Violent rhetoric and violent behavior

Is there a possible causal relationship between an increasing occurrence of violent political rhetoric in broadly available media channels and the occurrence of violent political behavior?   How would a social scientist investigate this hypothetical relationship?   (Here is a pretty worrisome timeline of events, statements, and actions over the past several years involving violent rhetoric against the government and violent actions.)

Much of the debate since the Tucson shootings has focused on what seems like the wrong question: was there a direct influence from the extremist rhetoric of the past two years to the violent actions of this particular assailant?  Sometimes the answer to this kind of question is “yes” — Timothy McVeigh was directly inspired by the violent ideas and passions associated with the right-wing militia movement.  But the harder question is that of indirect and diffused influence: is it possible for a pattern of virulent media communications to create a culture of violent attitudes that leads through indirect mechanisms to political violence directed against individuals and institutions?

In order to think carefully about this set of issues, we need to think through the ways in which individuals are led to commit violent actions.  We might model the potentially violent person along these lines: Anger and hatred are emotional states that motivate violent attacks. Social inhibitions and processes of self-control work in most people to inhibit acting on hateful, violent impulses. Some social and physiological influences have the effect of weakening inhibitions. Individuals are most likely to engage in violence when hateful emotions are strongest and inhibitions are weakest. They are most likely to direct violence against symbols or representatives of the object of their anger and hatred.

Media and public discourse can affect each of these three factors. Angry speech can increase feelings of anger in the listener. It can focus angry impulses towards a specific group. And it can lower inhibitions by positively valorizing Violent action. “Your peers will admire you for taking action; other people have done so too. You are justified.”

We might model the media ranters as involved in a game of escalation, competing against each other for greater shock value and virulent language. They have an interest in generating a committed audience, and they are competing with other voices for that audience. They have an interest in escalation.  “Shock radio” is intended to shock.

It doesn’t appear that direct psychological research has yet been done on this question.  But there is a related question that has been very extensively studied, and that is the effect of dramatized television violence on children’s propensity for aggression.  It appears that there is fairly strong evidence in the social psychology and developmental psychology literatures for a causal link between exposure to television violence in children and increased aggression.  Here is a paper in Developmental Psychology by L. Rowell Huesmann, Jessica Moise-Titus, Cheryl-Lynn Podolski, and Leonard Eron (link), where the authors find a significant link between childhood exposure to TV violence and adult aggression.

Over the past 40 years, a body of literature has emerged that strongly supports the notion that media-violence viewing is one factor contributing to the development of aggression. The majority of empirical studies have focused on the effects of watching dramatic violence on TV and film. Numerous experimental studies, many static observational studies, and a few longitudinal studies all indicate that exposure to dramatic violence on TV and in the movies is related to violent behavior (Huesmann & Miller, 1994; Huesmann, Moise, & Podolski, 1997). Furthermore, a substantial body of psychological theory has developed explaining the processes through which exposure to violence in the mass media could cause both short- and long-term increases in a child’s aggressive and violent behavior (Bandura, 1977; Berkowitz, 1993; Eron, 1963; Huesmann, 1988, 1998; Zillmann, 1979). Long-term effects with children are now generally believed to be primarily due to long-term observational learning of cognitions (schemas, beliefs, and biases) supporting aggression (Berkowitz, 1993; Huesmann, 1988, 1998), whereas short-term effects with adults and children are recognized as also due to priming (Huesmann, 1998), excitation transfer (Zillmann, 1983), or imitation of specific behaviors. Most researchers of aggression agree that severe aggressive and violent behavior seldom occurs unless there is a convergence of multiple predisposing and precipitating factors such as neurophysiological abnormalities, poor child rearing, socioeconomic deprivation, poor peer relations, attitudes and beliefs supporting aggression, drug and alcohol abuse, frustration and provocation, and other factors. The evidence is already substantial that exposure to media violence is one such long-term predisposing and short-term precipitating factor. The current longitudinal study adds important additional empirical evidence that the effects of childhood exposure to media violence last into young adulthood and increase aggressive behavior at that time for both males and females. (201)

And here is a 2003 article from Psychological Science in the Public Interest by Anderson, Berkowitz, Donnerstein, Huesmann, Johnson, Linz, Malamuth and Wartella summarizing research leading to similar conclusions (link).  Here is their abstract:

Summary—Research on violent television and films, video games, and music reveals unequivocal evidence that media violence increases the likelihood of aggressive and violent behavior in both immediate and long-term contexts. The effects appear larger for milder than for more severe forms of aggression, but the effects on severe forms of violence are also substantial (r = .13 to .32) when compared with effects of other violence risk factors or medical effects deemed important by the medical community (e.g., effect of aspirin on heart attacks). The research base is large; diverse in methods, samples, and media genres; and consistent in overall findings. The evidence is clearest within the most extensively researched domain, television and film violence. The growing body of video-game research yields essentially the same conclusions.

Short-term exposure increases the likelihood of physically and verbally aggressive behavior, aggressive thoughts, and aggressive emotions. Recent large-scale longitudinal studies provide converging evidence linking frequent exposure to violent media in childhood with aggression later in life, including physical assaults and spouse abuse. Because extremely violent criminal behaviors (e.g., forcible rape, aggravated assault, homicide) are rare, new longitudinal studies with larger samples are needed to estimate accurately how much habitual childhood exposure to media violence increases the risk for extreme violence.

Well-supported theory delineates why and when exposure to media violence increases aggression and violence. Media violence produces short-term increases by priming existing aggressive scripts and cognitions, increasing physiological arousal, and triggering an automatic tendency to imitate observed behaviors. Media violence produces long-term effects via several types of learning processes leading to the acquisition of lasting (and automatically accessible) aggressive scripts, interpretational schemas, and aggression-supporting beliefs about social behavior, and by reducing individuals’ normal negative emotional responses to violence (i.e., desensitization).

