Study: How Protesters Become Violent.

By Harper's Weekly [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In October 2016, I wrote a piece about the WUO (the Weather Underground Organisation), a group of far-left domestic terrorists, and I quoted Brian Flanagan, one of the members of the group, saying that “when you feel that you have right on your side, you can do some horrific things.” I talked about a connection the modern left felt to the protest movement of the 60s, but without as much cause, and I asked if it was possible that a new group like the WUO could form, and I believe that Antifa (or Anti-fascists) is that group.

Even though I would like to focus this article on the left-wing, the antifa of UC Berkeley, who recently beat and pepper-sprayed audience members there to see a speech by right-wing editor Milo Yiannopoulos; one of whom, according to a student, was beaten so hard he suffered broken ribs even through a Kevlar vest; even though I would like to discuss how the left has turned its back on free speech, or at least the fringe “anti-fascists” who can’t see the irony of silencing alternative points of view, this is more than just a partisan issue. There are members of both sides who commit violence for political aim, and in any protest there are risks of rioting (although this in no way excuses what happened in Berkeley), so what is it that leads people into acts of political violence, and is it ever acceptable?

The Origin of Violence:

1. The Intensity of Moral Standing.

James M. Jasper in the Annual Review of Sociology, 2011, wrote about the connection between “Emotions and Social Movements”. He writes about what he calls ‘affective loyalties’, an admiration or ‘cognitive appraisal’ of another person or object. It is said that people in the modern day are more impressed by virtues of celebrity than they are by intellectual virtues, and if that be the case I would argue that maybe what we’re seeing is a quasi-religious alignment to what was once called a “role model”. First of all think about that phrasing in itself, “this is the model for what your role should be,” and so people attach themselves to these people not as admiration so much, but as adoration, and the desire to be like this person. The power of celebrity opinions over people’s political beliefs may not have as much effect as celebrities want them to but they do have an effect. In this sense it could be argued that a sort of cult-ish desire to be seen on the same side as a celebrity you adore can lead to a heightened emotional connection with a certain argument, although I would argue that it would take more than this for it to become violent (despite celebrities like David Harbour from Stranger Things promoting violence at SAG, or Madonna talking about blowing up the White House).

Jasper continues his analysis by talking about the power of moral emotions, which “involve feelings of approval or disapproval based on moral institutions and principles, as well as satisfactions we feel when we do the right (or wrong) thing” (p2). So maybe on a base psychological level, as we may desire approval from a parental figure, and formerly from a religious institution, we have assigned the role of moral guardian to those we adore on a celebrity level, intensifying an already emotional connection by affective loyalty.

Although you would not necessarily have to tie this concept to celebrity, any form of competing collective solidarities like the left versus the right involves a moral guardian. Without religion, or a rational proof of secular ethics, or a government for whom morality can be dictated by (thankfully), we may instinctively attach an invisible moral guide to any scenario, by need of one. In other words, everyone may attach a moral figure, who may not exist, to their arguments (which is why logic never seems to intervene in what is “right or wrong”) the survival of whom holds priority over the discovery of fact. In that sense, every time we have an argument we are defending the existence of our moral guides where to be proven wrong has a far more detrimental effect on a person’s psychology than just to change their minds. It becomes a war of morals.

Or maybe an argument has a sort of “good son” effect, where two sides argue over, in space of any identifiable set of demands, “what father wants”.

2. Under Threat: Shame, Pride, and Anxiety.

Outlined by Jaspers collection of research, Scheff (1994) indicates that “pride generates and signals a secure bond, just as shame generates and signals a threatened bond.” This, I guess, would be where arguments form on the basis of guilt. The “if you don’t agree with me, you are a bad person” position, often held by the left, who have been placed on such a proud hierarchy they struggle now to contemplate the idea that any loss to them is a loss at all, and not an evil takeover by the other side. In other words, to lose generates such a fall from grace, such a shame, that the threat can lead to a strong moral shock. Could this be an instigator to violence? We know that according to a field study by Miller and Krosnick (of Minnesota and Ohio State) in 2004, threat is a higher cause of political activism than opportunity. They offered different versions of a letter by a political lobbying organisation to potential contributers, one threatening an undesired policy, another showing opportunity for a desired policy and a lot more contributed under the threat letter than the opportunity. We know therefore the power of threat on political action, but is it enough of a shock to form violence out of protest?

Consider when it is combined with anxiety. According to Jasper, anxiety is generated “when norms are violated; the more they are violated, and the more strategically central those norms to people, then the greater the anxiety” (p7). So maybe political violence can be the result of the shame of losing moral superiority, and the threat of immoral takeover, combined with an anxiety or an aversion to change. The WUO may not have fit in that category, given it was the change, but in today’s politics the pendulum has swung over to the other side. Liberalism is the norm, and conservatism/libertarianism is the change, and we know how violently some of the establishment conservatives reacted against leftists in the 1960s. In that sense, maybe parties have nothing to do with it, maybe it is all about power. But of course, given the WUO this can only be one of several motivators.

