Violence, Protest, and Activism

Violence, Protest, and Activism November 1, 2018


Mural: Dothan Riot, 109 S. St. Andrews Street, Dothan, Alabama, Library of Congress

Undoubtedly, one of the most pernicious of derangements to corrupt the humanity of the biblical fundamentalist’s mind is the dogmatic belief that an impending worldwide war, the Apocalypse — from which only the True Believer is to be spared destruction followed by eternal anguish, despite whatever other noble qualities those of the “wrong” religious persuasion might possess — is something to be happily anticipated as “The Good News.” It is this cruel superstition that causes some evangelicals to merely nod with a gratified sense of vindication when word of war, famine, strife, and civic unrest reaches them. Through the proper interpretive filter, events that cause rational people to seek immediate tangible remedy are viewed by the faith-demented as inevitable preludes to the Lord’s return, precipitating prayer before resistance. In a culture indoctrinated into a future blueprint based upon the Book of Revelations, peace, cooperative pluralism, and stability are but disappointing prolongements away from the ultimate, glorious universal conclusion.

It is no wonder then, that the fundamentalist can often prove hostile to, or dismissive of, the actual “good news.” And there is good news, it turns out, for the rational, secular, and science-minded non-theist. News of such worldwide significance and universal importance to almost certainly qualify as “the” good news. It is this: general health, happiness, prosperity, safety, education, and peace are all on the rise while worldwide violence is on the decline. This isn’t, of course, the good news that the faith-deranged have in mind, but it is certainly more uplifting than the idea of a worldwide apocalypse from which only a pledge of fealty to a tyrant god might earn one respite, and it is supported by actual evidence, mountains of empirical data.

Addressing the United Nations in 2016, president Barack Obama stated, “if you had a choice of when to be born and you didn’t know ahead of time who you were going to be — what nationality, whether you were male or female, what religion — but you had said, ‘When in human history would be the best time to be born?’ — the time would be now.” Citing the global diminishment in war, rising life expectancy, and the triumphs of science against infectious diseases, Obama painted a picture of a state of human affairs that looks pretty good, and is getting better.

In contrast, Donald Trump, hardly one to consult facts before engaging in hyperbole, and certainly the more popular of the candidates among evangelicals, described the world as a “mess” during a 2017 White House news conference. Straining the limits of his eloquence, managing a rare episode of near-coherence, Trump elaborated:

“It’s crazy what’s going on,” […] “Whether it’s the Middle East or you look at — no matter where — Ukraine — whatever you look at, it’s got problems, so many problems.”

“Right now,” he concluded, “it’s nasty.”

Comprehensive global and historical data support Obama’s perception of world affairs, while the preferences of apocalyptic evangelicals who both embrace the End Times and resent human progress advanced outside of theocratic rule support Trump’s “vision.”

Unfortunately, however, it is not only biblical fundamentalists whose distorted perceptions cause them to reject or deny the good news of measurable human progress. Reasonable people all too often mistake data points or headline catastrophes for global trends. While the rise in progress is not a straight line, every dip on the graph can be viewed in-the-moment as a harbinger of the Great Decline.

Dr. Steven Pinker, who has meticulously catalogued global human progress in his two books, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011), and Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018) reports that he often encounters an odd hostility to his encouraging data from fellow intellectuals and progressives who seem desperately afraid that an acknowledgement of human progress will result in complacence toward pressing contemporary concerns. The counter-argument is that if we fail to recognize what does work, or what has worked in the past, we run the risk of repeating old errors and undoing some of the progress we take for granted today.

Replying to letters penned by doubtful readers who looked fondly upon the world of their childhood as a simpler and more peaceful environment than that of today, Pinker pointed out:

The world of fifty years ago for which [my critics] are apparently nostalgic was one in which half of Europe lived under Soviet totalitarianism; China was terrorized by Mao; Spain, Portugal, and most of Latin America and East Asia were ruled by fascist or military dictatorships; we lived in fear of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe and an all-out nuclear attack on America; the Vietnam war killed a quarter of a million soldiers and even more civilians; Richard Nixon was elected president; George Wallace won five states; women were confined to the kitchen; homosexuality was illegal; African American inner cities were in flames; newborns were expected to live to fifty-eight (today they will live to seventy-one); barely more than half the world was literate (today 83 percent are); and half lived in extreme poverty (today 10 percent do).

