It’s worth noting, by the way, that this is an especially major hazard when it comes to highly visible public spectacles like the mass street protests mentioned earlier. The mass movements that give rise to such demonstrations – Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party movement, Black Lives Matter – often arise from legitimate grievances based on genuinely upsetting inciting incidents (the housing crash, the Wall Street bailout, the killing of innocent black people by police, etc.) – and accordingly, they often hold quite a bit of legitimacy in the public eye when they first start off. But as the issues in question gain more and more national attention, and as public street protests against them start to appear and grow in number, what inevitably tends to happen is that some of the more pugnacious-minded members of these protests get carried away and start looking for fights, screaming hateful slogans, and destroying property – and when that happens, such outbursts can turn the demonstrations from symbolic gestures of discontent into counterproductive acts of self-sabotage. At that point, it becomes clear that the main function these now-escalated demonstrations are serving is no longer to actually help their ostensible cause in any constructive way (as might be possible with more tactfully self-controlled protests), but simply to allow their participants to get out some of their aggression in a public setting. And as David Frum writes, this is why such demonstrations so often end up doing more harm than good for the very things they’re trying to promote:
[These kinds of overly combative] demonstrations are exercises in catharsis, the release of emotions. Their operating principle is self-expression, not persuasion. They lack the means, and often the desire, to police their radical fringes, with the result that it’s the most obnoxious and even violent behavior that produces the most widely shared and memorable images of the event. They seldom are aimed at any achievable goal; they rarely leave behind any enduring program of action or any organization to execute that program. Again and again, their most lasting effect has been to polarize opinion against them—and to empower the targets of their outrage.
Research on the subject bears this out. According to one study titled “Extreme Protest Tactics Reduce Popular Support For Social Movements”:
We find across three experiments that extreme protest tactics [for example the use of inflammatory rhetoric, blocking traffic, damaging property, and disrupting other citizens’ everyday activities] decreased popular support for a given cause because they reduced feelings of identification with the movement. Though this effect obtained in tests of popular responses to extreme tactics used by animal rights, Black Lives Matter, and anti-Trump protests […] we found that self-identified political activists were willing to use extreme tactics because they believed them to be effective for recruiting popular support.
Contrary to the protestors’ perception that their extreme actions help their cause, though, the popular perception of what they’re doing tends to be more akin to the kind of thing Nathan J. Robinson describes here:
Here, a crowd gathers around a man wearing a MAGA hat, with a masked Antifa member closing in on him and shouting “Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!” This is, first of all, inarticulate and stupid. (“Fuck you!” is a statement empty of any actual leftist content, it’s just a grunt.) But I also don’t see any principled, strategic, and disciplined anti-fascist action here. I just see aggressive, macho white guys being aggressive, macho white guys. And it seems to me as if they’re enjoying themselves just a little too much. I certainly don’t see either any “moral high ground” being claimed or any actual useful combating of Nazi ideology. (I do, however, see grist for new columns in Breitbart and the National Review.)
Even protests that are unusually self-restrained and nonviolent often can’t help but to have their share of bad optics like this. Recall the Chinese Robber Fallacy – even if 99.9% of protestors are on their best behavior, that still means that in a crowd of 1000 people there will be one overly belligerent jackass who makes a scene and ends up getting all the media attention. Whether it’s something as flagrant as outright violence or something as simple as leaving behind a ton of trash after they’ve finished their peaceful protest, these kinds of demonstrations often seem to provide more material for discrediting the movement than for bolstering it. And once the protests start drawing the attention of the media, the national conversation begins to shift from talking about the actual issues at hand to talking about whether the protestors are “going too far” in their tactics. Public figures who otherwise might have felt the pressure of having to defend unpopular ideas against widespread backlash now have an easy way to sidestep that pressure by deflecting the focus of the conversation onto the conduct of the protestors instead. Rather than having a national debate on Wall Street corruption, or government overreach, or police brutality, or systemic racism, the national debate instead ends up being about whether the hooligans marching in the streets and smashing up storefronts are really the kind of people who should be dictating complex public policies or not. And unfortunately for the protestors – especially the ones who actually are trying to accomplish worthy goals through peaceful means – the answer typically turns out to be no.
