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Violence, Authoritarianism, and the Future of America: Using Science to Progress Past Tribalism

Will progressives accept the empirical data behind the efficacy of nonviolence?
By Angela Tripp / justwellwritten.com
Aug 25, 2017
Violence, Authoritarianism, and the Future of America: Using Science to Progress Past Tribalism

My specific area of interest is state authority, ethics, and civil disobedience. Because I admire the political theories of Hannah Arendt, I heed her warnings and advise anyone who considers themselves an active citizen to follow world news closely. More important than merely keeping up with events, however, is a citizen’s obligation to see the process through. Citizens are active, not passive. They participate in the state system because they are very much an integral component of its function. To be a passive citizen is to allow the banal evil of authoritarianism to creep into our political system. As Arendt so correctly opined, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.” Thus, evil arises because men and women become complacent. They stop caring. When they are comfortable, they become lazy in mind and body. They do what is easiest rather than what is effective. The alternative to allowing evil to creep into our society? Be an active citizen.

So how can you become an active citizen? It isn’t difficult. You just have to give a damn. Active citizens consciously identify with a set of principles and choose an ideological path that helps to guide them in their decision making. In the words of Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” In other words, staying out of it and avoiding choosing a side doesn’t makes you wise or noble. What it makes you is complicit in the reemergence of a very real and known evil: authoritarianism.

Active citizens must take the time to learn the foundational tenets of a given ideology before ascribing to it and committing to speak for it. Identifying with an ideology is a thoughtful process, and to be an inactive citizen is a contradiction in terms. People who opt out of the political process by not voicing their informed opinions, by not taking to the streets with a purpose, by not vying to have their message heard, passively contribute to the potentiality of evil taking root in their political system. Thoughtlessness leads to authoritarianism. Historically, authoritarianism leads to genocide and slaughter. Thanks in part to the dedication of social scientists and historians, we have the tools to prevent a reemergence of state-sponsored terror at the hand of bigots, racists, and xenophobes.

If no one has told you, we are battling a potential populist takeover and now is the time to take action…non-violently.

The Reemergence of Right-Wing Populism and Tribal Terror

Active citizens who oppose Nazis and white supremacists are currently waging war against neo-Nazis, the KKK, and other right-wing groups trying desperately to gain ground in the U.S. political system. Through his leadership, Trump has passively allowed, and sometimes blatantly permitted, those ideologically analogous to Hitler’s National Socialism, and similar fascist movements, to feel comfortable in publicizing their opinions. While these right-wing groups are certainly entitled to the same protections of free speech as the next American citizen, what they are not entitled to is a platform or an audience. Sadly, because of his thoughtlessness and ineptitude, Trump has provided the populist right with the tools they need to get their message of hate on the airwaves and into the mainstream media. The problem with this? Thoughtless citizens who lack the ability to think critically or engage history accept populist rhetoric as fact and identify with a system of hate and oppression. This is especially frightening when one considers the social science behind it.

Young minds are easily moldable and tribalism is a very real thing. In his piece entitled “How Tribalism Overrules Reason, and Makes Risky Times More Dangerous” Harvard’s David Ropeik claims that:

Tribalism is pervasive, and it controls a lot of our behavior, readily overriding reason. Think of the inhuman things we do in the name of tribal unity. Wars are essentially, and often quite specifically, tribalism. Genocides are tribalism - wipe out the other group to keep our group safe – taken to madness. Racism that lets us feel that our tribe is better than theirs, parents who end contact with their own children when they dare marry someone of a different faith or color, denial of evolution or climate change or other basic scientific truths when they challenge tribal beliefs. What stunning evidence of the power of tribalism!”