Addressing the concern that we are witnessing a backslide into fascism, Pinker notes that “[t]he lament ignores that many nations have been sliding toward democracy, and it forgets how many nations really were fascist and autocratic not so long ago. As I note in the book [Enlightenment Now], in 1971 the world had thirty-one democracies; in 1989, fifty-two; eighty-seven in 2009; and 103 in 2015; more than half the world’s nations, governing more than half its people.”

Again, there is a tendency to view such appeals to positive global trends as a justification for apathy, or at least inactivity, in regards to very real immediate concerns for social welfare, nascent autocracies, injustice, and inequality. On the contrary, we should remain vigilant and active in addressing these concerns, but, again, we should be fully aware of what has been working, and what has worked, when we devise the best approaches for doing so.

We have an evolutionary propensity to act upon false positives and view things somewhat pessimistically. The classic example is that of the hunter-gatherer who observes rustling tall grass and immediately assumes the presence of a stalking tiger. If the hunter climbs a tree only to thereafter determine the rustling was but a gust of wind, the hunter is none the worse off. The hunter-gatherer who mistakes the movements of a stalking tiger for a gust of wind, on the other hand, is likely to end up dead. Thus, the false positive assuming the presence of a tiger is assumed to have no real adverse effect… unless of course the hunter-gatherers band together in a massive deforestation effort, compromising their primary source of sustenance and shelter, based upon the misguided notion that they are besieged by an increasing number of tigers, when actually the tiger population has held stable or declined.

I find the deforestation scenario analogous to current calls for violent resistance emanating from protest movements. Ironically, Donald Trump’s election itself gave increased truth to his claim that the world is “nasty” and that “it’s got problems, so many problems.” The election of such a bald-faced self-serving, incompetent, narcissistic con man with disturbing support from White Nationalists comes as a crushing disappointment to those for whom the previous election of Barack Obama was thought to signal the beginning of a post-racial America. The disappointment quickly degenerated into despondent cries that “nothing has worked” in the fight for advancing Civil Rights in contemporary times, and that the only solution left is to confront the alt right, the fascists, with violence. As common as the claim that no nonviolent tactic has proven effective to reduce the rise of the nationalist right is the claim that fascists need be punched on sight because “some things are just that black and white.”

But, while it is evident — “black and white” — that we have a responsibility to fight to preserve Civil Rights, retain and advance the progress of the Rights Revolution, and resist loudly further erosion of our individual civic capacities, a blanket endorsement of violence against the opposition is quite a bit less black and white upon any amount of reasoned reflection. In individual circumstances, there are a lot of considerations to be made before one starts punching, even if it is to be taken as an established truth that punching faces is the most effective method in changing hearts and minds. Are you experienced in delivering punches, and are you prepared for the very likely probability that your punch will initiate the beginning of a fight, rather than the conclusive end? Who else’s safety might you be imperiling in the instigation of this fight? In announcing your sense of duty in meeting public congregations of the opposition with violence, is it possible that events will be contrived for the purpose of provoking you to violence so as to benefit your opposition in some way?

On a more macroscopic scale, the notion that only violence “works” isn’t borne out by the evidence. Erica Chenoweth, a Professor at Harvard Kennedy School and an expert upon insurgent movements and political violence dug into the data and found that “the world is proving Martin Luther King right about nonviolence,” meaning that “campaigns of nonviolent resistance [have] succeeded more than twice as often as their violent counterparts when seeking to remove incumbent national leaders or gain territorial independence.” Chenoweth writes:

“To many people, this conclusion may seem naive, but when we drilled into the data, we found that nonviolent resistance campaigns don’t succeed by melting the hearts of their opponents. Instead, they tend to succeed because nonviolent methods have a greater potential for eliciting mass participation — on average, they elicit about 11 times more participants than the average armed uprising — and because this is the source of major power shifts within the opponent regime. Mass participation that draws on diverse segments of society tends to empower and co-opt reformers while cutting off hard-liners from sources of support. When such participation is nonviolent, it increases the chances of pulling the regime’s support from the leadership, allowing security forces, economic elites and civilian bureaucrats to shift their loyalties with less fear of bloody retribution.

