Civil disobedience and “social issues”

In my last post I wrote about the legal precedents being set in states like Tennessee and New York that punish non-lethal civil disobedience as severely as violent crime, entailing in some cases a felony conviction. This is particularly amoral since civil disobedience is one of the few tools that American political minorities have historically had at their disposal. Punishing civil means of resistance and discourse can radicalize people for lack of any other option and could contribute to civil war.

Remember, this was done ostensibly out of a fear of violent uprising. If vandalizing public property, blocking access to public places and other non-lethal crimes are punished with felonies, then political minorities are shunted squarely in front of militarism out of necessity.

This is clearly a double-bluff: with fear of rioting being the stated reason for these crack downs, Republican legislators have framed the notion of civil unrest in a way that takes attention away from the natural outcome of the policies they plan to enact. That outcome, civil unrest, will confirm what they’ve positioned as a worst case scenario (rioting). This reflects a calculated awareness of the purpose of civil disobedience and a wish to use the result for political gain.

To address some common sense concerns, yes it makes sense to punish minor crimes and the law is meant to be followed. However, that attitude must coexist with other social realities. Ever since the labor organizers of the early 20th century and the nineteen sixties civil rights movement, though, civil disobedience has been established as a means of civil discourse.

What is the thing that stops it from being insurrection? Non-violence. If no one is harmed, then no one is alienated against the inevitable implication: that this specific law can be broken or that a prospective or related law can be given social censure. More often than not, the implication is that the specific law should be broken or that a legal or political act should be censured. The subtle depth to what has happened in Tennessee and New York is that, when non-violent crime is punished identically to violent crime (a felony charge) it discourages non-violent activism and emboldens those who claim that civil discourse is fruitless. If civil activism is not seen as an effective choice then non-civil activism begins to look practical. If that course is followed, then those decrying BLM as violent will claim to have been right all along.

Such well-informed social engineering enacted from above makes me wonder about everyone else. Especially since the ability to define an idea by being the first voice in a conversation to articulate it is used so carefully (“BLM are violent” *does things that drive out non-violent protestors and leave the violent ones* “See?”). Social calculations and dynamics are mixed up in how we think about social issues.

The importance of the herd-instinct and our mammalian, prosocial hard-wiring cannot be overstated. Language is how most problems are solved between individuals and language (whether it’s speech, writing, typing or any other medium) is how we are taught to express ourselves. After the example of self-expression, it is no surprise that the language we use most frequently probably looks a lot how we think our private thoughts.

It follows that some of our private thoughts may resemble external social dynamics. If one believes that those in power will never negotiate with those without, then an actual refusal to negotiate will create the appearance that you are right. If this “you” is a BLM protester, others will remember claims about how violent your movement is and will think they are right while you are receiving the message that nothing short of violence will be heard.

This is nothing new: most of us have heard about stereotype threat (aka labeling theory) and confirmation bias. If you have not: both of those things refer to ways that social stereotyping can effect both behavior and private thoughts.

Recent events have made me wonder what the current state of things looks like, though, through the eyes of social engineers. In a recent speech, Trump mentioned that he was afraid of running against Bernie Sanders since Sanders had a movement following, like himself. With Joe Biden, he is less afraid, since the majority of those voting for Biden are doing so because he is not Trump.

Donald Trump realizes that the Democratic Party scattered their base when the DNC gave the nomination to Biden. He is now attempting to hit us where it hurts: by saying he was intimidated by Bernie’s movement, he is trying to touch a sore spot of progressives to stop the left from uniting.

The senators in Tennessee and New York are preparing to punish civil disobedience harshly enough to escalate violence. And Trump just attempted to use the emotional momentum of the scattered Democratic base against itself. One reflects a calculated effort to get people to think and act a certain way and the other reflects an informed knowledge of how people feel to begin with and how to exploit it.

This kind of manipulation only works with people who believe that their value system furnishes everything they need to know. If one believes they have an airtight grasp on an issue, it becomes easy to be disinterested in other consequences. What most people know more about, than anything else, are their personal experiences. The kind of political issues that can most directly effect our experiences are often social issues.

Speaking of recent political events, Kamala Harris used an interesting rhetorical device in her speech to the DNC: she began talking about an impersonal and voracious virus which turned out to be a metaphor for racism.

If you start talking about a virus right now, people are going to think of COVID-19. Did she say COVID-19? Nope. But I think it’s importance in general (to say nothing of it’s importance in American politics) is hard to ignore. I don’t know of anything else such a metaphor could be referring to. It strikes me as likely that she did intend to use COVID-19 as a metaphor for racism.

This rhetorical technique is familiar: start your talk with something everyone knows about in order to frame your point as comparable to it. Is a viral pandemic the same kind of problem as racism?

I’m not saying it’s not possible for overlap. Racism effects the function of government infrastructure, so systemic racism can impact how a response to a pandemic unfolds. And I have no doubt that it has. But when you equate a social issue like racism with a non-social issue like a pandemic, it’s clear which directions the emotional support is coming from and going toward within that analogy. With the intended metaphor and the metaphor’s meaning, the emotional momentum of anti-racism is related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of those two things we all probably know at least something about, and the other is a mystery that our best doctors and scientists are still laboring over. For most people, to relate those two things will allow one to borrow emotional “weight” from the other. It makes the mystery less scary.

But if the effect that racism has on the pandemic is the actual point, the comparison cannot be literal. It relies on the emotions that the viewers bring with them. To start with emotional momentum is not necessarily proof of bad faith but it makes it easy to suspect: either the emotional momentum is supposed to make the truth evident or the emotional momentum is the point itself.

In either case, the psychological button being pressed is more visible than what the person pressing it wants. Not knowing what someone wants could make one feel like they’re not being honest. If their end game is not stated, then they either feel no need to or think you already know. Neither inspires confidence.

Obviously not every statement that invokes ideas with strong social resonance with a vaguely defined or undefined goal is social engineering. Context, as usual, must complete the picture. What makes the legislation in Tennessee and New York so unique is that it reflects both a knowledge of the function served by civil disobedience and how to exploit it. Every day, though, I wonder when the psychological momentum summoned by those in power will clash against forces it cannot move.

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