Vulnerable young people, more often males between 15 and 24, are looking to belong and willingly commit heinous acts in order to be welcomed into an in-group. Speaking largely to groups like ISIS and other organizations promoting radical Islamic political violence, Counter-terrorism expert Thomas Koruth Samuel recently wrote on the lure of youth to terrorism. He stated:
"Structured and deliberate strategies have been formulated by terrorists to radicalise and recruit young people into committing acts of violence. The advantages in targeting the youths into joining terrorists groups are many and terrorists are displaying increased capability and capacity in enlisting them. This coupled with the growing exploitation of technology such as the Internet has allowed the terrorists a far and wide reach."

But ISIS is not the only terrorist organization relying on frustrated youth to carry out their political violence. Take the recent publication by the Southern Poverty Law Centeron lone wolf political violence in the United States. Like Thomas Koruth Samuel asserts, “When there are few opportunities to break out of the cycle of poverty, perceived or real, injustice and despair, there is a greater tolerance for violence.” Similarly, according to SPLC, young terrorists see violence as “the only answer for addressing their grievances.” Political violence, such as on August 12th when a right-wing populist used his vehicle as a weapon to kill 32 year old Heather Heyer, is pragmatic tribalism employed strategically for the purpose of effecting socio-political change. The young man who killed Heather Heyer fits the typology described by counter-terrorism experts studying the correlation between youth and political violence. What can we do with this data? Behavioral science offers solutions to prevent and control political violence. There are patterns of behavior which we, as active citizens, can recognize. We should not ignore the power of science to tackle this problem of tribe-inspired political violence on the right or the left of the political spectrum.

Using Science to Stop Political Violence 

“When somebody’s ideas are just a platform of literally murdering people outright, I really don't care to have a lot of discussion about the matter. And when they're out actively recruiting others to their side and forming gangs and mobs, I'm going to follow in the footsteps of my grandfather, and punch some fascists.”


This is a common response I see from liberal progressives discussing how best to respond to the alt-right. I can completely sympathize with my friends who want to deck a right-wing populist. I was in the military for nine years. I grew up watching rugby and playing contact sports. I know violence against your opponent, against bullies and bad guys, feels good, it feels justified, it feels final. The problem with punching neo-Nazis, however, goes way beyond a question of ethics, although ethics certainly enter into the debate. But, as an unemployed student of philosophy, I know normative ethics don’t win the day. Ethics aren't persuasive enough. That’s why I am citing science instead to argue against relying on violence to curb the advancement of right-wing populism. 

The Christian Science Monitor recently published an article entitled, “Why are there still Nazis? These eight question can help explain.” In his well-informed piece, Eoin O’Carroll shared a social theory we’ve known about since the 1990s: Social Dominance Theory. “Social dominance theory seeks to explain how hierarchy-enhancing ideologies do not just drive social inequality, but are also a result of it. It suggests that a single personality trait, called social dominance orientation (SDO), strongly predicts a person’s political and social views, from foreign policy and criminal justice to civil rights and the environment. What's more, it offers insight into how ideologies such as racism, sexism, and xenophobia tend to arise from the unequal distribution of a society's resources.”

O’Carroll (follow him on Twitter) summarizes the theory wonderfully, “People with high SDO scores are more likely to believe that women and men are naturally different and should have different workplace roles. They are more likely to accept theories of racial superiority and to believe that their country is inherently better than other countries. They tend to oppose lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights; affirmative action; interracial marriage; and social welfare programs. They tend not to call themselves environmentalists. They tend to support military action overseas and the death penalty at home. They tend to believe in capitalism and that the world is basically just. And they are more likely to choose ‘hierarchy enhancing’ careers such as law enforcement, military, business, and politics.”

What does that translate to? People believe what they believe because they are biologically inclined to do so. We discovered this behavioral trait through our use of reason and our implementation of the scientific process. I argue that perhaps through continued study and eventual understanding of this psychological phenomenon, as opposed to perpetuating ineffective violent conflict (punching neo-Nazis), we can improve our society rationally by applying scientific methods and reason.