Certain characteristics of viewers (e.g., identification with aggressive characters), social environments (e.g., parental influences), and media content (e.g., attractiveness of the perpetrator) can influence the degree to which media violence affects aggression, but there are some inconsistencies in research results. This research also suggests some avenues for preventive intervention (e.g., parental supervision, interpretation, and control of children’s media use). However, extant research on moderators suggests that no one is wholly immune to the effects of media violence.

Recent surveys reveal an extensive presence of violence in modern media. Furthermore, many children and youth spend an inordinate amount of time consuming violent media. Although it is clear that reducing exposure to media violence will reduce aggression and violence, it is less clear what sorts of interventions will produce a reduction in exposure. The sparse research literature suggests that counter-attitudinal and parental-mediation interventions are likely to yield beneficial effects, but that media literacy interventions by themselves are unsuccessful.

Though the scientific debate over whether media violence increases aggression and violence is essentially over, several critical tasks remain. Additional laboratory and field studies are needed for a better understanding of underlying psychological processes, which eventually should lead to more effective interventions. Large-scale longitudinal studies would help specify the magnitude of media-violence effects on the most severe types of violence. Meeting the larger societal challenge of providing children and youth with a much healthier media diet may prove to be more difficult and costly, especially if the scientific, news, public policy, and entertainment communities fail to educate the general public about the real risks of media-violence exposure to children and youth. (81)

Significantly, both reviews single out mechanisms that appear relevant to hateful and violent language by widely disseminated media commentators.  Here are some of the important psychological mechanisms cited in these two survey articles:

 

  • long-term observational learning of cognitions (schemas, beliefs, and biases) supporting aggression
  • imitation of specific behaviors
  • priming existing aggressive scripts and cognitions
  • increasing physiological arousal
  • triggering an automatic tendency to imitate observed behaviors
  • reducing individuals’ normal negative emotional responses to violence (i.e., desensitization)

These articles seem to go some ways towards framing an answer to the question posed above: can exposure to violent speech in the media create indirect causal influences leading to more violent behavior by individuals?  The psychological literature appears to support the plausible prior belief that exposure to extreme and violent language in the political media can make individuals somewhat more disposed to aggressive behavior.   And this effect doesn’t need to proceed through the direct “true believer” mechanism; virtually everyone who has a television or a computer is exposed to this kind of speech, and the literature suggests broad and diffused effects on behavior as a result.

Here are a few possible mechanisms that seem relevant today when we consider the possible causal connections from over-the-top political rhetoric to the occurrence of acts of political violence:

  • Exposure to violent language directly motivates some individuals to become “true believer” violent actors.
  • Exposure to violent language causes some unstable individuals to focus their aggression against a specific range of targets.
  • Exposure to violent language gradually reduces inhibitions against violence, leading to more readiness to commit violent acts.
  • Exposure to violent language influences groups and networks of individuals to be more favorable to the use of violence.

So these seem to be fairly strong empirical reasons for being very concerned about the inflammatory language that has become increasingly common in political discourse and media rants.  The issue isn’t simply the value of political civility; it is the very real possibility that extremist rants can influence a small number of listeners to be more prone to engage in acts of political violence, and even people who aren’t listeners can be influenced by those who are.

 

Hate as a social demographic

Every democracy I can think of has a meaningful (though usually small) proportion of citizens who fall on the extreme right by any standard: racist, White supremacist, hateful, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, nativist, nationalist, or violently anti-government individuals and groups. In the United States we have many, many organizations that are basically racist and potentially violent hate groups. They provide a basis for cultivating, recruiting and mobilizing like-minded followers, and they are sometimes co-opted by opportunistic politicians for their own narrow purposes. The Southern Poverty Law Center (link) and the Anti-Defamation League (link) do a great job and a needed service in tracking many of these organizations. (For example, SPL monitors 26 hate groups in the state of Michigan; link.)  The umbrella term for these organizations and individuals is “hate groups” — individuals and organizations who organize their views of the social world around intolerance of other groups and a motivation to harm or subordinate those other people.

A recent report by the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights (link) provides a detailed snapshot of how some of these racist groups have shown up in the Tea Party movement (link). The NAACP made a very careful statement about racist statements and provocations that had occurred at Tea Party protests in 2009 and 2010 (link), including the egregious incident that occurred in Washington in which Representatives Emanuel Cleaver, John Lewis, and Barney Frank were showered with vitriol. And this temperate and careful statement was derided by Tea Party leaders. The IREHR study goes a long way to document the concerns raised in the NAACP statement.

The maps of Tea Party membership are genuinely interesting. Here is an aggregate map including six factions of Tea Party organizations around the country (p. 14):

Here is a summary finding from the IREHR report:

Tea Party organizations have given platforms to anti-Semites, racists, and bigots. Further, hard-core white nationalists have been attracted to these protests, looking for potential recruits and hoping to push these (white) protestors towards a more self-conscious and ideological white supremacy. One temperature gauge of these events is the fact that longtime national socialist David Duke is hoping to find money and support enough in the Tea Party ranks to launch yet another electoral campaign in the 2012 Republican primaries. (7)

What I find really worth considering is the question of the fact of the very existence of these pockets of virulent racists and anti-semites in our society. I’m not thinking here of garden-variety racial stereotyping and prejudice, which is surely much more widespread, but of a kind of racism that extends to overt hostility and sometimes violence against the other group. It is hard to estimate the percentage of our society that falls in this category, though there are some public opinion surveys that help us make a crude estimate (Howard Schuman, Charlotte Steeh, Lawrence Bobo, Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations, Revised Edition and Schuman and Bobo, “Survey-Based Experiments on White Racial Attitudes towards Residential Integration” (link); Pew Research Center, “Race, Ethnicity & Campaign ’08” (link)).

