Africa, and boosted the cause of gay marriage. But not every attempt to make the world a better place is destined to be awesome. Sometimes, fighting for social change can wind up damaging your cause in the stupidest ways.

10Animal Liberation Front Releases An Invasive Species

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One night in 1998, activists from the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) crept onto a farm in the New Forest, England. Their goal was to save a group of 6,500 minks on the verge of being killed for their fur. Armed with wire cutters, they made holes in the fence and released the animals into the wild, where they’d be free to frolic as nature intended.

That was when the trouble really started.

Unlike other cute, four-legged mammals, minks aren’t known for their social skills, which is a polite way of saying they eat everything in sight. A handful can cause headaches for even the most seasoned farmer. In an army of 6,500, they can cause a mini-apocalypse.

No sooner were they freed than the minks went on a rampage, destroying valuable New Forest ecosystems. Guinea pigs, cats, chickens, and water voles all fell victim to the mink hordes, while local fisheries were badly endangered. Even worse, three incredibly rare owls housed in a local sanctuary were killed, as was a 14-year-old kestrel. In saving a gang of minks, the ALF had condemned thousands of other animals to a premature death.

Strangely, this fiasco didn’t seem to sway ALF. Later in the year, they released another 8,000 minks from a separate farm. Once again, chaos ensued.

9An Anti-Microaggression Display Is Labeled Aggressive

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In case you’re not up on your campus terminology, “microaggression” is when someone makes an offhand remark that offends someone else. At its least hysterical, it’s about making sure we know it’s not cool to ask a random black person if they’ve got any fried chicken or watermelon. At its craziest, it’s about ensuring that people literally can’t say the phrase “America is the land of opportunity.”

If that sounds confusing, you’re not alone. The politics of microaggressions are so tortured that even its proponents can’t agree on what shouldn’t be said. In some cases, this has led to protests against microaggression being broken up for being too microaggressive.

In April 2015, a group of Asian students at Brandeis University staged an installation to make people more aware of microaggression. Situated at the entrance to the Academic Hall, it included posters with “microaggressive” phrases, such as “Aren’t you supposed to be good at math?” and “I’m colorblind! I don’t see race!” Some other Asian students took one look at this and decided that the display itself was a form of microaggression.

The result was that the installation was shut down, and everyone involved was forced to apologize. The president of the Asian-American student association even had to write an email to everyone on campus, begging forgiveness from anyone “triggered or hurt by the content of the microaggressions.”

8A Female-Only Facebook ‘Safe Space’ Attacks Its Own Members

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In 2014, a serious new Facebook group was launched for female writers. Named “Binders Full of Women Writers” after Mitt Romney’s hilariously dumb comment, it aimed to create a safe space for professional women to network without fear of harassment.

By all accounts, it was pretty successful. Members were recruited from top newspapers, and best-selling authors came onboard. For a while, it was even regarded as a massive professional opportunity to get an invite. Then the harassment started.

Members began policing one another’s posts for evidence of non-politically correct words and phrases. When they found them, they would swoop in and attack. In one representative example, a writer from Los Angeles berated the forum at large for not showing high-enough levels of racial awareness. In the post, she referred to herself as a WOC (Woman of Color). When another member responded by lightheartedly calling herself “a gluten free Jewish WWC (Woman Without Color),” the board went ballistic. Post after post of angry accusations and all-caps swear words were piled on accusing the writer of racism.

According to New York magazine, this was just the start. Before long, anyone who didn’t toe an always-shifting PC line would get attacked, shouted down, and abused. By 2015, they claimed that the supposedly safe group had become “a kind of virtual mental prison.”

7An Anti–Gun Control Rally Ends With Six People Being Shot

Accidental Shooting at Raleigh Gun Show (Gun Appreciation Day)

It seems hard to imagine now, but in early 2013, gun rights were on the ropes. Obama had been re-elected, Sandy Hook had just happened, and people were desperate for some form of gun control. In response, a Republican consulting firm set up Gun Appreciation Day. Explicitly designed as a middle finger to gun control advocates, it was supposed to show the liberal elite that guns should be left completely unregulated. Instead, the opposite nearly happened.