In other words, we found that nonviolent resistance is effective not necessarily because of its conversion potential but rather because of its creative, co-optive and coercive potential — a theory that Albert Einstein Institution founder Gene Sharp has articulated for decades. Naturally, not all nonviolent campaigns succeed. But in cases where they failed, there was no good systematic evidence to suggest that violent uprisings would have performed any better.”

As for using violence to shift opinions — either those of whom you’re employing violence against, or the public at large — corporal punishment has traditionally proven a very poor corrective for individuals, while public opinion is often likely to concern itself more with increasing law & order in response to violent protests, rather than concerning itself with the grievances of the violent actors. (Increased public concern for law & order is shown to benefit votes for Republican leadership.)

Fair enough, one might say, but the point is not to change regimes, change minds, or revise policies. The point is to punch fascists because they piss me off. Again, much depends on the case-by-case context in which these punches are delivered (in the cases where pro-punching enthusiasm extends itself into the real world beyond social media grandstanding), but so long as the activity is recognized as primarily self-indulgent, and it doesn’t immediately imperil bystanders and those upon whose behalf you’ve taken offense, I am not entirely unsympathetic to this punchy gusto. After all, who wouldn’t like to bounce their fist off the face of a loudmouth Klansman? The problem, however, is that in the current atmosphere of mindless social media-bound protest culture, the mandate to punch fascists appears to be mistaken as a movement, an agenda, activism, a political platform, and a remedy to our current Trump borne dysfunctions; the ultimate and only answer to the radical right. It is none of those things.

To those familiar with the Satanic Panic, the air of moral panic polluting some of the punch-happy fringe is apparent. Just as calling bullshit on supernatural or grossly improbable claims Satanic Ritual Abuse are often met with the accusation that the skeptic merely denies the existence of, or is secretly advocating for, sexual predators, questioning the value of violence, or defending the principle of Free Speech, is sure to elicit suspicion that one is simply less dedicated to the cause of Civil Rights, one’s sense of infuriated outrage is improperly calibrated, or one is hopelessly naive and unaware of the uniquely desperate times we currently find ourselves in. Thus, in criticizing the limited utility and counter-productive potential in the daily proposed punch-fests I find piling into the social media feeds, it is not uncommon I find myself indignantly lectured by a suburban middle class white guy (most often the case in my experience) apparently under the delusion that his struggle, as a self-appointed savior for the marginalized, exceeds that of Dr. Martin Luther King, who would likely be seen as intolerably centrist today. An advocate for Free Speech as well, King’s opinions currently are denigrated by our punchy friends as nothing short of alt right support.

(In fact, many of the segmented self-proclaimed punchers-in-defense-of-the-oppressed demonstrate an interesting propensity to do very little, or nothing at all, to address their obvious and stated enemies, but instead obsess over the delusion of hidden fascist infiltrators among them. These infiltrators, it seems, must be weeded out by recognizing their subtle differences of opinion and strategic disputes which reveal their hidden alt right sympathies. Thus, even as Mike Pence’s theocratic agenda moves forward, an alarming amount of the would-be opposition appears to be at war with itself — but that’s for another article.)

To be clear, I do not advocate for absolute pacifism as a moral principle. In cases of defense, and in cases where all other avenues have truly been exhausted, and in cases where tangible benefits — the cessation of abuse — are only achievable through martial engagement, one certainly should be faulted for not using any means necessary. But in all circumstances, violence should be the absolute last resort, if not for the benefit of airy moral ideals, then for the pragmatic fact that evidence better supports non-violent movements’ efficacy in achieving reform. From a standpoint of overall concern for human affairs, we should applaud and encourage the decline of violence worldwide.

In considering the best ways forward during this troubling time of rising theocracy, we would do well to listen to the data collected from previous eras of unrest and conflict to learn which tactics best suit our goals. To do that we will have to explore not only what has gone wrong, but what, till now, has gone right; and let us derive hope from the fact that despite some immediate setbacks, the momentum of history seems to be on our side.

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