But here is the important question: why do a certain number of people in modern societies have these attitudes in the first place? Is it just a sort of basic fact about our population that a certain percentage of us fall in this mindset? Are there specific features of our informal system of acculturation that creates this minority of hate-disposed people? Are these the result of a sort of sub-culture of militia encampments, prison gangs, and biker groups who are somehow able to promulgate their hatred to new recruits? Is it ignorance, disaffection, and economic uncertainty that brings out these qualities in otherwise decent people? In short — is it the organizations that produce the hate in some people, or is it the hateful individuals who create the organizations?

Michael Mann’s The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing is one kind of empirical study of a related question, the occurrence of murderous ethnic cleansing. Here are a few of his hypotheses.

Murderous cleansing is modern, because it is the dark side of democracy. Let me make clear at the outset that I do not claim that democracies routinely commit murderous cleansing. Very few have done so. Nor do I reject democracy as an ideal – I endorse that ideal.Yet democracy has always carried with it the possibility that the majority might tyrannize minorities, and this possibility carries more ominous consequences in certain types of multiethnic environments. (2)

Ethnic hostility rises where ethnicity trumps class as the main form of social stratification, in the process capturing and channeling class-like sentiments toward ethnonationalism.

The danger zone of murderous cleansing is reached when (a) movements claiming to represent two fairly old ethnic groups both lay claim to their own state over all or part of the same territory and (b) this claim seems to them to have substantial legitimacy and some plausible chance of being implemented. (2-9)

These are political-structural theories of the conditions that stimulate outbreaks of hate-based mobilization and murderous ethnic cleansing.  But actually, Mann never addresses my question head-on: what accounts for the existence of a certain small percentage of haters in a given society.  Mann is interested rather in the behavior and the occurrence of mass mobilization for ethnic violence in certain times and places — the involvement of thousands of citizens in acts of violence and murder against their fellow citizens. And he doesn’t believe that the actors are exceptional; rather, the circumstances elicit the terrible violence from people much like all of us. Here is how he categorizes the perpetrators:

There are three main levels of perpetrator: (a) radical elites running party-states; (b) bands of militants forming violent paramilitaries; and (c) core constituencies providing mass though not majority popular support. (9)

And he doesn’t think there is anything distinctive about the third group:

Finally, ordinary people are brought by normal social structures into committing murderous ethnic cleansing, and their motives are much more mundane. To understand ethnic cleansing, we need a sociology of power more than a special psychology of perpetrators as disturbed or psychotic people – though some may be. (9)

This “ordinary people as killers” theory (c) doesn’t really seem to do justice to the problem at issue here. And the political opportunists who play the hate card aren’t too hard to understand (a). It’s really the people Mann includes under (b) that are of concern to me — the true believers, the extremist White supremacists or virulent anti-Semites who become the local activists and paramilitaries that I’d like to understand better. And this population seems to be defined by the attitudes, motives, and ideologies that they bring with them, rather than the inter-group dynamics and political opportunism that Mann focuses on. So, once again, where does this mentality or psychology of activist hatred come from in our society (or in other contemporary societies)?

The easy answers are ready to hand. We might postulate a strand of political culture and thought in American society that reproduces hate and racism in some of the young people who are exposed to it. (Hate on the Internet falls in this category.)  Or we might postulate a recessive “racist personality” type that is a portion of the human psyche (along the lines of the theory of the authoritarian personality). Or we might postulate that lack of opportunity and an enduring situation of defeated expectations pushes some young people into hate (skinheads in Britain or Germany).

But I don’t find any of the theories very convincing by itself.  So we seem to have an important theoretical issue here that is unresolved: where does “hate” come from?

 

Protest and the politics of dissent

There are several different moral and practical stances that people can take in relation to their social worlds.  The scenes above depict one of these possibilities: vociferous protest and active opposition to specific social and political policies.  Individuals and groups have ideas about justice and legitimacy.  And they have specific material interests that are affected by state policies.  When their values and interests are offended by the actions of their government or other collective actors, they may choose to mobilize around overt opposition and collective action.  Street demonstrations, protests, boycotts, and destruction of property may be the result.  Anti-globalization protests in Toronto in 2010, anti-war protests in 1968 and 2004, demands for aggressive AIDS policies in the 1990s, anti-racism protests in 1968, French protests against President Sarkozy’s policies in 1999, and anti-NATO protests in Strasbourg in 2009 — each scene represents an extensive movement against the actions of governments, international organizations, and social institutions.

What are some of the goals of public protests?  One is obvious: to exert direct pressure on governments and other powerful organizations to change their policies and actions.  Organizers and followers often have very concrete goals in mounting a protest, with an explicit theory of how the protest action will lead to the possibility of change of policy.  This is most evident in the demonstrations that took place in France in 2009 in opposition to the government’s neo-liberal economic reform policies.  Organizers, organizations, and unions had very specific notions about how mass protests in Paris, Dijon, Marseille, and Lyon could succeed in forcing the government to retreat.  In this case the action is purposive and instrumental: choose this strategy to bring about that result.

Another possible goal is more expressive than this description would suggest.  People may mobilize around a demonstration out of their simple desire to express their moral dissent; to offer a moral example to the world of the wrongness of the targeted policy.  Some strands of the US civil rights movement had this character; demonstrations served to cast a light on the fundamental injustice of US race relations and laws, and many supporters participated simply out of moral solidarity with these values.

A third possibility combines the expressive and instrumental types of collective action.  Leaders and followers invested in a particular issue may want to publicize their values and their critique in order to persuade the broader public to share these values.  So a goal of the demonstration is to illustrate the moral and political values that are involved, and to attempt to sway other citizens to share these values.  This was part of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s theory of change: a strategy of non-violent protest could change attitudes throughout the country and eventually lead to very substantial change in law and practice.  It also seems to be a part of the transnational movement of activists against neo-liberal globalization: help the mass of citizens of the developed world to see the harms created by the neo-liberal regime.

