Rude tactics give practitioners a feeling of power over a space
spoken man who had recently moved to Castroville turned around, laid a finger over his lips, and issued a fierce “hush!”
These San Antonio suburbs are quiet, polite places; it seems unlikely that these tactics changed anyone’s mind. Nor did they provide new information to Hurd, who addressed his interlocutors by name and was clearly familiar with their stance on the issues. Which brings us back to the question I asked above: What is the purpose of these tactics?
That’s a question that I find myself asking a lot these days. The antifas setting fire to Berkeley … Black Lives Matter blocking highways … these demonstrations certainly carry a message. And because it’s showy, it’s more likely to end up on the evening news. Unfortunately, it’s no good getting publicity for your message if the result is people hating the message and the messenger.
I don’t mean to suggest that interrupting a congressman is somehow morally equivalent to breaking windows and setting fires. Vigorous debate is a proud part of our democratic tradition, and those Democratic precinct captains had every right to confront their representative with their disagreements.
But what this tactic does have in common with more extreme forms of protest is that interrupting violates a social norm. It’s on the other end of that spectrum from breaking windows and setting fires. But it’s still a violation, however minor, and norm violations make other people uncomfortable.
So all norm-breaking protests, no matter how mild, run the risk of hurting your cause more than they help. It’s possible that there’s a silent majority for your view, who will be heartened by seeing you say what they’ve been thinking for a long time. But it’s just as likely that your audience disagrees with you, and more likely that they just don’t care very much either way. Those people are going to be somewhere between irritated and outraged by your display, no matter how justified it is.
This is Human Nature 101. So why do we see so many of these risky displays? Well, for one thing, while such tactics are lousy ways to recruit people to your cause, they are terrific ways to build solidarity among the people who already agree with you (which is why the Tea Party — which ultimately mobilized a groundswell of existing sentiment against the stimulus and Obamacare, did so well by asking angry questions at town halls).
All three of the examples I’ve offered have something in common: they are demonstrations of power over a space. To state the obvious, people like feeling powerful. They are more likely to stay involved with a movement that gives them opportunities to feel powerful. Why did white supremacists organize a demonstration in Charlottesville? To look and feel powerful. Why did the counterprotesters organize en masse in response? To look and feel more powerful.
The more transgressive an action is, the more powerful it feels. Asking a question and then politely sitting down after the representative gives you a suitably mild answer is neither noticeable nor particularly empowering. Publicly arguing with the congressman, on the other hand, feels like noble battle. Shutting down a highway is more powerful still, especially if you can get away with it without getting arrested. And setting fires or breaking windows … well, you can practically hear the war-movie soundtrack running through your head. (In our minds, we always play the good guys.)
McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of “The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, talked with constituents during the final stop on his third annual town hall meetings recently.