Put People First, Psychological Biases, and the Role of Violence

Today I went to the ‘Put People First’ march in central london.

One of the things that really annoys one of the people I was with is the media presentation.

Every article, every broadcast seemed to have the following script: say there will be a protest march; say that there might “be violence”; say that the police are preparing for the possibility of violence being; get someone affiliated with the protest and ask them if there is going to “be violence”. Etc.

And similarly, the coverage afterwards was fairly uniform: there was a march; it was entirely peaceful – this time; but there may still be violence later in the week.

Now I find this hard to respond to because there are a number of problems and issues with the way the matter is framed, but dealing with each one pushes in a different direction. To lay it out as briefly as possible:

The presentation is – those with authority obviously use violence (but let’s say force), and the question to ask is whether they do so with the right manner and degree. Conversely, those without authority should never use force at all (let’s say violence), and if they do it reflects not a response to a situation but an expression of essential violence. If people without authority are violent, they are violent people.

For what it’s worth, this connects very neatly with a well-established finding in social psychology called (somewhat misleadingly) the fundamental attribution error.

When explaining their own actions and performance, people appeal to external factors – I had to, it was a response to this, the ground was slippy, it was so aggravating, etc. When explaining the actions and performance of others, people appeal to internal factors – those people are stupid/greedy/violent/smart/like X/dislike Y etc. Other people have essences that they express, but we have reason, i.e. the ability to respond appropriately to our surroundings.

Now that I come to think of it, this is an idea worth running with – use rigourous experimental methods to establish biases or tendencies in how people relate to others vs. to themselves, and then see whether similar effects are found with various different external groups – to try to give some empirical backing to claims about ‘identification’ and ‘Other-ness’. Well, I imagine some people have already got onto it, but anyway.

So in this case the point is that the pattern of self/other biasing is also displayed in considering the actions of authority figures (police)/non-authority figures (protesters). Conclusion – people habitually identify with the holders of authority – i.e. the “Oedipal Fallacy“.

(A related exercise is to consider which forces in the world are admonished to ‘renounce violence’, and which would never in a million years receive such an admonition)

Anyway, back to the point, such as there is. That’s the set-up: non-state users of force are demonic, because total pacifism is a duty of all civilians. And based on this set-up, the police and media do all they can to set up today’s protest as demonic, because it would cause there to “be violence” (I hate that, to be honest, that phrase – as if ‘violence’ is the whole category, and there’s no point distinguishing between damage to property and damage to people or animals, or between pushing and shoving, bone-breaking, and murder).

So I feel torn. On the one hand I want to tell the police and media to fuck off, to stop spinning this narrative of the masked threat, the danger, the enemy within, who we should all be afraid of. To stop injecting and inflating the prospect of violence. Because that’s transparently what they’re doing.

But on the other hand, I also don’t want to do so by buying into their background story, by accepting that any and all violence used by protesters is automatically illegitimate and wrong, by seeking out the approval and acceptance of (*spit*) “legitimate protest“. Because, if I’m honest, there may well be fighting later in the week. Members of that body whose entire profession and uniform indicate their avowed readiness for fighting, may be fought with. A fraction of the social wealth comandeered by the elite may be broken.

And you know what? That’s fine. Desperate times call for desperate measures – on the brink of an environmental catastrophe, in the midst of war, with endless and needless poverty all around us, if someone decides that putting the boot into the filth is the most productive way to apply political pressure, that seems like a perfectly legitimate decision to me.

That doesn’t mean the police shouldn’t fight back. Of course they will – that’s their job. That what’s a police force is – a tool for the suppression of any and all sovereignties that rival that of the state. This is why I find the outrage people often show at police brutality or police tactics on protests a little misplaced. They’re the agents of the state – it’s what they do.

And precisely because of the double-standard, the issue of force has huge symbolic importance. In short, if we accept that there should be no violence at all, that the question is not how and when to use force but whether to use it at all, we accept that the people as assembled in groups of a hundred thousand have no authority – they are and remain the subordinates of a state.

Conversely, if we affirm that protests have the right to decide how to use force as much as the government or police do, we affirm that the people as assembled in such groups are themselves the authority. I.e. it is an expression of “popular sovereignty”.

If people want to argue that violence never acheives anything, by all means so argue, but it looks like a pretty spectacularly implausible claim to me. Every struggle that’s held up as an example of the power of non-violence contained substantial violent elements (I’m thinking particularly of the US civil rights movement and the Indian independence movement). This post is a good starting point for people who want to argue for non-violence.

Anyway, this leaves me in the position of a fat-acceptance activist whose non-fat friend complains of being fat. Saying “you’re not fat” is true, and important to maintain a sense of reality, but doesn’t challenge the notion that being fat is disgusting and a personal failing. Saying “even if you are, it hardly matters” gives the impression that you’re saying that because you think they are fat. I’m sure examples could be multiplied.

I’m not sure whether to say fuck the police for their unremitting desire to scare the public with horror stories of the shadowy anarchists and their bloodlust, or fuck the police for suggesting that everyone apart from the police could only use force if they were bloodlustful and mindlessly destructive. As usual, the only thing that everyone can agree on is, fuck the police.

4 Responses to “Put People First, Psychological Biases, and the Role of Violence”

  1. DOMINO Says:

    Haha! Nice summation.

  2. charliemarks Says:

    The violence is usually not actual violence – when it does occur. Sure there’s police and protesters attacking one another, but for the main part there’s property damage. Which is hardly the same thing as violence. The more appropriate word would be vandalism. But that doesn’t sound as scary, I suppose…

  3. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Well exactly, good point.

  4. johnqpublican Says:

    First class post; thank you. I’ve been saying something similar over on my own blog: for ever Gandhi there is a Nehru.

    Your analysis of the Fundamental Attribution error is also well worth arguing about. It interacts with the sociological process of Othering, and one thing we (today) need to be talking about is this: the centralised/statist paradigm has 38,000 years of heavy propaganda machinery behind the voice in everyone’s head which says ‘obey’. To quote Robert Anton Wilson, “The ultimate freedom of any autonomous soul is the ability to say ‘no’, and take the consequences.” Gandhi’s protests worked because the argument that the forces of authority were both brutal and wrong was inscribed in the blood of peaceful men.


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