Monday, August 10, 2009

Stop-Talking Points - Gauging Legitimate Protest

[This is a fairly long and complex post. Basically it looks at how to determine legitimacy when people use protest that disrupts speech, action, or just to make a point. I've used headers to help people keep track and for those who just want to skim the main ideas. I also have a section below called The Apparent General Rule which offers a simplistic way to start to determine legitimacy in the situations I discuss. Finally there's a discussion of the larger context.]

As I understand it, Republicans invented a technique they called talking points. The inner circle would decide what phrases they wanted their network to use that day to help spin the issues their way, and then all over the media those phrases would be used repeatedly, droning them into the heads of listeners and readers. It worked so well that Democrats following their lead.

This story seems to signal that we've come into a new era - Stop-Talking Points - where the Republicans are sending out messages on how to literally prevent political opponents from expressing their views.

From the New York Times:
“Become a part of the mob!” said a banner posted Friday on the Web site of the talk show host Sean Hannity. “Attend an Obama Care Townhall near you!” The exhortations do not advocate violence, but some urge opponents to be disruptive.
“Pack the hall,” said a strategy memo circulated by the Web site Tea Party Patriots that instructed, “Yell out and challenge the Rep’s statements early.”
“Get him off his prepared script and agenda,” the memo continued. “Stand up and shout and sit right back down.”
Of course harassment of unwanted speakers and attempts at censorship aren't new. We've seen this in Alaska recently as bloggers have been vilified and threatened with lawsuits and death threats. This has happened to Shannyn Moore, Celtic Diva, and AKMuckraker.

And more recently, when Gryphen at Immoral Minority posted about a rumor that the Palins were splitting, the kindergarten where he teaches part time was flooded with mail saying he should be fired.
I contacted my school the other day (the first day they were back in the office) to let them know, and became aware that they had been inundated with hate mail and threatening phone calls. Some making defamatory allegations and others threatening to kill me on school grounds.
Ex-Governor Palin and her supporters regularly attacked Andre McLeod and others who filed ethics complaints. And now we learn the Attorney General would like to amend the Ethics Law (such as it is) in a way that would deter people from filing ethics complaints. From the Juneau Empire:

[Attorney General Dan Sullivan] also said the state should consider giving the Personnel Board, which hears ethics complaints, authority to order reimbursement of fees and costs from people who file complaints they know to be false.
"I would not call that a penalty, I would call that shifting the balance," Sullivan said.
(In a strong governor state like Alaska, it seems odd that we need to boost the governor's power for balance against attacks from individual citizens filing complaints.)

So What Does This Mean?

A quick thought is that the health care forums story suggests the Republicans' ability to frame issues through talking points has lost some of its potency and so now they have shifted to simply preventing the other side from talking.

But are there times when it is legitimate to protest in ways that prevent an event from happening and/or prevent people from talking? How can liberals, for example, decry people disrupting the health care town meetings but cheer the Iraqi who threw a shoe at then-President Bush in Baghdad? Why is it not ok for people to try to get Gryphen fired, but it is ok to boycott products from South Africa? You can't say "it's ok if we do this because we're right, but it's not ok for them to do it because they are wrong." Unless you can show there are fundamental differences in what they are doing.

So what are some of the reasons people might try to stop speech? (These are not mutually exclusive.)

A. They feel threatened: Whatever they are opposing - a new law, a new product, new ideas - threatens something they feel is vital to them. In the health debate, deep down, the key players in the insurance and drug companies must see their profits at risk. This doesn't mean they don't have some legitimate arguments, but it does suggest the public's interest is a much lower priority than their own on this issue and that they will fight this as strongly as they can and they may stray from legitimate means.

Based on what I see on white supremacist websites, there are a number of people in the US who are threatened by having a Black president. Here's an example of what you'll find:
Within our lifetimes, the United States of America as we know it will cease to exist as one united country. Rather, it will Balkanize into several racially-based smaller states after an awkward period of racial civil war. It will be unpleasant. It will be bloody. It will be messy. Millions of people, both innocent and guilty, White and nonWhite, will die. But, it is inevitable. Multiracial democracy founded on the myth of racial equality cannot succeed. What cannot fly, should fall, and what is falling, we should still push, and say, fall faster!

What kind of world will our kids inherit from us? If you are concerned about the future your White children and grandchildren will have in an America where they will be a minority in the country their ancestors created, lend us a hand. Look inside to find out how...
Others are threatened by the economic crisis, others have their identity threatened, some feel their way of life is threatened. Such people are ripe for any group - liberal, conservative, religious, or whatever orientation - to recruit, to help, and/or to exploit. If they are given the respect they feel they aren't getting, but deserve, they can be used as foot soldiers for any fight that seems consistent with their goals. Fighting health care reform can be equated to fighting Obama, who for some, is a key symbol of what is wrong with the US.

