In light of all the ongoing violence in the news, I thought I would finally get around to writing about a book by Randall Collins, Violence; A Microsociological Theory (hereafter VAMT). Collins, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, studies the face-to-face interactions that build up into what we call society. I wrote earlier about his book Interaction Ritual Chains.
To recap the foundation of his theory: We spend our lives engaged in interaction rituals, most of which Collins calls “status rituals,” these being involved in group membership and position. Much of what we do has a constant subtext that runs,
“We are members of the same group, right?”
“Yes, we are, and these are our relative status positions in that group.”
This happens every time we interact with another human being. Through this group solidarity we attempt to extract what Collins calls “emotional energy,” that positive, energizing, affirming sense of self. By the time we reach the end of childhood we are firmly patterned to seek this group solidarity with everyone we meet. This makes perfect evolutionary sense, as we are a species that has survived on the strength of our gregarious nature.
This is why Collins’s book VAMT tells us that everything we thought we knew about violence is wrong. Popular media (films, television, books, what passes for news) tell us that interpersonal violence is a constant threat, that it is easy for even ordinarily peaceful people to devolve into violence, that violence is contagious, and that humans are naturally predisposed to violence.
On the contrary, Collins proposes that this impression exists because of the demands of narrative drama and sampling bias. “Nothing happened” doesn’t make the headlines and peaceful cooperation never sold tickets.
Certainly, Syria, Iraq, Libya and eastern Ukraine are not vacation spots right now. However, even organized violence is affected by the problem of status ritual.
Collins observes a natural resistance to interpersonal violence. He observes two things. One, most personal confrontations devolve into bluster and display rather than overt physical violence. These verbal standoffs don’t make the news, of course. Compare “Man stabs roommate in argument over TV remote” vs. “Two men trash talk each other in dispute over TV remote, one finally hands it over.” Two, only a small percentage of people are both willing and competent to commit violence.
After watching hundreds of hours of film and video of mob violence, as well as studying photographs, police records and personal accounts, Collins finds that in a riot by 10,000 people, about 9,900 will be standing back watching, 75 will be close to the action shouting, and 25 will actually be fighting and breaking things.
The same goes for soldiers at war. Historically, large numbers of soldiers end up being essentially spectators, rarely using their weapons. A minority actually fire, and only a percentage of those actually fire effectively. When interviewed, soldiers in a platoon all agree on which of their comrades are the aggressive ones. An interesting fact that I will get into later is that soldiers firing crew served weapons, where a group of soldiers cooperates (heavy machine guns and mortars, for example) fire more consistently and competently than soldiers with individual weapons. The U.S. military has spent considerable time and effort on training individual soldiers to actually fire their weapons consistently in combat.
Bringing us into the news, police officers act in a similar way. Most officers rarely draw their sidearms, rarely fire them, and rarely, if ever, get a physical force complaint against them. A small percentage of officers draw their weapons often, get into physical confrontations regularly, and accumulate complaints of excessive force. Again, as with soldiers, everyone in their group can identify them as the aggressive minority. As with soldiers, the percentage of people in this group is in the low single digits.
On the other side of the law, street gangs have a few members who are the enforcers. The other members will fight if absolutely necessary, but there are always one or two violently charismatic individuals who are the go-to guys.
Collins describes the buildup to violence as one filled with confrontational tension. The tension is between the desire of an individual to win a conflict and that person’s lifelong practice of establishing group solidarity with others. To attack someone physically is the ultimate expression of rejection from one’s in-group. It goes against our social programming. In order to fight, individuals have to go through a set of rituals to break through this barrier. They also generally have to have an audience that supports the idea of fighting.
On a topical note: Having read VAMT, reading about a police officer in Ferguson calling black protestors “fucking animals” was both unsurprising and illuminating. It was an indication that the virtually all white police force had long since identified the black population as an absolute out group. No need to overcome confrontational tension before violence when there is no such tension to begin with.
In VAMT Professor Collins also introduces the concept of the “forward panic.” We are all familiar with a backward panic. It’s the disorganized rout of a group of people rendered weak by fear. The opposite effect happens when a group prepares itself emotionally for physical conflict and then encounters weak resistance or none at all. The group is all dressed up with nowhere to go. Two examples at the opposite ends of the scale: The “Rape of Nanking” by the Japanese army in 1937 and the beating of Rodney King by police in Los Angeles in 1991.
In the case of Nanking, the Japanese were expecting the level of resistance justified by the defense of a major city and prepared for a major battle. When the Chinese army collapsed after token resistance, surrendering in large numbers, the Japanese broke through the barrier of confrontational tension with a huge amount of energy. What resulted was what Collins calls a moral holiday. The slaughter and mistreatment of both soldiers and civilians was akin to mass insanity on the part of the Japanese and took weeks to run its course.
In the case of Rodney King, he had led the police on a high speed chase before offering token resistance to arrest by multiple officers. Keyed up and ready for a fight, perhaps even a gun fight, the officers unleashed hugely disproportionate force on King, several of them beating his prone body with nightsticks. A supportive audience of fellow officers stood around and witnessed the event.
Collins observes that when equal forces meet face to face, neither turning aside, both with equal emotional energy, what usually results is a non-violent standoff. In mob violence, physical attacks tend to involve isolated, retreating individuals attacked by small groups. He expands on this in a useful article on his blog, “Tank Man, and the limits of telephoto lenses; or, how much can individuals stop violence?”
His advice is that in a confrontation, your face, your eyes, and your voice are your best defense. Never turn away from a confrontation, because that allows an aggressor to avoid engaging with you as a person.* He notes that when police are in full forward panic mode, people who turn away and run are more likely to be beaten than people who non-violently stand their ground and attempt to verbally engage the police. That can re-channel the interaction into a status ritual.
*(Why did the Storm Troopers in Star Wars wear that utterly useless all-covering white “armor”? To deny them faces so they could be slaughtered by the heroes without qualm.)
Back to the crew-served weapons: The reason that these weapons are used more effectively by soldiers is a function of two factors. The group solidarity in the face of confrontational tension reinforces the soldiers in their actions. As important, it allows the soldiers to focus their attention on each other rather than the enemy. Firing becomes less of a confrontation and more of a group effort. The marching formations and coordinated pike and musket drill of centuries past were similar in their group enabling power. Simply moving in physical coordination with others is a powerful status ritual.
Amidst all the violence we see in the news, it is reassuring to think that interpersonal violence actually requires quite a bit of effort to initiate. More than that, it requires a specific series of events to precipitate, and can be derailed at a number of points. Or, for that matter, prevented at a number of points. One of the main points of VAMT is that violence is not the inevitable result of culture, poverty, or childhood abuse. It is situational, and we can plan and structure our society to trend towards some situations and away from others.
Just to bring this into the topical realm, in light of the police shooting Michael Brown in Ferguson Missouri, here’s a question: How many police officers do you know, and know well? If you aren’t a police officer or related to a police officer, the answer is probably zero. I wouldn’t be the first to observe that over the past few decades law enforcement officers have become an insular subculture. Cops socialize with cops; civilians –the rest of us – socialize with civilians. That goes a hundred-fold in communities such as Ferguson. I don’t have a glib answer for this problem, but I have an idea that it involves day to day social interactions. That’s what makes us see each other as allies rather than enemies.