05 September 2017


Blogger Donna at Tell Me a Story recently linked to some research (paywall, unfortunately) by political scientist Erica Chenoweth on the use of violence by political movements, and quotes Chenoweth's summary:

"I collected data on all major nonviolent and violent campaigns for the overthrow of a government or a territorial liberation since 1900," she says -- hundreds of cases. "The data blew me away.....One thing I found is that an uprising becomes about 50 percent more likely to fail if it turns to violence."

This has been true of social movements too.  The black Civil Rights movement starting in the 1960s was famously dedicated to non-violence and made immense progress toward its major goals, though obviously racism hasn't been fully defeated.  The gay movement, which has been stunningly successful at achieving both policy changes (such as gay marriage) and a huge turnaround in public attitudes (even in the face of ancient and powerful religious taboos) within a remarkably short span of time, has virtually never used violence, working instead by appeals to sympathy and the sheer justice of its cause.  Movements such as the KKK, notorious for both using and threatening violence, have massively lost ground -- their views have become far less accepted than they were a few decades ago and they themselves are pariahs.

It's not surprising that this is so.  Every complex human society is governed by a specialized entity, the state, which asserts a monopoly on the use of force.  Except momentarily, humans in complex societies cannot be effectively intimidated by violent groups challenging the existing social order because they can appeal to the state, a more powerful entity, for protection and retaliation (note that this is true whether or not the social order is unjust; it merely means that violence will not work to change that social order as long as the state is determined to enforce it).

It's a curious fact that right-wing movements seem addicted to intimidation tactics, especially carrying and displaying guns and making threats of violence.  Charlottesville was a striking example, but the behavior is generally pervasive among such groups. It often seems that for a lot of these people, the opportunity to display guns and other intimidating paraphernalia is a big part -- maybe the biggest part -- of the appeal of joining a neo-Nazi, KKK, or other militant group.  It meets some deep psychological need.  Even on our side, which generally rejects initiating violence on principle, many people take great satisfaction from the thought of "punching Nazis" and the like.

Why are people so drawn to violence and threats even in the face of evidence that they're often counter-productive? I think it's an example of instinctive behavior which survives from a pre-human stage of evolution and remains powerful even though the nature of complex modern human societies makes it self-defeating.

Humans are primates.  In all primate species, each social group has a dominance hierarchy (especially among males), and males are very concerned with being as high up in the hierarchy as they can get, partly because females preferentially mate with higher-status males. Humans have this trait too -- our corporate and political hierarchies follow the same pattern, though more subtly.  Among chimpanzees (the species most closely related to us), males assert dominance by intimidating, threatening behaviors -- screeching loudly, charging, banging things on the ground, etc.  Primatologists actually call these behaviors "intimidation displays".

Much of the progress of human civilization has consisted of "taming" the tendency to display such behaviors.  Human males in complex societies move up the dominance hierarchy by winning and displaying wealth, political power, or social status.  However, not all individuals are equally amenable to such refinement.  Many less-educated, low-status human males still tend to assert themselves by being loud and aggressive and displaying behavior or paraphernalia that intimidate others.  Among chimpanzees this would actually help them move up the hierarchy; in modern human societies it doesn't, but it's instinctive.  It takes different forms around the world depending on culture and technological level, but it's the same primate instinct. There's a primal satisfaction in feeling scary.

I'm constantly reminded of primate behavior when I see groups like the KKK and neo-Nazis and, yes, other violent groups like the Black Bloc. Even things like military training routines that involve shouting while brandishing weapons, demonstrations with loud chants and raised fists, and suchlike, satisfy the same instincts. The genetic legacy of our pre-human ancestors is very much still with us. We're still apes.  Some humans have enough civilized self-awareness to realize that ape-like intimidation displays usually fail to get us what we want (and even look faintly ridiculous).  Others do not.


Blogger shkwiver said...

Jane Goodall recently said in an interview that "the performances of Donald Trump remind me of male chimpanzees and their dominance rituals”

05 September, 2017 18:29  
Anonymous Grey One talks sass said...

Our entire planet operates.. well, not the Earth herself, but those who live on her in a hierarchical system of one sort or another. There is always has been an element of dominance play in life. My example of a complex society involves dogs living in packs. Single dogs in a home don't get that much chance to learn the signals so they are perceived as rude by dog speaking dogs.