B. They feel excluded from participating in the debate and decision making, so the only way they see to get a voice or to stop actions they were prevented from deciding on, is to protest and perhaps physically disrupt something .

If people aren't allowed to participate meaningfully in decision-making that affects them, their choice is to accept the status quo or take whatever action is available to them. In the 1700's colonists in North America threw tea into Boston Harbor and took other actions that led to a revolutionary war. Indeed, some of today's conservative call themselves the Teabaggers. Martin Luther King led peaceful, but disruptive demonstrations to end segregation in the Southern United States.

C. They do not have any persuasive arguments so they try to end the debate.

Repressive governments around the world stifle dissent through social pressure and use of police state tactics. The Chinese make every effort to prevent public displays of dissent, though this doesn't completely stop all demonstrations or online criticism. There is a current story about apparently Russian attempts to block a Georgian blogger which also affected Facebook and Twitter.

The Iranian government has so far been reasonably successful in breaking up the protests about the recent election. Some White Southerners used a variety of methods - including lynching - to suppress any form of dissent from Black citizens.

In all these cases there is some fear that 'the other side's arguments' may challenge the legitimacy of the suppressors power.

D. They think they will lose and the issue is so important, they go beyond normally accepted methods. (This is closely related to people feeling threatened.)

The California Science Center's fear exhibit tells us that prey animals have developed a variety of defensive behaviors.

Most prey animals will avoid fights with predators, if at all possible. Therefore, many species have evolved tricks to try to keep predators from attacking.

Some animals puff themselves up to look bigger and scarier. Some flash their fangs and extend their claws to show that they mean business.

Other animals use camouflage to blend in with their surroundings. Some animals, such as chameleons, can even change color to better hide themselves.

Still other animals create a diversion to mask their escape. Octopi, for example, secrete a black dye, which creates a disorienting smokescreen effect that can help the animal make a timely getaway.

The exhibit says in a different part that
If a prey animal has nowhere to go or seems to have no hope of making an escape, it will usually fight its predator. Using any built-in fighting implements it has – claws, antlers, hooves, horns or tusks – the animal will struggle to get away.
They also see the basic defensive behaviors in humans. So while many people will try to freeze and blend into the background, and others will flee, some will fight. When they see no other options, and they aren't willing to give up quietly, someone is likely to get hurt. We see this, for example, in people who 'go postal'.

Those with more planning and organizational skills may set up organizations and fight in more effective ways - such as the underground in WW II Europe.

The people who have been showing up at the health forums seem to be 'puff[ing] themselves up to look bigger and scarier. [Or] flash[ing] their fangs and extend[ing] their claws to show that they mean business."

But the White Supremacist websites suggest others are planning for future civil war to regain what they believe to be their freedom to live their values.

E. They feel that what is being said is extremely offensive or dangerous.

This includes a variety of people including those opposed to hate speech; those who block profanity on broadcast television and favor movie ratings; and those who ban books and CDs. It also includes people who classify government information.

I'm sure you can think of other reasons. The point is that there are both legitimate and illegitimate reasons for protesting and for stopping people from speaking or acting.

So How Do We Determine What's Legitimate and What Isn't?

Like a jury weighing a case, we have to look at the reasons for this sort of behavior, separate the legitimate from the illegitimate ones, and then look at the actual behavior and try to determine whether it's legit or not.

And like jurors, we will find some cases easy, some hard, and some in-between. In most cases there will be some legitimate aspects but also illegitimate aspects. We can't know people's intent for sure. The job of the jury is to read between the lines and figure out which witnesses are telling the truth and which aren't, and which side does the best job of making its case. And sometimes juries are right and sometimes they are wrong.

Before going into some of the complexities I would say that it seems there is one distinction that generally would be an important starting point to separate legitimate from illegitimate attempts to protest or disrupt the speech of others:

The Apparent General Rule:

If the protesters are trying to gain access to the discussion from which they are blocked and/or have been previously blocked so they can participate in decisions affecting them, it is more likely to be legitimate.

If the protesters are trying to block others' speech although their own speech has not been blocked and/or they have not been blocked themselves from participating, it is more likely to be illegitimate.

