Do You Think the Protests Are Peaceful or Violent?

The answer may depend upon fundamental values.

Posted Jun 07, 2020

Are protests peaceful or are they violent when bricks and bottles are thrown? Are peaceful demonstrators the rule and violent protesters the exception or vice versa? How many people does it take to make a demonstration violent? What percentage?

After nearly two weeks of protests against racial inequities, more than half the American population favors deploying troops to control violent demonstrations.

Answers to these questions may be similar to how a person responds to this common question: Is the glass half-full or half-empty? The liquid in the glass can be measured but that doesn’t answer the question because this isn’t about quantity but perception. Similarly, the number of demonstrators and acts of violence and vandalism can be quantified, but that doesn’t get to the heart of the matter—how a person responds to the protests.

Much depends upon the frame which a person uses. As Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman writes, “Different ways of presenting the same information often evokes different emotions.” Frames help shape how a person interprets situations, especially those that are emotionally charged. Whether a news story leads with a cop injured by a bottle tossed by a protester or a hundred people peacefully gathered with placards will partly determine how the demonstration is interpreted.

But frames are created by a multitude of factors—individual, social, and cultural.

For example, whether the glass is half-full or half-empty may depend upon whether a person is typically optimistic or pessimistic, anxious or steady. The perception is also influenced by how thirsty you may be. And it may turn on whether you have experienced severe thirst in the past. Or whether the question is presented hypothetically or if you see the water glass under real-life conditions.

So, are protesters in the streets peaceful or are the demonstrations violent?

Obviously, it is both. But which a person emphasizes with and the labels they use to define the protests depends on a person’s underlying ethical values and the particular circumstances in which they find themselves.

While a glass of water is different than a charged, ever-changing social situation, the point is similar. The same phenomenon—a mix of peaceful and violent protesters—is seen and understood differently by people.

Take a historical example: Were colonists who threw tea chests into rivers peaceful or violent protesters? Were they patriots or criminals? Was their cause just or self-interested? In fact, these very questions were asked at the time and answered differently by different people. Americans were deeply divided from 1765 until the war for independence was won, 18 years later. The Revolutionary War can as easily be understood as a civil war, as families, neighbors, and even regions within colonies saw circumstances differently and therefore did or did not support protests, demonstrations and ultimately taking up arms against England. Historians estimate that less than half the colonial population supported the Patriots cause. When the war ended, an estimated 60,000 left America for Canada and elsewhere.

Those who see racism as baked into the bones of America see the protests as justified. While condemning violence, they also can understand how rage can follow from malignant injustices.

Those who see protesters as violating critical norms of society and view the police as guardians of public safety and property in a perhaps flawed but fundamentally just society will view the violence as the dominant and most important aspect of the demonstrations.

Under the dual attack of the unseen virus and the calls for racial justice, the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald come to mind. With a small change to the original wording, here it is: The test of a first-rate [society] is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.