The occurrence of protest and demonstration is a commonplace.  But it is also a central focus of scientific study by scholars such as Charles Tilly, Sidney Tarrow, or Doug McAdam under the topics of social movements and social contention. Here are several important recent contributions.  Tarrow and Tilly published Contentious Politics in 2006.  Tarrow’s New Transnational Activism focuses on the anti-globalization protests that have occurred since Seattle’s WTO meetings in 1999. McAdam’s Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970 offers a detailed analysis of the mobilization processes that culminated in the US Civil Rights movement.  Each of these works, and dozens of others, have offered careful insights and theories about the mechanisms of social mobilization.

Social scientists have focused on several aspects of protest movements: for example, motivations of the followers; social characteristics of followers; characteristics of leaders; the organizations that serve to mobilize and coordinate protest; the networks of information and other resources that link separate organizations together; the nature of the grievances that stimulate prolonged protest movements; and the efficacy of protest movements.  Quite a few important ideas have come out of these research efforts.  For example, Charles Tilly introduced the important idea of “repertoires” of protest, making the point that different communities have developed different scripts for presenting their protests to the public and to the government.  And Tilly, Tarrow, and McAdam have argued for an innovative approach to the study of contention, in the form of a methodology of the range of social mechanisms that can be identified in a variety of instances of mobilization.

One important fact that comparative study of protest movements and organizations demonstrates, is the common feature of diversity of purposes, goals, and strategies among the individuals and groups who support a movement.  The US anti-war movement is a good example; the coalition that came together to create large demonstrations and public actions in various cities in the 1960s commonly represented a very wide range of political perspectives and goals, from Quakers to Progressive Labor activists.  This range of political positions reflected significant disagreement about the goals of protest; but it also represented serious disagreement about the strategies of protest as well.

A crucial dividing line among anti-war organizations was the use of deliberate destruction of property as a tool of protest.  Probably the majority of individuals and groups opposed the use of violence, whereas small organizations deliberately sought out opportunities for “trashing”.  The slogan, “Days of Rage,” captures this perspective.  This same divide was evident in the G20 demonstrations in Toronto last month, with Black Bloc activists deliberately finding opportunities for burning police cars and smashing shop windows.  (Here is a manifesto from the Wombles on the subject of violence in demonstrations.)  Peter Ackerman demonstrates in Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century that non-violent protest has a very wide range of strategies at its disposal, and that these mechanisms have often proven very effective in achieving the goals of the protest.

(Quite a few earlier posts have focused on examples of social mobilization and theories of how groups become engaged in collective action; these can be found in the collective action thread.)

Fascist movements

Image: resistance to Spanish fascism, Abraham Lincoln Brigade

The crimes of fascist governments in Spain, Italy, and Germany are among the most terrible pages of twentieth-century history.  And these governments commonly came to power by long mass-based mobilization by right-wing nationalist parties rather than by seizure of power by a strategically located minority.  How was it possible for parties based on hatred and violence to be able to gain support from large parts of the populations of these states?  And how should the social sciences proceed in efforts to diagnose and explain these processes?

In Fascists Michael Mann offers a thorough and nuanced account of the rise of fascist movements in many countries in Europe in the early part of the twentieth century.  And in The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing he looks at the processes that have led to genocidal violence by a range of modern states.  These are important books by a particularly acute historical sociologist of political power and the state.  It is particularly interesting to examine Mann’s research strategy — the empirical research he brings to bear to his research questions and the assumptions he makes about what is needed in order to arrive at an explanation of various aspects of fascism.  (Another important sociological contribution to the study of fascism is Juan Linz, Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes.)

Mann’s approach is through the people, ideologies, and social movements that led to the establishment of fascist regimes:

This book seeks to explain fascism by understanding fascists — who they were, where they came from, what their motivations were, how they rose to power.  I focus here on the rise of fascist movements rather than on established fascist regimes.  I investigate fascists at their flood tide, in their major redoubts in interwar Europe, that is, in Austria, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Romania, and Spain.  To understand fascists will require understanding fascist movements.  We can understand little of individual fascists and their deeds unless we appreciate that they were joined together into distinctive power organizations.  (9)

Here is Mann’s definition of fascism:

I define fascism in terms of the key values, actions, and power organizations of fascists. Most concisely, fascism is the pursuit of a transcendent and cleansing nation-statism through paramilitarism. (13)

Mann disputes the common dichotomy between “idealist” and “materialist” theories of large movements and structures such as fascism.  Instead, he brings forward his own long-developed analysis of the four major sources of power in complex societies:

But my own approach to fascism derives from a more general model of human societies that rejects the idealism-versus-materialism dualism. My earlier work identified four primary “sources of social power” in human societies: ideological, economic, military, and political. … To attain their goals, social movements wield combinations of control over ultimate meaning systems (ideological), control over means of production and exchange (economic), control over organized physical violence (military), and control over centralized and territorial institutions of regulation (political). (5)

His analysis of the fascisms of Europe attempts to assess each of them in terms of these sources of power.  This analysis also plays into his account of the failure of fascism in countries such as France or Sweden.  Mann makes an important point when he observes that fascism never prevailed in countries where parliamentary democracy had developed a secure base.  There were fascist parties and leaders in France, Great Britain, and Sweden; but democratic institutions held, and fascism did not prevail in these countries.

Mann makes a very important point when he emphasizes that fascism was not an historical anomaly; rather, it was the expression of forces and crises that can recur in the twenty-first century as well.  “Fascists have been at the heart of modernity….  Fascists only embraced more fervently than anyone else the central political icon of our time, the nation-state, together with its ideologies and pathologies” (9).