People at the day’s rallies just would not stop shooting themselves. In Ohio, a gun dealer accidentally shot his friend though the arm. In Indianapolis, a guy almost blew his own hand off. In North Carolina, a shotgun accidentally discharged into a nearby crowd, sending three people to the hospital.

The carnage didn’t stop with gun day. A few days later, another guy attending a related event in Iowa sent a bullet through his hand. Although luckily no one died, the day almost wound up damaging the gun rights cause. As a direct result of the accidents, local papers like the New Jersey Star Ledger began campaigning for tighter gun control laws.

6A Protest Vote Helps Get The Wrong Candidate Elected

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The 2015 election was a bruising experience for Britain. Tensions between the left-leaning Labour party and right-wing Conservatives reached new lows as each side vilified the other in the press. Amid all this bitter recrimination, one unnamed member of the public stepped into their local voting station determined to file a protest vote. When they took their ballot into the booth, they drew a massive penis next to the Conservative candidate’s name. Incredibly, the local authority decided that this counted as a vote for the Conservatives.

Despite its outward fustiness, voting in the UK is actually somewhat relaxed. So long as you stay within the box provided, anything you draw will be taken as a sign of voting intention. In the 2014 European elections, one voter even wrote “wanker” next to every name except the SNP candidate, whom he labeled a “good guy.” The vote was accepted as valid.

Far from registering disgust with the system, the penis doodle went on to help the Conservative candidate win the election. Afterward, the re-elected MP even claimed that he would like to personally thank the person who drew it for ensuring his victory.

5Civilian Militia Groups Butt Heads With US Border Patrol Agents

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Every year, hundreds of thousands of people are apprehended trying to cross illegally from Mexico to the US. While this is the lowest rate seen in decades, a minority of right-wing activists are still determined to do something about it.

Since the mid-2000s, militia movements have flourished along the border as regular Joes try to stop illegal immigration with guns and intimidation. But frequently, their presence does more harm than good. Sometimes, they even stop real Border Patrol agents from doing their job.

In 2014, an agent was pursuing some migrants along the Texas border near the Rio Grande. Suddenly, he saw a man holding a rifle. He immediately dropped and squeezed off four shots at the guy before realizing that the man was a militia member out on patrol. Luckily, no one was hurt.

In another incident, a member of the Minutemen-offshoot Arizona Special Operations Group was patrolling 130 kilometers (80 mi) north of the border when he bumped into a sheriff’s deputy. Rather than simply pass him by, the militiaman decided that the deputy was a drug smuggler and turned his AR-15 on him. When the deputy pointed at his badge, he refused to lower the gun, causing the Maricopa County Sheriff to later remark that the militiaman was “lucky he didn’t see 30 rounds fired into him.” The case also resulted in the Minutemen losing significant support from law enforcement, hurting their own cause.

4A DDOS Attack On A Feminist Website Hugely Increases Their Traffic

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You’ve probably never heard of feminist website Femsplain. A website with a mission to “change the dialogue of what it’s like to be a woman,” they pull in a tiny 250,000 unique users a month. However, their small status wasn’t enough to keep them off the radar of anti-feminist activists. On International Women’s Day, a group of protesters hit Femsplain with a DDOS attack, knocking it offline.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, a DDOS attack basically floods a website’s servers, meaning that no one can access it. They’re used by everyone from Anonymous to the Chinese government and can cause a loss of visitors and revenue. In the case of Femsplain, though, the opposite happened. The protesters’ attack wound up wildly boosting their traffic.

When word got out about Femsplain being taken offline, it became a cause celebre. Twitter activists rushed to spread the word. One prominent science blogger recommended it to all 370,000 of his followers. By the end of the day, millions more people knew about this tiny website than would ever have heard of it otherwise. In effect, the anti-feminist activists wound up promoting feminism.

