Rude tac­tics give prac­ti­tion­ers a feel­ing of power over a space

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - OUT­LOOK -

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.”

Ed­ward A. Or­nelas / San An­to­nio Ex­press-News

U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, talked with con­stituents dur­ing the fi­nal stop on his third an­nual town hall meet­ings re­cently.

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