The largest single topic in each of the country studies is Mann’s effort to understand the motivations of the fascist followers themselves.  Who were the committed followers?  Who were the sympathetic but less-engaged followers?

As in all my case studies I examine in some detail the social backgrounds of the fascists. They offer the best evidence regarding ordinary fascists. Yet social movements are not mere aggregations of individuals, each of whom can be counted equally and statically. Movements contain particular social structures and processes. This fascist movement greatly respected order and hierarchy, and the attainment of substantial power within the movement was an important part of the “career” of fascists. Moreover, paramilitary violence conferred distinctive powers on a “mass” (though less than “majority”) movement committed to violence.  (100)

Mann uses a variety of empirical sources to answer simple questions: what were the occupational backgrounds of the members?  What can we infer about their values and motivations?

Which particular social groups within these countries were most attracted to fascism? I spend many pages over several chapters examining the social backgrounds of fascist leaders, militants, members, fellow-travelers, coconspirators and voters – compared (wherever possible) with their counterparts in other political movements. How old were fascists, were they men or women, military or civilian, urban or rural, religious or secular, economic winners or losers, and from which regions, economic sectors, and social classes did they come? (25-26)

He goes to some effort to refute the Marxist interpretation of fascist movements: that they were led and supported by the lesser bourgeoisie.  Instead, he finds that there was significant support for fascist ideology and movements across a wide range of social-class locations.

Ideology and values play a large role in Mann’s interpretation and explanation of the program of fascism.  He rejects the view that fascism was wholly opportunistic and succeeded solely through its adeptness with propaganda; rather, he takes fascist social and political theory seriously, judging that fascist parties offered plausible solutions to perceived social problems (p. 2).  These parties attracted followers because they persuaded large numbers of Italians, Germans, or Spaniards that they had the ability to solve the problems their societies faced.  Key ideological themes were nationalism (the aggressive values and emotions of ethnicity and the nation) and “state-ism” (the legitimacy and necessity of a strong state with few limits on its power as an institution for solving “modern” problems).  “Fascists were motivated by a highly emotional struggle to cleanse their nation of “enemies,” and so they indulged in reckless aggression and terrible evil” (22).

Another key characteristic of fascist movements in the 1930s was the role played by paramilitary organizations as tools of intimidation, coercion, and mobilization.

Paramilitarism also conferred a concrete and enveloping social identity. The returning soldiers were young, mostly unmarried with little labor market experience, poorly integrated into local communities centered on family, occupation, and religion, prone to identify with the nation as a whole – which the mass army had claimed to “represent” (104).

Mann also spends some time assessing the role that “crisis” played in the rise of fascism: war, defeat, economic crisis.  He does not believe that crisis was the primary cause of the rise of fascism; rather, it was a contributing condition that helped to accelerate processes that were underway already.  And Mann notes that there is a pronounced geographical dimension to fascism and authoritarianism, as indicated in the following map representing the state of affairs in 1929.

So what does Mann’s explanatory scheme amount to?  It comes down to something like this: fascist parties and leaders articulated a vision of the current problems and their solutions.  A significant proportion of the young adults (18-35) were receptive to these messages, including the call for radical change and the use of street violence.  War, financial crisis, class conflict, and insecure parliamentary institutions created an environment in which the ideology of fascism could flourish and fascist mobilization was feasible.  In several countries demobilized and defeated veterans represented a population of prospective recruits to fascist groups.  Paramilitary violence could not defeat the military arm of the state; but it could intimidate other parties and pressure governments.  The experience of a fascist organization was itself a reinforcing one; young people who found their way into a fascist group were reinforced in the attitudes that had brought them there in the first place.  State and military organizations varied in effectiveness across the map of Europe, and those states whose governments were weak and unstable were less able to repress the rising fascist challenge.

There is a deep question implicated in the effort to provide a definition of fascism.  Is the definition Mann offers a stipulative statement about how Mann will use the word “fascism”?  Or is it a condensed empirical theory, abstracted from the small number of clear cases — Italy, Austria, Germany?  Is it an inductive discovery that “fascism is the extreme version of nation-ism and state-ism”; or is it a purely conventional stipulation?  Put it another way; does it make a difference that Mann finds that Spain is not “fascist” by this definition?  Does such a finding provide any genuine sociological/empirical insight?  Does it allow us to judge that “Spain’s regime was likely to have other important behavioral differences relative to Italy”?  I am tempted to think that Weber’s conception of the ideal type is relevant here; the definition offered above is a description of the ideal type of fascism, and each of the existing fascisms differ in various ways from this description.  The empirical issue is one level lower: not at the level of “fascism”, but rather at the cluster of characteristics that are invoked in the ideal-type theory (paramilitary organizations, ideology of nationalism, authoritarian theory of the state, anti-democratic rhetoric).

It is interesting to think back to Fritz Ringer’s analysis of the intellectual climate of the German mandarins (link) and relate his interpretation to Mann’s treatment of the conservative-authoritarian ideologies of central Europe. Ringer’s treatment singles out many of the same ideological themes and dissatisfactions that Mann identifies — hostility to class conflict and mass democracy and the main elements of liberal modernity.  Ringer’s narrative serves as something like a snapshot of the educated elites going through the intellectual-ideological progressions Mann describes.

These crises were exacerbated by an ideological crisis. On the right, though only in one half of Europe, this became a sense that modernity was desirable but dangerous, that liberalism was corrupt or disorderly, that socialism meant chaos, that secularism threatened moral absolutes – and so cumulatively that civilization needed rescuing before modernization could proceed further. So there emerged a more authoritarian rightist view of modernity, emphasizing a more top-down populist nationalism, developmental statism, order, and hierarchy. (355)

The book also suggests something else about the present: that there are good reasons to pay close attention to the claims, complaints, values, and resentments of the American right today. As Mann discovered a coherent worldview and programme for the future in the rightist authoritarian movements he discusses, so we may find there is greater coherence, greater popular appeal, and greater danger in the rightist movements today. Conservative Christian values, hostility to government and to social welfare provisioning, hostility to unions, antipathy to immigrants, and hateful, inflammatory rhetoric give talk radio and cable television a worrisome coherence.