If dogs packs really were mano et mano all the freaking time, they wouldn't get much done, would they? Instead dogs use a series of body movements and liking routines to indicate various responses to signals they receive. (The book I devoured to learn how to read/speak dog is "Calming Signals" by Turid Rugaas.) To indicate a no contest posture, a dog will turn their head, give the intimidating soul the sad eyes. People think it's guilt. Nope. It's Hey Dad/Mom?Pack Leader, I know you're really ticked off but would petting me help?

Dogs have already developed their language to deal with confrontation. Perhaps it's time we humans did the same.

Balance - I'm of two minds about violence and the concept of who I justify as needing violence done to them.

First - the movement as a whole must remain non-violent. The Greats Walked Before are very clear upon this point.

Second - a group of non-violent folk are fodder for those who love to cause misery, as history will attest. There are certain moments when enforcers must intervene for the good of all and may it harm none, and I do not consider death harm for I know all to well there are Worse Things Than Death.

Am I an enforcer? Perhaps with words my weapons and facts my ammunition.

Third - any ideology who advocates the ending of an entire population of people is immediately on probation in my book. It wasn't all that long ago the 'good guys' were the bad guys. Wait? What am I saying? Nazis never were good people. Perhaps some of the clouded Nazi supporters can receive a pass, but when you went to work that day and you were logging in all the loot collected from that days shipment of prisoners... At what cost your soul for a job to put bread on the table.

So what horrible things are people doing today just to get by? We can only see the tip of the iceberg, what must lie below?

Thanks for being a Beacon of Light Infidel. I don't get to comment much and thought that needed to be said. Peace to you and yours.

07 September, 2017 19:38  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Shkwiver: It figures Goodall would be among the first to notice that.

Grey One: Thanks! Dogs have been domesticated longer than any other animal (about 20,000 years), and they're very much adapted to living with humans. What we mostly see from dogs is submissive behavior -- for all those 20,000 years, ancestral dogs who tried to act dominant toward humans were, let's say, not the ones who were allowed to live and pass on their genes. The original wild relative, the wolf, is a lot more intractable. Humans, of course, haven't gone through any such selective process disfavoring dominant behavior. The best we can do is tame it through enculturation.

Unfortunately, the position that it's OK to initiate violence against certain groups because of how evil they are quickly becomes too subjective. Is it OK to initiate violence against Communists? They've killed more people than the Nazis did. What about Catholics and Muslims? Those groups have a longer and more consistent track record of persecuting and killing people who transgressed their taboo systems. And it's murky how much simply adopting a label makes an individual liable for all the evil done by previous bearers of the same label. The rules concerning violence have to be viewpoint-neutral.

I never expect decent people to be sitting ducks. I wouldn't hesitate to shoot anybody who initiated or even threatened violence against me. This, however, applies in situations where people are effectively on their own. In complex human societies (population over 50,000), the state is supposed to act as the peace enforcer. It's the main reason we're not constantly under siege from gangs of thugs (political or not) trying to control us through violence and intimidation as in chimpanzee groups. When settling political differences through street violence becomes the norm, it's a sign of a collapsing civilization.

08 September, 2017 05:22  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Good points ... and it's clear as day that were still primitive animals in some way, despite how civilized we fantasize we are. Sometimes, it is difficult to not respond to violence in a violent way when violence is used on you by a group, state or whoever too. We as humans have bred violence into our cultures. I actually feel that the future will not have anywhere near the problems or violence of today ... and that after the storms pass ... there will be a way more peaceful world with a very small and much different population, and even capitalistic values that we have had for thousands of years will become obsolete. Just my view ... I'll leave it there.

08 September, 2017 08:56  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Ranch: I think you're right about it being more peaceful -- violence has been decreasing for centuries, which shows that we're getting better at "taming" our ape-like nature. But I don't expect the population to be smaller.

08 September, 2017 10:37  
Blogger NickM said...

In the mid 90s I went to Atlanta, GA a couple of times. I visited the King Center (civil rights museum). You know what struck me most? I was wearing a Levi Strauss denim jacket and they had Dr King's coat which was identical. My point is this is not ancient history.

09 September, 2017 01:58  

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