culture, economics, justice, law, media, politics, Things We Should Know

G20, Canadians 0

I have been following, probably to a lesser degree than I might have, the protests surrounding the G20 summit in Toronto. What I find interesting is that the summit itself has been eclipsed by the violent clashes occurring outside the security perimeter – perfectly natural, after all, violence has always provided better ‘copy’ than negotiation and discussion. In that sense, the protesters have accomplished one mission: their messages are being covered, if only in a primarily negative fashion and only as a peripeheral story to their methods of propagating the message.

For what it’s worth, I wish to offer a few observations:

It is important for the general public to remember that all of the protesters are not violent, and all of those acting violently are not legitimate members of social activist groups – it is said by some that there is a cadre of ‘professional protesters’ who travel from event to event to cause disruption. I would certainly not want to see everyone painted with the same broad brush as ‘violent’ or ‘irresponsible’. Nor, as it happens, do I particularly like having all police portrayed as ‘jack-booted thugs’ or provocateurs. There is reportedly evidence that some covert provocation by undercover police has occurred in the past, however, in the age of YouTube and the ‘citizen journalist’, such actions are a clear liability. The police are paid to maintain order, and I have no doubt that they arrived on the front lines with the ideal of doing this job – that being said, police, first and foremost, are human beings, and human beings make mistakes; they lash out when attacked, due to fear (they are greatly outnumbered by shouting, angry protestors), or out of an over-developed sense of duty. The violent members of the police services, as with the protestors, are vastly outnumbered by those who do their jobs well, and with integrity. Remember that just because the violent individuals on both sides get the most attention, that does not make them representative of the whole.

Speaking of representation, I was interested and curious after reading some stories on the CBC as to whether or not many of the individuals, violent and otherwise, among the protesters are politically active in other ways, such as voting. A quick search revealed this study, which indicates that surveyed individuals in the 15 to 21 and 22 to 24 year-old age groups are the most active in “non-voting political behavior”, and the least active in actually voting (even allowing, of course, for the fact that the voting age is 18). While understanding that younger adults are cynical and disillusioned with the political process, I think we have done a poor job in educating younger people about the importance of voting – it is the acceptable democratic method of social change, as opposed to the proposed ‘violent revolution’. We already have the means to enact social change and ensure that the individuals who represent us truly have our best interests at heart – the organized, purposeful, collective casting of ballots. Demanding social change while declining to participate in any meaningful way in the process available seems dishonest, in my opinion. Call me naive if you must, but I’m an optimist – I believe if we truly want social change, if we want to replace the current regime, it is within out power collectively as Canadians to create the change – ‘be’ the change, in other words. Revolution worked in Russia in 1917, but is unlikely to have any meaningful effect beyond the disruption of the lives and livelihoods of individuals not even concerned with the protests – the small businessmen and so on. If you want justice, you have to be a full participant in the creation of the just society, become one of its builders, and not focus on the violent destruction of the old regime. Each of us, every day, in any given moment, create and maintain justice within society according to our moral codes – let that creation dominate through the political process rather than abetting wanton destruction.

Beyond (and inextricably bound within) the political is the personal – how we act, what we do, whom we choose to help or hurt. Concern for our fellow citizens – the expression of justice, of tolerance and of lending assistance where possible – is the basis of democracy, particularly a democracy such as ours which is based on a pretty good (but not perfect) social safety net. Behind this altruism, however, is the single most important unit of society, the individual, who maintains (or breaks) the social covenant as she sees fit on a constant basis through interactions with others – society is not imposed from the top down, but is built and maintained, moment by moment, by the individuals, the ‘bricks’ that are its component parts. Humanity, however, is descended from animals (no matter what creationists may tell you), and the proof of this ascent lies in our behavior, in the actions between thoughts, in our instincts. One of the more fascinating parts of Social Psychology lies in the realm of Collective Behavior, as discussed with great clarity over the years by writers such as Eric Hoffer in The True Believer, and by Erich Goode in the excellent textbook Collective Behavior (who knew?). Human social interaction is by nature complex, but the behavior of crowds as they become mobs has been examined in great detail, and is, to some degree, predictable. The social dynamics of the crowd-to-mob transition rely on  particular elements to unfold: first, the ‘power’ granted to the individual by the collective – to put it another way, as individuals, we can be known quantities; as part of a collective, we are anonymous, and therefore more free to express ourselves physically and emotionally – witness on a small scale the strident nature of the anonymous message boards on the Internet, and keep in mind that each of these is a building block of a collective expression of order or disorder. Second, observation of crowds has proven the importance of leadership – one or more individuals, usually a small number, who define the ‘agenda’ for the collective. How they act sets the tone for the dynamics that follow. If, for example, the natural leaders from whom the collective takes their cues are peaceful by nature, the dynamic will remain a peaceful one – which is why all crowds, at concerts and sporting events, do not become mobs. On the other hand, if the leaders, being more expressive or lacking impulse control, are more violent or begin to destroy property, then the crowd’s transformation to a mob is virtually assured – in many cases, all it takes is one act of violence to transform the collective, empowered by the anonymity of numbers, into the anarchist army. Third, there must be that act – the violent action, the thrown brick or punch, that acts as the ‘tipping point’ in the collective mood, and unless the emotional impact of this act is diffused immediately, the transition is inevitable. It is for these reasons, despite complaints of excess on the part of police and security services, that motivates the array of precautions in Toronto. The police understand the potentially negative consequences of collective behavior, even if we or the protestors do not.

Finally, as time goes on, the patient observer will take note of the escalating rhetoric on the Internet, again motivated by anonymity and the protection it provides. The attacks will become more personal and the rhetoric more heated, until the faceless and inherently evil ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ Other becomes unworthy of respect or calm dialogue – in fact, as individuals, they are to be torn down and destroyed as effectively as are physical structures. Although not a physically ‘present’ collective, the concept of the tipping point still applies – the first one to ‘flame’ the opposition sets the tone for what follows, despite the efforts of some individuals to foster a more civil dialogue. The Other, meanwhile, becomes dehumanized, and the attacks become personal, until the level of vehemence approaches a point which would never be reached in a face-to-face confrontation on the same subject.

I make these observations with a goal in mind – not to bore you, as may well be the case, but hopefully to point out the imperfections of both sides in this ‘struggle’. I don’t pretend to be an expert in capitalism or colonialism, so I have deliberately left these issues out of the equation; ultimately, these are but ideologies which require human agency to exist.

And that’s the point, really – despite the perception of the monolith labeled ‘SOCIETY’ that we percieve, we, individuals, citizens, police and protesters, are society writ small. And, frankly, it is a little humbling, despite the accelerated growth of technology,  just how fragile our collective is, under the right conditions. In the building of a society, we are all keystones.

Note: Edited to reflect a quite accurate comment that I had stated an opinion as fact.