Monday, January 4, 2016

Fried Green Y'all Qaedas, Anyone?

As many of you are undoubtedly aware at this point, there is currently an armed standoff on a federal wildlife sanctuary near Burns, Oregon. The root cause of this particular standoff is simple enough: a couple ranchers were convicted of arson on federal property, and received a mandatory minimum sentence of five years each. The original judge who presided over the case thought the mandatory minimum sentence was excessive, and instead opted to sentence the individuals to serve a fraction of that time. The federal government successfully appealed that sentence, and as a result, these individuals are to serve the remainder of their five year prison terms. Although there is a legitimate discussion about the usefulness of mandatory minimum sentences, themselves a relic of the "get tough on crime" ethos that dominated the 1980s and 1990s political landscape in the US, that discussion has been obscured by the antics of those who showed up to protest.

Initially there was minimal national media coverage, and CNN in particular managed to botch coverage of the protest in Burns and the armed standoff that ensued. As of this writing that appears to have changed. Hence, on social media platforms such as Twitter, the hashtag #OregonUnderAttack began to trend as a critical mass of users decided to spread the news on their own. As of this writing, that particular hashtag continues to trend on Twitter. There appeared to be some pushback by apologists for the militia members who seized the nearby wildlife sanctuary in response. What followed, however, was an example of what Twitter users with mainstream political views do best: they created additional hashtags to mock those involved in this particular armed standoff. Among those hashtags are #YallQaeda, #VanillaISIS, #YeeHawd, #YokelHaram, #CowTippingTerrorists, #FailQaeda, #Infantada, #WhiteSIS, #SaturdayNightTreason, and #TrailerDaesh. The first three of those hashtags in particular caught on. These hashtags accompanied any of a number of clever quips, humorous photoshopped images, and also links to some serious commentary about terrorism, white privilege, racism (the Bundy family, a member of whom is leading this particular action, is notorious in that regard) and gun use. None of the users of these hashtags appeared to accept the explanation by the would be insurrectionists and their apologists that the armed occupiers were harming no one. Given some of the rhetoric to the contrary used by some of the members of this particular militia, that is understandable.

The negative reaction to any sort of armed action is not terribly surprising, given the potential for violence. There is ample evidence in the psychological literature that protests that are violent or threaten violence do change attitudes, but not in the direction the protesters would intend. Rather, violent and potentially violent protests persuade onlookers to become more pro-government in their attitudes. I can think of a number of experiments that Bob Altemeyer ran and published back in the 1980s and early 1990s that demonstrated this phenomenon quite well. Even if you read the coverage of what the locals in Burns think about the protesters, the impression you'll be left with is that the protesters are largely unwanted, even if they agree that the sentence given to the two convicted of arson was excessive, and even if many of them may be rather jaded in their views regarding the federal government and its land management policies.

As an aside, it is worth noting that in recent history, attempts to instigate armed revolt or revolution in stable democratic societies have typically failed to win over the public. The member of the Bundy family who has spearheaded this particular armed standoff in Oregon has argued that his militia's purpose is simple: the residents in Burns are too weak to stand up to the federal government and need the militia's help to gain sufficient courage to fight. The same rationale has been used previously by revolutionary groups. The notorious Red Army Faction, which terrorized West Germany during the 1970s and into the 1980s rationalized their acts of terrorism as needed because the average West German would not do so. The public reception of the Red Army Faction was not entirely negative at first, when their actions did not involve casualties, but once they began to kill civilians, support vanished. The organization was mocked as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, and it became popular to voice distance from the Red Army Faction by placing bumper stickers on vehicles (especially BMWs, given that the group drove stolen BMWs for a while) stating “Ich gehöre nicht zur Baader-Meinhof Gruppe" ("I am not a member of the Baader-Meinhof Group"). When the West German government cracked down on leftist organizations, as a result of the terrorism caused by that organization (as well as some splinter organizations), there was broad support for the government's decision. Rather than act as a vanguard for resistance, the organization became something of a laughingstock and something to be loathed. Interestingly enough, both the right-wing militia and the RAF appear to be arguing from a position of privilege, to the extent that they claim to have the necessary background and courage to overthrow the system that the rest of the population is too weak or ignorant to do themselves. That rhetorical tactic will be unlikely to win over too many converts.

The lesson to be learned is that violent rhetoric and actions rarely persuade those outside the circles of the already converted. In a social psychology course, we could start using terms like polarization and reactance to describe the typical reaction toward such tactics. It really matters little what the ideology of those involved in using such rhetoric and actions happens to be. The reaction among those with attitudes that are more within the mainstream will be generally negative.

A belated happy new year to those of you who read this blog. I will be back later in the month with some fresh content.

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