The January Democracy Café (2021) kicked off the new year with a debate about whether violence was ever justified. This was very much inspired by the events of the previous Wednesday when a mob of Trump supporters had stormed the Capitol building in Washington DC and rampaged around the offices and corridors before being expelled.
There have been many protest movements in history and the majority of them have been peaceful. It was noted that the suffragists, who formed in 1866* (not 1881 as I said erroneously at the debate) campaigned peaceably for half a century and got nowhere. The suffragettes were formed at the start of the twentieth century and believed in more violent action – which is now well known – and women finally did get the vote in 1928. So is it necessary to be violent to achieve change? That example may suggest so.
We debated the important distinction that violence may be justified if it is not against an individual. In relation to the Washington violence, this was whipped up by the president himself who was the law so in effect, it was violence against himself. Chairman Mao and the cultural revolution was an example of a leader stirring up violence against the state when he was in effect, the state.
Was there a distinction between violence by a megalomaniac and violence in pursuit of the greater good? This prompted the immediate question, who defines the common good? It was also noted that within these protests, there are people pursuing their own ends. Historically, it seemed that peaceful protests may achieve little. We were reminded in fact of the considerable violence which took place in our history as described in a book by Sir Ian Gilmore: Riot, Risings and Revolution which details the many civil disturbances which took place in the eighteenth century.
We were also reminded of Germany in the ’30s and that Hitler was voted in because he represented what many German people wanted following the humiliations and privations after the Great War. The protests in Hong Kong were another more recent example of people reacting to profound changes in their way of life and freedoms. Whether they represented the majority was questioned however.
Back to America and it was claimed that the founders of the state did not want a full democracy. This did not just mean the lack of votes or representation for slaves and indigenous Americans, but seeking to maintain the franchise among the educated white elite. Perhaps, it was suggested, one of the problems in America is that the ‘whites’ – so long used to a natural monopoly of power – were increasingly becoming concerned at being outnumbered by people of colour. The year 2044 looms quite large in the American psyche as it will be when white people are projected to become the minority. Trump has been successful in appealing to this growing sense of white victimhood. It was noted that the vast majority of protestors at the Capitol were white and the police action was relatively mild with reports of some police taking part in ‘selfies’ with protestors. This contrasted with the violent police actions during peaceful Black Lives Matter marches.
There was some discussion about the violence used by government to taint otherwise peaceful protests. The enquiry into police infiltration is currently continuing which concerns systematic abuse by police officers over a number of years. The Grosvenor Square march was mentioned (by someone who was there but not at the end!) and how police tactics were used to compress people into small spaces resulting in inevitable tension. There was also some discussion about ‘kettling’. Violence in demonstrations was often an excuse by politicians to take the high moral ground. The demolition of the Colston statue in Bristol and its dumping into the harbour was a case in point – never mind the concerns about a statue of a slaver, look at the violent actions of the protestors instead.
The discussion – inevitably perhaps – moved onto social and other media and the powerful influence they have over people’s opinions. One participant said their son only looked at social media and never read a newspaper, or looked at broadcast news, which are seen as the ‘enemy’ they said. Facebook has ‘published’ claims recently about hospitals being empty and that Covid is some kind of hoax. But what is ‘truth’ we pondered? President Trump’s Facebook and Twitter pages have been taken down for instigating violence but who decides? Is it right that one man – Mark Zuckerberg (in the case of Facebook) – possesses this power but is accountable to no one? And what about free speech? It was pointed out that his decision was unlikely to be for some moral position but more to do with worries about advertisers boycotting the platform.
The debate moved onto Charlie Hebdo, the attack in Paris which occurred six years ago. The attack happened because of outrage by some Muslims concerning content they regarded defamatory to Mohammed. This prompted the suggestion that we should be mindful of not causing offence. The problem was that people are offended by so many things that free speech would become quite difficult. There was no right not to be offended it was said. However, we do not always have to exercise that right. We were reminded of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, and not harming other people. The distinction was made about criticising the person and criticising their views. In this context it was noted that actions can be evil but not the person.
Back to social media platforms and the exposure by Carol Cadwalladr of the attempts by organisations to influence people behind the scenes in the Brexit debate and in particular, those regarded as the ‘persuadables’ [video link]. It was noted that Facebook had huge quantities of data about individuals but they (the individuals) have no access to what was held: there was a clear lack of transparency. The information was not for us but for sale to corporations. Was it ever going to be possible to have free and fair elections again?
Still on social media platforms and their promotion of antivax conspiracies which are leading some people to eschew getting vaccinated or to be frightened of having one. It was noted that the broadcast media are not making any mention of adverse reactions to the vaccine. We seem to be stuck between conspiracy theories and stony silence.
A really interesting debate which once again focused on social media and the effects it is having on our politics, on what people believe and, more dangerously, how they act as we saw in Washington DC. The days when we thought that the platforms would be a means for meaningful debate and promoting free speech seem long gone. They have morphed into a means for promoting conspiracies, aggressive language and trolling.
- Riot, Risings and Revolution, 1992, Ian Gilmour, Pimlico
- Truth, a Guide for the Perplexed, 2005, Simon Blackburn, Allen Lane
- Philosophical Writings, Simone de Beauvoir, 2014, University of Illinois Press
- [not mentioned but relevant to the discussion on the use of Facebook to influence the Referendum] Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics, Peter Geoghegan, 2020, Head of Zeus Ltd.
*The Society was founded by Millicent Fawcett and her husband’s statue is in the Market Square in Salisbury.