According to Felicia Pratto, one of the scientists who developed the theory, there is scientific data to support the possibility of a person with a high SDO trait changing his or her social attitudes. “There are people who mentally practice being egalitarian, so that what they do habitually when confronted with a stimulus that they know might provoke prejudice is to associate a good feeling with it, or bring to bear their egalitarian values…People can do this so much that they eventually become automatic at doing it.” What does that mean? Neo-Nazis can change!

Regarding the effectiveness of non-violence and the science behind its success, I cite Erica Chenowith, Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. She recently published an article elucidating the effectiveness of non-violence in civil protest and disobedience in Southeast Asia over 100+ years, “The central contention of this study is that nonviolent resistance methods are likely to be more successful than violent methods in achieving strategic objectives.” I invite you to engage her work and to consider the arguments against the lasting effectiveness of violence put forth by Professor Noam Chomsky and Hannah Arendt back in 1967.

In this piece, “The Legitimacy of Violence as a Political Act”, Dr. Chomsky reasonable stated, “It seems to me, from the little we know about such matters, that a new society rises out of the actions that are taken to form it, and the institutions and the ideology it develops are not independent of those actions; in fact, they’re heavily colored by them, they’re shaped by them in many ways.” This harks back to the SDO theory: you are what you practice. If you practice violence, you will embrace violence. If you practice reasonable decision-making, you will be a reasonable decider. That goes for individuals as well as for societies. The summary of that debate was as follows: “If violence could be shown to lead to the overthrow of lasting suppression of human life that now obtains in vast parts of the world, that would be a justification for violence. But this has not been shown at all, in my view.”

So, according to every well-informed and highly respected social scientist I have listed up to this point, political violence does not work. It only perpetuates a useless and devastating cycle of tribalism. 

Why Not Embrace Science? Stop Kicking the Can Down the Road!

The human brain is an incredibly complex organ, and our behavior is a result of how that organ functions. For this reason, it is critical for us to apply our hard-earned knowledge of science in order to progress our society. And why shouldn’t we take full advantage of the science we've worked so hard to be able to use? The Enlightenment gave us the scientific process. Men and women died for the sake of scientific progress in the face of primitivism and tradition. Olivia Solon (follow her on Twitter) wrote an article treating the topic of scientists persecuted throughout history: “Galileo to Turing: The Persecution of Scientists Throughout History”. The same logic that demanded the persecution of scientists now demands the perpetuation of violence to effect social change.  

I entreat you to ask yourself why, in 2017, do we still resort to violence and tribalism? We live in a time completely unique from any period in history ever. People are educated, have access to information, and can openly practice science. We finally have the tools to affect actual positive, systematic change yet we rely on the methods of the generations before. Why? I mean that in a non-rhetorical way. Really ask yourself, if you are an active citizen, why do you value science in some aspects of society but reject it when it goes against your preferred narrative and worldview? Is that truly progressive?

If you have any faith in the market at all, you'll let it work. Google and Go Daddy are already removing supremacist websites and taking away their platform. So too are universities. Texas A&M canceled Spencer's planned hatefest on September 11th. This is effective action. The majority of people realizing, collectively, that the hate and ignorance being spread by the alt-right and neo-Nazis is exactly that: hate and ignorance not worth entertaining. Take the words of Amy Smith, Texas A&M’s executive VP for Marketing and Communication. “His views and those of the group he represents are counter to the core values of Texas A&M…While he has the right of free speech, so too do we have the right to refute those views and get on with the daily business of a world-class university.” I hope Amy dropped the mic after that statement.

Exchanging ideas, educating, fostering open dialogue, but knowing when to dismiss hateful rhetoric that serves no benefit to people as a whole, that is a progressive society. Logic holds, if you accept one case of censorship, or accept one case where violent retribution is permitted, you've set a precedent for the entirety of the social contract to collapse. Chomsky stated the same in 1967. Of course, this logic applies in both directions, from the right and the left, and state-sponsored or mob-induced censorship is not a slope we should be willing to slide down.