But as I've said, these things are generally not black and white. There are often conflicting strands of legitimacy and illegitimacy intertwined. Some other factors that seem to need weighing include (working from the categories identified above):

A. Feeling Threatened. Fear can be legit or illegitimate. Some of the possible situations include:
  • the fear is ill founded - the person's brain doesn't function properly as with psychotics.
  • the fear is ill-founded because they have the facts wrong.
  • the fear is well founded, but the proposed solution is not.
  • the fear is well founded and the proposed solution has a chance of success.
B. Exclusion from participating in the debate and decision making
Here are some possible situations in this situation:
  • They really have been excluded and others, with more power, have made decisions that will seriously and negative affect their lives.
  • They could have participated in the decision making, but didn't. Their proposed option - if they have one - could have positive or negative outcomes.
  • They participated, lost the legal battle, and now are taking to the streets in an attempt to force adoption of their preferred solution.
  • If they have been excluded, it could be because
    • they have no power and others do
    • the decision isn't relevant to them
    • they don't have legitimate jurisdiction in this area
    • the others fear them and have used trickery
C. They do not have any persuasive arguments. Some possible situations:
  • Their facts and arguments are bogus
  • They argued but their facts and logic were unconvincing to most
  • They didn't have access to needed information to prove their case
  • Their world view is different from those in power, who thus did not buy into their basic assumptions

D. They think they might lose so they must go all out.

C seems to be the situation in the third bullet of B above (they already lost in the legitimate forum.) D is similar, but they haven't yet lost the battle. This appears to be the case of the people fighting health care. Note, that doesn't make them right or wrong in their fight, that's a different issue.

E. They feel that what is being said is extremely offensive or dangerous.
Possible situations:
  • It may be offensive to them, but not to others. (Then we get into questions like, what percent of the population is offended and how serious and rational is their offense compared to other values like free speech.)
  • It may be dangerous to their legitimate rights
  • It may be dangerous to their situation, but the advantage they fear losing was not gained or maintained legitimately
  • It may be dangerous to their situation, but the loss they would experience may be minor compared to the gain others receive or their own potential future loss (say if global warming predictions are accurate, clinging to a carbon spewing present would hurt the status quo folks as well as others.)
  • It may be dangerous to their situation, but slight modifications could reduce the problem
  • It may not be dangerous to their situation
Again, there is no shortage of complexity. All five points could apply in a situation or just one or two. Any number of the situations (plus probably many more) could exist.

There do seem to be some easy calls. If we know that people's positions are based on false facts (such as the Obama health plan includes 'death squads') or they are using illegitimate means to overturn legitimately made law.

I'm having trouble bringing this post to a close. Partly this is my own inability, but partly there is just so much complexity in this. In many cases it isn't neat and clean.

Plus, I never am satisfied looking only at the immediate short term situation because I know that lasting improvements come only from major systemic changes. So for people who haven't fallen asleep already, here's looking at the bigger picture.

The Larger Context

But what do we do with genuinely fearful human beings - whether their fear is legitimate or not, whether solving their fear requires taking away the basic rights of other others or not? Some of these people may well be seriously mentally ill. (I think we all have touches of mild mental illness now and then.) Some may have grown up in an environment which taught them (through instruction or experience) to hate or fear or believe that all their problems are caused by others. Some may have brain wiring that predisposes them to behavior that is extreme compared to most people. Some of them may be all those things AND be right.

To prevent as much dysfunctional adult behavior, I think we need to start with how we raise kids. We have plenty of research on ways to raise children to improve the odds that they will become happy, healthy, and ready to learn, and eventually take their position in society as responsible adults.

For people whose brains function abnormally (in a destructive way) we need to find ways to either cure their mental illnesses, help them live with their illnesses productively and with a reasonably decent quality of life, or provide them a safe and stimulating living environment where they cannot hurt others. And even more, we need to prevent those mental disabilities that are preventable through the best possible programs of prenatal care and by giving all parents as much information as possible about research results on good parenting. (And we know a lot that could be implemented for much lower costs than paying for the consequences of producing incompetent adults.)

For those who are fully capable of rational thought and free of other psychological conditions that lead to anti-social behavior, we need to make it easier for their parents to raise them well - through education and through social and economic infrastructure that increases the likelihood that people can attain their fullest potential.

Even if we were all mentally stable and healthy, there would be people in the United States who have legitimate fears that their situation in life is going downhill. Whites may no longer be in the privileged position of knowing that the establishment is made up of people that look like them, and that the rules and practice of society tend to favor them. The proportion of women to men in colleges puts women ahead in many fields and overall, which means men are losing more and more legitimate power relative to women. This raises the possibility of their increasingly using illegitimate power in their relationships with women. Further, technology and trade policies have altered for the worse many people's ways of life. These people are legitimately threatened and need to be shown not only compassion, but also reasonable options to adapt to the new realities. If not, more will become like fearful animals and for some attack will be their preferred response.

So, the protesting of changing health care and the attacks on bloggers to me is a minor symptom of bigger issues that need to be addressed. We need politicians who are able to address the short term problems, but also have their eyes on the longer term adaptations our society needs to make to cope with the world's inevitable changes.

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