It doesn’t help these peaceful activists’ cause when so many of their comrades-in-arms genuinely do think that violence is a legitimate means for achieving their desired ends. It’s all too common to hear people try to rationalize violence against their ideological opponents by claiming that their enemies, simply by existing, are committing (or at least promoting) violence against them, and that therefore they’re justified in fighting back in self-defense. The fact that, say, racists exist means that they pose a threat to whichever races they’re prejudiced against, so there’s nothing immoral about assaulting them wherever you see them. The fact that people exist who approve of taxation means that they’re calling for the forcible seizing of people’s property, so there’s nothing immoral about using force to stop them. The fact that people exist who are in favor of abortion rights means that they pose a threat to the lives of millions of unborn babies, so there’s nothing immoral about bombing Planned Parenthood centers. The fact that nonbelievers exist who resist the true faith means that they pose a threat to the eternal souls of billions of people, so there’s nothing immoral about using force to silence them before they can lead others to Hell. And so on. Usually, these rationalizations for using violence aren’t quite so extreme; more often than not, people just contrive them as an excuse for the sporadic occasions when someone on their side attacks someone on the other side (as in the recent example of a leftist activist punching a white nationalist in the face at a public demonstration). If you actually take them at their word, though, and follow their reasoning to its logical conclusion, it leads to a very dark place, as Robinson points out:
Here is what I am worried about: I believe that unless the question of violence is treated carefully and responsibly, it could lead to something very bad indeed for the left. For example, say more people on the left come around to [this kind of] reasoning, and believe that fascists should not be permitted to speak publicly. And say they also blur the distinction between neo-Nazis and everyday Trump supporters, who are all lumped under the catch-all category “fascists.” And since fascism is horrific, and the Antifa principle is that it must be stopped “by any means necessary,” there is very little check on the permissible uses of violence. My fear is that, sooner or later, some blonde teenage girl wearing a MAGA hat, or some disabled veteran in a Trump shirt, is going to end up getting put in a coma. And when that happens, the left will face an almighty hellstorm of right-wing rage. I want to know why people are so confident that their endorsement of violent methods wouldn’t lead to this. But all I hear are the same lines, over and over: You have to “nip Nazis in the bud,” “fascism doesn’t go away when it’s asked politely,” etc.
When you say “[fascism] had to be stopped by force,” [in the historical context of WWII] this involved killing people; do you believe that in the contemporary United States, killing people for holding white supremacist beliefs is acceptable?
[When you talk about violent tactics against “fascists” being self-defense,] what kind of self-defense are we talking about? What are the acts that are being defended, and in what circumstances? Never trust anyone who speaks in abstractions and refuses to say exactly what it is they are justifying and refuses to answer the most important questions.
Resorting to violence does have a certain gut appeal for many people; if you believe your side is the persecuted underdog, there is a certain heroic romance in the idea of rising up against your oppressors and fighting back, not just in a figurative sense but in a literal one. Having said that, though, if you’re actually right about being the underdog, there’s a problem. As Gene Sharp (who literally wrote the book on resisting oppressive regimes) puts it:
By placing confidence in violent means, one has chosen the very type of struggle with which the oppressors nearly always have superiority.
Alexander elaborates, adding that this point can apply to other forms of dubious debate tactics as well:
Logical debate has one advantage over narrative, rhetoric, and violence: it’s an asymmetric weapon. That is, it’s a weapon which is stronger in the hands of the good guys than in the hands of the bad guys. In ideal conditions (which may or may not ever happen in real life) – the kind of conditions where everyone is charitable and intelligent and wise – the good guys will be able to present stronger evidence, cite more experts, and invoke more compelling moral principles. The whole point of logic is that, when done right, it can only prove things that are true.