Here is a sobering and tragic video (in Spanish) documenting the Spanish Nationalist government’s expulsion of thousands of Republican veterans to the Austrian concentration camp Mathausen, where most of them were murdered.  There is a Facebook group, Plataforma Memoria Histórica – Guerra Civil Español (link), which is collecting materials on the Civil War.  This is a great collective effort to remember and to make sense of that struggle with fascism.

http://www.youtube.com/v/IfhniJeLYZI&hl=en_US&fs=1&

Microstructure of strife


Let’s work backwards in thinking about sustained inter-group violence, and begin by considering some of the street-level incidents that constitute a period of violence against or between groups. What factors are necessary to the occurrence of inter-group violence in a region? And how can an understanding of these factors contribute to better strategies of conflict reduction and prevention?

I’m thinking here particularly of ethnic and sectarian violence, including examples like these — periods of violence in Northern Ireland, upsurges of the Intifada, stone-throwing against vehicles of another group, violent ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, violent settler resistance to resettlement in Israel, ultra-orthodox attacks on more secular Jews in Jerusalem, or Hindu violence against Muslim communities in India. A group of teenagers throw rocks at visible members of another religious group. A cell of young men place a fire bomb in a department store in a Protestant area. A mob rages through a Muslim neighborhood, attacking innocent households. A gang of toughs pressures a minority family to move from the majority neighborhood with threats and beatings. What motivates the participants to involve themselves in these violent actions? And what social factors are necessary in order to turn a few violent individuals into a major violent inter-group event?

Quite a few earlier postings are relevant to various aspects of these questions (thread). And, as has been frequently mentioned here, Charles Tilly’s theories of contentious politics are crucial here (Dynamics of Contention, Contentious Performances). Here my interest is in line with the idea of promoting peace: if we understand the dynamics of contention better, perhaps we can do a better job of designing institutions and policies that minimize the occurrence of inter-group strife.

We can begin to analyze these examples by providing some analytical questions: what are the contentious social groups?Are acts of violence spontaneous or orchestrated? Are there contentious organizations providing a degree of stimulus and coordination to the violent acts? Are participants “professionals” or ordinary members of civil society? What is the nature of the grievances that motivate typical participants and stimulate the incidents of violence? What role do media play in the etiology of the outburst of violence? (For example, it is now well understood how radio broadcasts were used to spread ethnic killings in Rwanda.)

Studies of contentious politics can perhaps be summarized along the lines of a small handful of causal components:

  • motivation and mobilization of followers;
  • actions and reach of organizations;
  • availability of resources and opportunities; and
  • existence of social networks.

Who are the followers and what motivates them? What are the organizations that are working towards mobilization for acts of violence? What are the motivations and tactics of leaders of these actions? The role of political entrepreneurs and their private political interests appear to be important factors in the occurrence of ethnic and religious strife. (Atul Kohli offers this kind of analysis of Hindu violence against Muslims in India in Democracy and Discontent: India’s Growing Crisis of Governability.) And finally, what networks of communication and mutual support exist among individuals, leaders, and organizations? (Mario Diani and Doug McAdam have a very interesting recent collection on the latter factor; Social Movements and Networks: Relational Approaches to Collective Action.)

This broad analysis of the components of contention is useful for peace studies because it suggests a number of avenues of strategy and tactics for reducing inter-group violence. Violence requires followers; so reducing the motivations and grievances that ordinary people have to join a violent social group is obviously a positive step. (This pertains to the line of thought expressed in an earlier posting about the relationship between justice and peace.) Violent movements usually require organizations to coordinate and stimulate attacks; so governments and security services can work to disrupt or contain violent organizations. (The multi-decade struggle in the United States against the Ku Klux Klan is an example.) And, symmetrically, people interested in peace can support organizations in the same terrain that reject violence — thus reducing the appeal of violent organizations. Once the centrality of social networks is recognized in the mechanisms of stimulating, spreading, and escalating violence, security agencies can themselves undertake to map out the networks of violence that exist and disrupt them. And the crucial role that resources play in violent mobilization — access to funds, weapons, or media, for example — suggests a strategy of resource denial to the forces of order. The state and other agencies can work to reduce the availability of necessary resources to violent organizations.

It seems apparent that if we are to succeed in reducing social conflict and violence, we need to have a good understanding of the social mechanisms through which these conditions arise. And fortunately, there is a very rich literature on social contention that can be incorporated into the study of the structural conditions of peace.

Conflict as an empirical-practical study


Conflict and peace studies have been a part of academic research since at least the 1970s. Many universities have created major research centers devoted to the study of the causes of conflict and possible pathways of conflict resolution. In some cases the focus of study is on particular zones of inter- and intra-state conflict: recurring civil conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa; the Middle East; Northern Ireland; Hindu-Muslim conflict in South Asia; or US-Soviet conflict during the Cold War. And in other cases the focus is less regionally specific and more concerned about identifying root causes and remedies for social conflict.

Causes of large social conflict are widely varied: for example, disagreements about access to resources, including water; disagreements about the use of religious sites; direct military competition to secure hegemony in various regions; disagreements about physical borders between states; and the list can be extended. We can also speculate that there is a “social psychology” associated with conflict — both as a cause and as an effect. Social conditions that create fear, uncertainty, or suspicion of other social groups are surely relevant to the occurrence and duration of social conflict. In turn, an extended period of conflict and violence among groups within a population further undermines the potential basis for future trust and cooperation among members of these groups. And we can likewise explore the dynamics of the processes of political entrepreneurship through which some leaders seek to mobilize support around divisive identities and issues.