If you examine the evidence of history and social science, an ideological movement dies when people lose interest in it. Ideas do not fade away when violence is used to force the idea into submission. History reveals such tactics never work for more than a few years. I'd rather not kick the can of nationalism and racial supremacy further down the road for the next generation to have to deal with. Why should we when we can apply reason, neuroscience, and psychology to squash this garbage now…in this generation.

The discussion isn't necessarily meant to be directed toward alt-right bigots. They've proven themselves unreasonable. So, too have members of Antifa who insist on inciting violence during protests despite the evidence that their strategy is counter-productive and divisive. Sadly, asserting that fact about Antifa upsets a lot of progressives, which is odd because it isn’t an irrational position to hold. It is 100% grounded in science and substantiated with evidence by experts who study political violence, civil disobedience, and authority for a living. But, to revisit Social Dominance Theory, people can change their views, even desperate political terrorists who embrace violence. You just have to show them how to practice non-violent civil disobedience and discourse. This is why we need a national conversation to recognize the problem of tribalism. We need to resolve this primitive habit of resorting to violence, collectively, like reasonable people.  We must demonstrate our valuation of progress by implementing the tools we finally have at our disposal to overcome our tribal nature and primitive history.

It boggles the mind why so many progressives reject antiquity and outdated methods of social behavior when it comes to religion and patriarchy, but they except violence and tribalism. Why? Perhaps because it feels good to know you’re on the right side of history and to feel like you are making a difference. Because if it was good enough for your grandfather to punch a Nazi, it’s good enough for you! But this isn’t 1945. This is 2017. We live in a different period of time with unique socio-political factors not analogous to World War II. People punching neo-Nazis and KKK members feel justified because they feel they aren’t letting history repeat. They’re doing something about it!

I get that. But step back and look at the evidence, friend.

When you use violence against a person who hasn't attacked you, you are not helping anyone except the opposition. If you don’t believe that, listen to the Nazis themselves! In the incredibly important and watchable VICE documentary, the openly supremacist Christopher Cantwell plainly stated, “We don’t have the camaraderie, we don’t have the trust level that our rivals (the left) do. And that camaraderie and trust is built up through activism, and that is one of the tactics we’re adopting.” That translates to, “we are putting boots on the ground to unite our cause, and the more justified we feel in protesting, the stronger we become.” Cantwell continues to elaborate on why he considers the murder of Heather Heyer to be justified, “The video appears to show someone striking [Alex Fields’] vehicle. Then these animals attack him again and he saw no way to get away from them except to hit the gas…and I think it was more than justified.”

Let’s use our deductive reasoning and translate that: Without the violence used against the vehicle that struck Heather Heyer, the death of Heather Heyer becomes unjustified. This, according to the neo-Nazis themselves. So, if we remove the violence from the equation, the alt-right has no justification to commit violence against their ideological opponents. None.

How does a group (any group) become more united? Through shared hardship and trauma. Following this example to its logical conclusion: Using violence against the right gives the right something to rally around and forges in them a stronger bond.

Listen to the experts. They agree. Science and history reiterate that committing violence to mute an idea only strengthens your opposition. You cannot beat an idea into submission. You can reason with it though. Non-violence works. Violence, on the other hand, is a temporary solution that feels good in the moment but ultimately damns future generations to relive what you were too impatient and unwilling to resolve through reason in your own time. In short, what you are doing is irrational and doesn’t actually put you on the right side of history. It makes you primitive, irrational, and incredibly selfish.

You want to shut up the alt-right and deny a platform to right-wing populists? Be an active citizen. Protest. Show up. Shout. Be thoughtful. Be heard. Be seen. Make a human wall. Lay on the ground. Use art. Dance. Pray. Be reasonable. Embrace science. Give a damn. But don't commit violence if you actually want to resolve this very serious problem we are facing. Violence sets a precedent for more violence, and so on. Kicking the can down the road...

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