Violence is a symmetric weapon; the bad guys’ punches hit just as hard as the good guys’ do. It’s true that hopefully the good guys will be more popular than the bad guys, and so able to gather more soldiers. But this doesn’t mean violence itself is asymmetric – the good guys will only be more popular than the bad guys insofar as their ideas have previously spread through some means other than violence. Right now antifascists outnumber fascists and so could probably beat them in a fight, but antifascists didn’t come to outnumber fascists by winning some kind of primordial fistfight between the two sides. They came to outnumber fascists because people rejected fascism on the merits. These merits might not have been “logical” in the sense of Aristotle dispassionately proving lemmas at a chalkboard, but “fascists kill people, killing people is wrong, therefore fascism is wrong” is a sort of folk logical conclusion which is both correct and compelling. Even “a fascist killed my brother, so fuck them” is a placeholder for a powerful philosophical argument making a probabilistic generalization from indexical evidence to global utility. So insofar as violence is asymmetric, it’s because it parasitizes on logic which allows the good guys to be more convincing and so field a bigger army. Violence itself doesn’t enhance that asymmetry; if anything, it decreases it by giving an advantage to whoever is more ruthless and power-hungry.
The same is true of [propagandistic tools like emotional narratives and] documentaries. As I said before, [an anti-Trump activist] can produce as many anti-Trump documentaries as he wants, but Trump can fund documentaries of his own. He has the best documentaries. Nobody has ever seen documentaries like this. They’ll be absolutely huge.
And the same is true of rhetoric. Martin Luther King was able to make persuasive emotional appeals for good things. But Hitler was able to make persuasive emotional appeals for bad things. I’ve previously argued that Mohammed counts as the most successful persuader of all time. These three people pushed three very different ideologies, and rhetoric worked for them all. [Some act] as if “use rhetoric and emotional appeals” is a novel idea for Democrats, but it seems to me like they were doing little else throughout the election (pieces attacking Trump’s character, pieces talking about how inspirational Hillary was, pieces appealing to various American principles like equality, et cetera). It’s just that they did a bad job, and Trump did a better one. The real takeaway here is “do rhetoric better than the other guy”. But “succeed” is not a primitive action.
Unless you use asymmetric weapons, the best you can hope for is to win by coincidence.
That is, there’s no reason to think that good guys are consistently better at rhetoric than bad guys. Some days the Left will have an Obama and win the rhetoric war. Other days the Right will have a Reagan and they’ll win the rhetoric war. Overall you should average out to a 50% success rate. When you win, it’ll be because you got lucky.
And there’s no reason to think that good guys are consistently better at documentaries than bad guys. Some days the NIH will spin a compelling narrative and people will smoke less. Other days the tobacco companies will spin a compelling narrative and people will smoke more. Overall smoking will stay the same. And again, if you win, it’s because you lucked out into having better videographers or something.
I’m not against winning by coincidence. […] But you shouldn’t confuse it with a long-term solution.
If you really think that the conflict you’re involved in is an asymmetric one – that your side is the oppressed underdog fighting back against a powerful enemy – then the tactics you choose should be asymmetric in the other direction, so as to tip the advantage back in your favor. (And likewise, if you think you already hold the advantage, you should prefer those same asymmetric tactics for the same reason, in order to increase your advantage even further.) But violence is the most symmetric tactic in this regard – and accordingly, it’s almost always the one that will be the most counterproductive to whichever cause you’re fighting for. That’s why, if you truly care about your cause, it should alarm you when people on your side choose to engage in direct violence; and it should also alarm you when they choose to engage in all the other, more figurative ways of “fighting dirty” that we’ve talked about up to this point – demonizing the other side, refusing to take them seriously, denying them any kind of intellectual charity, and so forth – because these kinds of behaviors are exactly the kinds of things that tend to cause inter-group conflicts to escalate and turn ugly, creating the possibility for hatred and violence in the first place.