Sometimes using derogatory labels can be counterproductive.
My recent post “When they call you a bad name” suggested options for responding to demeaning labels, for example when someone calls you a fascist. By chance, a friend told me about her recent experience being part of a group targeted with abuse, and how this affected her. A key insight is that calling someone else a bad name can be bad for your cause.
Here is her short account of her experience. Afterwards, I offer a few comments.
“This scum needs to be removed from our streets”: How to create enemies, by Claudia Carson-Clarke
I have been involved in the human rights and peace movement for over 25 years. In my younger days I was involved in the usual peace and equality movement student politics, including attending peace protests against the Iraq war, and the fallout from the so-called War on Terror.
Over the years I have watched the peace movement slowly falling to pieces, bit by bit. I am not surprised given the lack of strategic thinking and my recent experiences.
On Saturday 3 December, I attended a lecture in Sydney by Dr Jordan Peterson.
There was a stark police presence at the event, including mounted police and rows of police guarding the entrances. I had to go through a metal detector and bag check upon entry. I was prepared for this level of security.
What I wasn’t prepared for was abuse hurled at me for simply wanting to attend this lecture.
A small group of protestors had assembled at the main entrance to vilify anyone entering the lecture. Here was a group of people yelling at me, calling me a fascist, Nazi, racist, bigot. They were intimidating, just like the police.
The protestors need to ask themselves, “What are we trying to achieve?” Listening to the live-stream from the safety of the building, I heard several citizen journalists ask people walking by what they thought of the protests. Every person said they didn’t even know what the protesters were talking about because they were simply shouting into the loudspeaker and they couldn’t understand what they were talking about. The people walking by simply wanted to get to their dinner or Christmas party events.
One of the more disturbing elements was the violent rhetoric coming from the protestors, including calling attendees “scum” who needed to be “removed” from the streets.
What were the protests trying to achieve by calling the young men who attended “incels” and misogynists, other than creating a political enemy? Did those protesting consider having a discussion with some of the young men about why they were attending and about their views about women?
I did, and I found them to be thoughtful, courteous and curious minds. These young men found hope and purpose in the words of Dr Peterson. They wanted to clean their rooms as one of their rules for life.
At the end of the day, the only people spewing violent rhetoric and hate were the protestors. Dr Peterson’s lecture was about meaning-making in life, and the importance of love. He discussed the psychology of play and the development of relationships as core to life and psychological development. Most importantly, he offered a stark warning of the road we are taking in relation to war, noting that we are much more technologically powerful than they were in the era of Hitler and Stalin. The core message was that of peace.
Perhaps if the protestors had gone inside and listened to Dr Peterson, rather than denigrating him and everyone who went inside to listen, they would have developed their understanding. The protestors created their own enemies and ensured that those that attended felt intimidated and denigrated. To indiscriminatingly apply the label “fascist” to groups of people, some of them long involved in the peace movement, is just appalling.
This is just a tragedy, not only for the peace and equality movement, but also for society in general. The protests only served to create more division and hatred. Clearly the strategy needs to change if the movement wishes to engage more people.
A few further thoughts from Brian
Claudia’s story is instructive. Shouting at people can be a bad idea, at least in terms of winning them over. So can trying to censor a speaker, especially a popular one. It might be better to try to understand why the speaker is popular and address the factors that make this possible.
I have not read Jordan Peterson’s books nor listened to his talks, but I do know he has become a symbol of values detested by some of those on the left. That’s fine. But if someone is a symbol of values you detest, is vilification the best way to counter those values and promote your own? Would it be better to ignore Peterson’s talks, or organise a public meeting promoting your preferred values, or give leaflets to Peterson-talk attendees beforehand or afterwards, or interview them afterwards to learn about their experiences, or even attend his talk to better understand his appeal?
To ask such questions is to begin the process of thinking strategically about protest. This includes formulating goals, considering the other side’s argument and taking into account how your actions will affect others. It includes considering the implicit, perhaps unintended, messages being sent by the protest and the way it is delivered.
The anti-Peterson protesters can be understood as acting expressively, letting out their own emotions, anger and disgust in this case, and directing them at Peterson and those attending his talk. Protesting, it might be presumed, makes them feel better about themselves, by displaying their values and showing their fellow protesters their commitment to the cause. This can help build solidarity within their own groups and networks, but in this case it had a counterproductive effect on Claudia, and possibly on others who were subject to their verbal abuse.
One lesson: calling someone a nasty name might make you feel righteous, but it might also make them think less of you — and your cause.
Thanks to Claudia for her text and additional information about the talk and protest. Thanks to Paula Arvela, Sharon Callaghan, Suzzanne Gray and Julia LeMonde for helpful suggestions. Several photos are taken from a video by @Chriscoveries.