It is apparent that the study of conflict inherently requires an interdisciplinary approach. It has sometimes seemed to tilt towards international relations theory, with its calculus of political interest and rational strategy. But the insights of anthropologists, sociologists, geographers, social psychologists, political scientists, and area specialists are all relevant to the key problems: arriving at applicable (and testable) theories of the causes of conflict in a variety of circumstances, and arriving at strategies for reducing the sources of conflict and defining pathways from “conflictual” to “non-conflictual”. We need to have fairly concrete sociological and ethnographic understanding of the structures and mentalities that are associated with extended periods of social conflict, if we are to understand the mechanisms that create, sustain, or inhibit these conflicts.

Resolution of inter-state conflict (warfare) seems to be a special case, and in many ways an easier case, than resolution of intra-state or intra-regional conflict. Answering the question, “Why do inter-state wars occur?” is likely to be quite different from answering the question, “Why does inter-group violence occur along ethnic or religious lines?” Finding ways of establishing enduring co-existence between Hindus and Muslims in India; finding ways of stabilizing relations between Protestant and Catholic communities and populations in Northern Ireland; resolving the causes of ethnic conflict and violence in Kenya or Rwanda; or creating a basis for peaceful co-habitation among Palestinian and Jewish communities in Jerusalem — each of these challenges seems different and more difficult than solving the Cold War or managing inter-state nuclear competition.

What are the sources of this additional level of difficulty? There seem to be several reasons for this greater intractability. First is the fact that these conflicts involve mass populations that are only subject to minimal degrees of organizational or state control. So it is often difficult to resolve these sorts of conflicts through negotiations among a few powerful parties; instead, alleviating the causes of conflict needs to be pursued on a more disaggregated level. Second, the dialectic of action and reaction, affront and retaliation, seems to take on a life of its own that makes inter-group conflict and violence very difficult to damp down. One incident leads to several, with a spreading radius of conflict.

So are there some basic hypotheses about reducing conflict that might be applied to a situation of conflict within a population in a specific region — whether among religious groups, ethnic identities, or other grounds of division? Here are a couple of thoughts.

  • First, remove the material causes of inter-personal and inter-group conflict — unfair rules, practices of discrimination, limited access to resources such as schools or clean water, or barriers on mobility.
  • Second, find ways of addressing past hatreds in the current generation. Somehow work towards establishing an openness to sharing of the region peacefully that doesn’t currently exist.
  • Third, work vigorously to establish new pathways of opportunity for disadvantaged populations: schools, health, property ownership.
  • Fourth, undertake a serious and goal-directed program of legislation and policy to correct past injustices.
  • Fifth, pay close attention to the details of the issues that divide groups — geography, claims on property, grievances about unequal opportunities — and be prepared to address them in detail.
  • Sixth, encourage the formation of organizations in civil society that see both sides, and that will work towards reducing objective and subjective causes of hatred and conflict.

These recommendations seem to amount to one basic point, almost Biblical in its simplicity: peace requires justice. So if we want to establish a peaceful regional or global society, we need to work very consistently and patiently towards establishing the conditions of just and equitable life circumstances for all people affected. Put the point the other way around, and you have a general hypothesis about the causes of conflict: pervasive, sustained injustice breeds violence and conflict.

But here is the hard question: is there any evidence that measures like these will work? Can a population get past its old sources of bitterness and hatred? Are there practical strategies that India, Ireland, or Israel can pursue that will methodically reduce the volatility of intra-population conflict? What kinds of empirical studies are available to help evaluate the efficacy of these various measures? Are there studies within social psychology on religious, racial, or identity politics that shed light on conflict and its resolution? These are the kinds of questions that we most need the disciplines of peace and conflict studies to address.

Social control of crowds


There is a pretty high level of social protest taking place in France today. Strikes and demonstrations are taking place in many cities, involving students, faculty, workers, and other ordinary people. (Here is a recent news roundup dated March 19, 2009, on strikes, demonstrations, and manifs in the past month or so, and here is a BBC report on a round of large strikes in January.) The demands largely have to do with the current economic crisis, unemployment, changes in the social security system, and proposed reforms to higher education. French people are demanding specific changes from the government, and the government does not seem to want to compromise.

These collective actions carry out a tradition of public protest in French political culture that goes back at least a century and a half (Charles Tilly, The Contentious French). And few politicians in France will have overlooked the fact that public protests have sometimes developed into even more confrontational forms of collective action and conflict — in 1968, for example, and in the banlieue in 2005. So the current round of protests and mass demonstrations has a significance in French political history that raises the possibility of even more intense civil conflict in the next twelve months.

What is to prevent the possibility that large organized demonstrations and strikes may develop into more violent conflicts between the population and the state in the future? How can the state ensure that large-scale peaceful protest — a basic democratic right — doesn’t turn into episodic rioting and civil unrest when political stalemate emerges or when economic and social conditions worsen?

The question is a pressing one, because very large demonstrations and protests are volatile and unpredictable. When there are tens of thousands of participants and a range of leading organizations in a large demonstration, it is possible for the actions of the crowd to develop in ways that were not intended or anticipated. A peaceful march down a central boulevard can proceed from beginning to end with a great deal of internal discipline, with organizations maintaining ranks and preserving order. Many of the photos of manifs in French cities are distinguished by the prominent signs and banners the protesters carry announcing the organizations they represent — labor unions, student organizations, faculty groups. And these banners themselves are an indication of organization and discipline. So large, peaceful protests can be organized and carried out successfully.