3Campus Trigger Warnings May Wind Up Damaging Mental Health

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“Trigger warnings” are yet another way activists have dramatically changed modern campus life. Whereas 20 years ago you’d be expected to read The Great Gatsby on a literature course, now the professor is expected to issue the book with a warning because of a scene where Tom Buchannan hits his lover. The theory is that survivors of domestic abuse might find the scene “triggering” and experience emotional distress.

At the stupidest end of the scale, Greek and Roman classics have been given warnings because they deal with “histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, (that) can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.” Censorious as this is, it’d be one thing if it worked. But it doesn’t. There’s evidence that trigger warnings may actually increase mental and emotional problems.

The most obvious issue is that they encourage avoiding a problem. If you have a painful memory in your past, pretty much the worst thing you can do is avoid everything associated with it. To conquer your fears you need to face them through slow, limited exposure. Having your anxieties reinforced will only make them worse.

On top of that, it’s theorized that living in this hyper-sensitive environment may actually cause previously healthy students to develop anxiety disorders. By seeking to shield students from any emotional trauma whatsoever, activists may well have ensured that they’ll never be mentally healthy.

2Literary Activists Free a Murderer, He Immediately Murders Again

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Photo credit: Carl Van Vechten

We’ve told you before how Norman Mailer was kind of a scumbag. We even briefly touched on his relationship with convicted murderer Jack Abbott. But the full story is crazy enough to deserve its own airing.

We need to start by going back in time to 1963. After a childhood spent in and out of detention centers, 19-year-old Jack Abbott had just been arrested for forging checks. Sentenced to five years, he was thrown in the Utah State Penitentiary. It was there that he graduated from petty crime to big league stuff. In 1966, he stabbed a fellow inmate to death, earning himself an extra 20 years. In 1971, he broke out and robbed a savings and loan while armed. Rearrested, he was given an additional 19 years.

Despite all this, Abbott had one saving grace: He could write. In 1979, he started a correspondence with Mailer, provisionally so Mailer could find out about life on the inside. But Abbott’s writing was so impressive that they quickly forgot about that. Sensing a misunderstood soul, Mailer made it his life’s work to get Abbott out of prison.

Since he was a convicted murderer, this wasn’t easy. Mailer and some of his literary friends campaigned like crazy, getting Abbott’s stuff published in the New York Review of Books. They offered him jobs and gave him fat book contracts. Mailer took responsibility for him. In the end, the parole board agreed to release him, and in June 1981, Abbott was paroled.

One month later, the inevitable happened. After getting drunk in a restaurant, Abbott got into an argument with the waiter. He ended up stabbing the guy to death in a fit of rage. Far from being a misunderstood soul, it turned out that Abbott was simply a psychopath.

1A Pro-Palestine Boycott Costs Hundreds of Palestinian Jobs

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If you follow news about Israel, you’ll have heard of BDS. Short for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, BDS calls on consumers to stop buying Israeli goods produced on Palestinian land. The idea is that the economic pressure will force Tel Aviv to stop the settlements, leading to a two-state solution where everyone’s happy.

There’s only one problem with this line of thinking. When companies pull out of the Palestinian territories, it’s the Palestinians who suffer.

In 2014, soft drink company SodaStream found itself on the end of BDS activists’ ire. Owned by Israelis and with a factory operating in the West Bank, it seemed like the perfect target. Protests were called, people were urged not to buy their products, and a PR campaign set up to smear the company name. Eventually, SodaStream capitulated. The factory was closed, and the company moved out of the West Bank. They took hundreds of Palestinian jobs with them.

While BDS activists felt they’d struck a blow for the Palestinian cause, the reality was that several hundred Palestinians suddenly found themselves out of work. Even worse, it turned out that SodaStream was a pretty decent employer. They paid between three and five times the average West Bank wage and were said to have treated their Palestinian workers with basic dignity. When the activists forced the company to leave, all these perks vanished with them.

fact checked by Jamie Frater
Morris M.

Morris M. is Listverse's official news human, trawling the depths of the media so you don't have to. He avoids Facebook and Twitter like the plague.