Saturday, April 22, 2017

Tactics of Polarization

This last week, I listened to a video lecture presentation from the 2016 Fletcher Summer Institute of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.  The title of the lecture was "Nonviolent Discipline and Violent Flanks," and was presented by Dr. Erica Chenoweth and by Philippe Duhamel.  I learned a few rather disturbing things, the first of which is that, although the record of successes in nonviolent mass civil resistance campaigns had been growing steadily from 1900 to 2006, the percentage of nonviolent campaigns that succeed has been dropping steeply from 2010 onward.  (However, there is good news: the number of nonviolent campaigns that succeed is still quite high, and nonviolent mass campaigns, which were over two times as likely to succeed as violent campaigns during the 20th century, are now more than three times as likely to succeed.)

Fortunately, Dr. Chenoweth (who presented these statistics) also presented a number of possible explanations for this decline in effectiveness, such as the fact that oppressive adversaries have learned how to adapt and react to nonviolent campaigns, or that nonviolent movements are not learning the right lessons from each other.  But she also stated a hunch she has that the reason for the decline in nonviolent campaign effectiveness is that "...a growing proportion of nonviolent mass campaigns seem to be willing to tolerate or even endorse violent flanks that are existing alongside them..."  She defined a "violent flank" as "...a group of people attached to the movement and who engage on a routine basis in some form of violence," where violence is defined both as destruction of other people's property and as harming or threatening to do bodily harm to an opponent.  To bolster her hunch, she showed a graph which displayed the percentage of nonviolent campaigns per year that had no violent flank compared with those campaigns in which a violent flank coexisted with the nonviolent movement.

Sure enough, the graph line showing the number of movements which had both a nonviolent campaign and a violent flank began to increase around 2010.

Dr. Chenoweth then presented evidence of the detrimental effect of the presence of violent flanks on the nonviolent campaigns with which they coexist, presenting her own research and the data set which she built in the process of writing her book on nonviolent resistance.  However, she also presented evidence from studies I had not heard of before, studies which backed up her assertion that violent flanks in a mass civil movement drastically hurt the chances of success for the movement.  (Her slide, "Negative Violent Flank Effects," is quite relevant - especially the references she cites.)  Interestingly, in the NAVCO data set which was constructed by Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, most of the violent flanks in movements which occurred between 1900 and 2006 did not arise in the movements to which they attached themselves - rather, like unwelcome house guests or body lice, these violent flanks sprang up independently and then claimed to be part of these movements.

As Dr. Chenoweth described how violent flanks decrease mass societal participation in a civil resistance campaign she said something very striking: "Violence is by definition a tactic of polarization."  That statement is so important that I will repeat it again:
Violence is by definition a tactic of polarization.
In her words, "Polarization means dividing a society into very discrete camps that support or oppose a certain idea..."  Therefore, tactics of polarization effectively discourage diverse groups within a society from coming together to work for the common good, or from uniting against a common predatory threat.  Thus the emergence or presence of a violent flank in a nonviolent resistance movement does not help the movement - but it does help the oppressor against whom the movement has organized.

This perspective helps to interpret the events described by Philippe Duhamel in the second part of the video.  Duhamel is an activist who was instrumental in several anti-"free trade" protests in Canada and the U.S. from 1999 onward, and he described how, in the majority of the protests, the organizers held extensive training sessions for participants before each protest action.  Yet they began to find that as time passed, their protests were being increasingly infiltrated by members of the "Black Bloc," groups of young adults, usually men (and usually white), who attended protests in order to commit vandalism, assault other protesters, and attack police.  (See this, this, this and this also.)  The increasing presence of these Black Bloc vandals at mass protests has begun to reduce the effectiveness of sustained mass protest in presenting the genuine grievances of marginalized and threatened populations.

An interesting question, then, is, where the violent flanks have come from in the nonviolent campaigns that have been waged especially in North America and Europe from 2010 onward.  For the oppressors who are the targets of civil resistance have now known for a long time that the presence of these violent flanks actually helps the oppressive regimes against which these violent flanks fight.  In fact, there are concrete historical examples which demonstrate that if a mass nonviolent movement remains nonviolent, the oppressive regime it opposes will try to manufacture violent incidents in order to polarize the nation's population and bolster support for the regime, as happened in the Philippines when President Ferdinand Marcos ordered his forces to set off a number of bomb explosions around Manila.  The bombs were set to give Marcos a credible reason to declare that the country was under threat and that he was therefore justified in imposing martial law.  (See Why Civil Resistance Works, Chenoweth and Stephan, pages 148-150.)  It might be prudent to ask who is funding, supporting and growing the Black Bloc.  Who guides its recruitment efforts?  What similarities exist between the Black Bloc and the global far right?

(A larger question, one which hopefully will be studied by the academics at the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, is the study of false flag operations by oppressive regimes who are under threat from popular uprisings.  How, particularly, does an observer detect whether a violent incident is a false flag attack?  I think especially of the shooting of a police officer in France last week, supposedly by a "member of ISIS".  How, er, convenient - just a few days before the French presidential election, in which an anti-immigrant candidate is one of the front-runners.)

In closing, I am reminded of Vaclav Havel's essay, The Power of the Powerless, in which he says that "...a future secured by violence might actually be worse than what exists now; in other words, the future would be fatally stigmatized by the very means used to secure it."  He also implied that oppressive regimes appeal to their oppressed populations by making them believe that the only alternative to the regime is chaos, as made clear by his statement that "Every aberration from the prescribed course of life is treated as error, license, and anarchy."  One way a nonviolent resistance movement can disarm such an appeal is by being orderly and maintaining strict nonviolent discipline.  Another way is by building orderly "parallel institutions" by which people can get their needs met in an orderly way that is superior to what the existing system currently offers.

1 comment:

CZBZ said...

Thank you, very helpful! It's strange that people believe they can use violence to control situations and achieve peaceful goals; that they are justified to use violence because they are 'right' and others are 'wrong.' I see the polarization process taking root every day and it frightens me. Being "othered" should terrify all of us.

I have watched the peaceful protesting of recent marches and worried that they'd be hijacked by leaders to achieve their nefarious means and goals. The challenge we face is that society has been polarized the past twenty years (or more) while at the same time, undergoing huge economic changes. Everybody is looking for a scapegoat and we have to be self-aware to realize we're doing that. Unfortunately, we are easily distracted from self-reflection in a world that makes $$$ by distracting us and it is hard to disconnect from technology and think---even when you know you need to do that!

We're programmed to believe the propaganda defining dissent as anti-american and once people dehumanize "dissenters", violence is not only probable but welcomed as a righteous war against tyranny. ARGH So I am realistically concerned about vandals infiltrating people's efforts to organize peaceful protests. And I'm concerned about violence becoming an acceptable means to an end. I appreciate your words, "the emergence or presence of a violent flank in a nonviolent resistance movement does not help the movement - but it does help the oppressor against whom the movement has organized."

I hope people realize in short order, that violence and chaos are a playground for pathological leaders who are viewed as restoring order, even at the cost of freedoms. It isn't easy to stay calm when my fear is being triggered and right now, I think a lot of people are afraid. That our younger people are able to organize peaceful protests gives me great hope that we won't give in to violence as inevitable--the way we have in prior turbulent times. Is this to be a growth moment in human history, or an aberration? I guess we shall see in time.

Thanks for another important post. ~CZ