3. The Strategic Trap of Stigma.

Another point raised by Jasper in 2010, outlying a position by Gamson 1995, is that “movements by stigmatised groups face a strategic dilemma: they are trying to remove the group stereotypes or even the very categories, that shame them, yet they use these same identities to mobilize supporters.” You can apply this problem to real world examples on both the left and the right. Some student conservatives feel their ability to express their political views are being stunted by pro-liberal campuses or lecturers and will see themselves as stigmatised. They want to remove this stigma, but can only do so by convincing others that it exists. On the left too, feminists, or black lives matter who consider themselves stigmatised must prove this fact to others in order to gather support. It may be a stretch, but it is possible that, maybe even unconsciously, some of these groups know that violence begets violence and that if they have to instigate it so that they can blame and use examples of violence from the opposition to gain supporters, they will do. This would be the trap of needing stigma more than wanting to remove it, so much so they will fight to create it against themselves.

We know that many in the media after UC Berkeley for example suggested that the violence by Antifa on the left was actually right-wing agitators. If this is true, it proves the above point, if it is not true, it proves the above point.

Acceptability and Aftermath:

1. Violence by Scale.

Personally, I don’t believe it is ever acceptable to instigate violence in any scenario, political or otherwise (violence for self defence etc. I do not consider an instigation). However, it becomes a tricky subject when discussing violence that is met with greater violence. Neither is morally acceptable, but which is more excusable, the greater violence in response? or the initial violence which may have been small? Equally I think motive plays an important factor in this too. During the Guatemalan protests between 1954 and the early 1980s, specifically in Chupol, the insurgency was met with greater military violence to combat it. According to O’Kane, of the Political Studies Review, “the purpose of the brutal defeat… was to preserver the old order of power and privileges.” So, as a moral exercise, which was more acceptable? Were the military correct to meet violence with violence in self defense, even if it was in favour of an arguably totalitarian regime? Were the people right to enact violence in the first place if there was no direct violence attributed to them first? Is the greater violence by the military worse than the initial violence by the insurgents? To be clear, in this real case I think it could be argued easily that the insurgents were acting on self defense but at face value, if the only problem was  “power and privilege” is the violence acceptable? If it is, then violence on the left has been legitimised since the left wing, from feminists to black lives matter, have been framing western societies as imbalanced on power and privilege for a long time now (more frequently in the last few years).

The question over whether that claim was true then or is true now is irrelevant, if people believe it to be true, that we are living in an unequal society (by opportunity), then to accept that as a moral motive to political violence is to give people reason to commit it on the left right now, and whenever it is believed and believed falsely. It sets a precedent, where violence can be recruited by persuading people into victim-hood, an easy thing to do.

2. An Obsession with Conspiracy.

Timothy Tackett, a historian writing about the French revolution, writes:

“ON THE MORNING OF MAY 23, 1792, in the third year of the French Revolution, Jacques-Pierre Brissot and Armand Gensonne climbed to the rostrum to address the National Assembly. In successive speeches, the two deputies revealed the existence of a terrifying plot to destroy the Assembly and the revolution itself. The whole was masterminded by the “Machiavellian” Austrian minister, Prince Wenzel Von Kaunitz, but it was coordinated in France by a shadowy “Austrian Committee” of the king’s closest advisers, and it was said to be responsible for almost all the ills besetting the new French regime: the disappointing results of the recently declared war, the counterrevolutionary movements in the countryside, and even the divisions within the Assembly itself.”

This, outlining the attempt by the Assembly to whip up conspiracy in the time of a revolution is incredibly prevalent today. With the conspiracy of “Russian Hacking” and Putin-led propaganda, to the aforementioned “right-wing agitators”, it seems like a tactic of political movements who currently hold power, perhaps out of fear of losing it or the previously described anxiety, fall upon conspiracy to explain their loss, often tied to the notion of an “evil uprising”, again substantiating my earlier point. So the question is, why? It could be an attempt to salvage what dignity they have and to avoid the throes of shame, pushing their own supporters to the opposition, equally it could be a way to manipulate their supporters into radicalization. Or perhaps just a way to delegitimise their enemies. Either way, even in defeat, “Ideologies must portray the movement as having history on its side – but only in the end, someday” (Voss, 1996).

Tackett quotes Lynn Hunt, “the obsession with conspiracy became the central organizing principle of French revolutionary rhetoric. The narrative of Revolution was dominated by plots.” And I think the notion of ‘plot’ in political thinking is underestimated. In every story there are the good and bad, the moral and immoral, and so much dominated by fiction today, I think it makes sense a deep rooted aversion to be seen as the villain, and not the hero, to any degree that even in defeat it is a tragedy where the hero has lost. So I suppose what you have are different people fighting as their own protagonists, unable to see that these are just different perspectives. Can even literature be blamed for that? Fantasy, superhero movies over more complex and non-moral or mythical storytelling? If so, perhaps it is not about power, or ideology, but about culture.

If you have any other thoughts or ideas about the underlying roots of political violence, or disagree with something I’ve argued leave a comment down below, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.