But the same march can also degenerate into skirmishing and street fighting involving small groups of activists and police. A small splinter group of violent protesters may break away from the march to engage in acts of violence against property — burning cars, smashing shop windows. And these acts may spread by contagion to other parts of the crowd. Or a group of activists may deliberately confront the police with stones or bottles, with the goal of provoking violent reaction and an escalation of conflict. (This appears to have happened repeatedly in Athens a few months ago, and it was an anarchist tactic in the anti-globalization protests that took place in many cities a few years ago.) Or a group of police may engage in a demonstration of power intended to intimidate the crowd, leading to police violence against members of the crowd; again, this violence may spread to other locations. Even an unfortunate accident can lead to an outburst of violence — a frightened driver losing control of his car and injuring a group of demonstrators, for example, can lead to panic and escalation. And any of these small outbreaks of violence can spread through the larger crowd, leading to an uncontrollable spasm of action and reaction.

So how can the authorities in a democracy develop strategies for ensuring that peaceful protests avoid violent escalation? I suppose the most direct strategy is to consider the demands themselves and evaluate whether they legitimately call for changes of policy that ought to be enacted. Compromise over the central issues leading to mass protest presumably has some effect on the likelihood of violence and disorder. If the people are convinced that the government is acting unjustly, the government ought to at least consider whether there is some legitimacy in these complaints.

A second strategy is more tactical. Recognizing that protest is likely to occur, it makes sense for the authorities to work with the organizers and their organizations to arrive at agreements about the scope and nature of the protest. The route, location, duration, and other conditions of the protest can be negotiated. And the authorities are well advised to attempt to gain the support of the organizers in an agreement to maintain internal discipline within the demonstration — to win the agreement of the organizations themselves to attempt to suppress possible outbursts of violence by minority elements within the crowd.

A third strategy involves, of course, policing. The authorities have both the ability and the obligation to use police powers to ensure public order. And this means that they need to plan intelligently for the disposition and behavior of police forces to contain possible violent outbursts. But the use of police force is a delicate political art. Heavy-handed, intimidating policing seems to be as likely to provoke violence as to suppress it. Police behavior that depends upon the conspicuous threat of force likewise is likely to be provocative — a double line of police with truncheons and riot gear, with face shields providing a disturbing anonymity, is likely to provoke fear and aggression in the crowd that it confronts. And, of course, police behavior that crosses the line to overt acts of brutality is almost certain to provoke violent response, as news of police violence spreads through the crowd. But it is also possible to err on the side of insufficient police presence; forces that can be quickly overwhelmed create the situation of a sudden escalation of violence by a crowd that has suddenly realized that there is no barrier to further violent actions.

It would seem that the ideal prescription for a policing strategy is something like this: enough police force in the vicinity to respond quickly and decisively to acts of violence by members of the crowd; positioning of police forces in fairly inconspicuous locations so their presence is not itself a provocation; and well-trained police forces who can be trusted to refrain from unnecessary violence against protesters. (The “police riot” in Chicago in 1968 plainly led to rapid escalation of violence in that situation.)

What makes this question so complicated is the fact that it involves social actions, conflicts, and relationships at many levels: the basic conflict between organized groups with explicit demands and the state with its interest in enforcing its policies; the limited degree of control that protest organizers have over the behavior of followers; the fact that smaller groups and organizations within the protest movement may have goals that are more radical than those of the main organizations; the fact that the authorities have only limited control over the forces at their command; and the fact that there may not be acceptable compromises that successfully resolve the conflict between protesters and the state. These factors make the behavior of the crowd somewhat unpredictable, and they introduce major sources of contingency into the way in which a particular day of protest and season of dissent play out.

Bringing the discussion back to France in 2009, there seem to be several large possibilities for the coming year. The government may decide that it needs to adjust some of its policies in order to reduce the level of popular dissent and unrest; it needs to reach a social compromise. The government may hold firm but the dissenting organizations may grow fatigued or discouraged — so that the current round of protest and strikes subsides. Both sides may hold firm but an equilibrium level of protest and response may be reached, with neither side escalating to a higher level of civil conflict and violence. Or, finally, both the government and the protest movement may hold firm and protests may spiral upward into greater levels of social conflict, with riots and violent protests ensuing. More and more force may be exerted through police repression, and this may lead to more widespread and more aggressive demonstrations in the following weeks. And, of course, all of these scenarios are likely to have consequences for electoral outcomes in the coming several years.

Power and violence in China

Several recent postings on this blog have focused on power. Ultimately power depends upon a threat of violence. And recent reports from China have thrown the spotlight on the use of violence against innocent citizens who are challenging one aspect of power or another. The photo at left is taken from a news story reporting the results of homeowners’ protests in a Beijing neighborhood against unplanned buildings on the greenspace of their neighborhood. (Reportage and more photos are available here.)

What this incident reflects is a disturbing and apparently growing incidence of the use of violence by private security companies against groups of citizens in China who are engaging in a variety of efforts to protect their interests or advance their claims. These incidents of violence also occur at the hands of Chinese police — for example, the beating death of a newspaper editor that was reported in an article in the New York Times a few years ago.

These reports are somewhat rare — not because the behavior is rare, but because it is very difficult for journalists to do the sort of investigating and reporting that would be needed in order to uncover these outrages. (Remember Amartya Sen’s theory that a free press in India is the best explanation of the absence of famine since Independence; think how different China’s political scene would be with a practice of unfettered investigative journalism.)

But what these reports suggest is a very sober reality: that under current conditions in China, ordinary groups of Chinese people are subject to the imposition of serious violence if they come together to press their claims. There are reports of violence by paid thugs concerning migrant workers, factory workers, peasants subject to land confiscation, and ordinary poor people who have somehow gotten into conflict with the authorities.

What this also suggests is that the forging of an effective and binding legal order in China — one that clearly articulates and defends the civil and individual rights of citizens that are valid even in circumstances of conflict between the powerful and the powerless — creation of this legal order is a profoundly important goal for Chinese society. Only on the basis of these kinds of legal guarantees can civil society be an arena in which citizens and groups can advocate for their interests in a peaceful and progressive manner.

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