Are "bystanders" to violent events neutral or complicit?
In the past couple of weeks I've read a number of articles about police violence and citizens' reaction to that violence. Most of these articles rightly point to the structural roots of police violence. However, I have found little written about how the people who are not directly involved in confrontations, "bystanders", make sense of what is going on. How do people react to either police shooting citizens, citizens shooting the police, or to the protests against police violence? Do people who seemed not directly involved in the violence constitute a neutral force or do they have some responsibility for what happens? I soon found how these bystanders thought about it, but not in the manner of my own choosing.
My controversial Facebook post
Almost two weeks ago one of my Facebook friends posted an aerial view of about 1,000 protesters in Oakland moving towards highway 880 to block traffic in reaction to the killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. In my post I congratulated the protesters for their collective-creative courage in stepping out onto speeding traffic and stopping it. I said we need more of this until the entire road system is clogged. I also pointed out of the relatively recent existence of police departments (second half of the 19th century) and for most of human history societies managed without them.
Since the original post was linked to KRON news, many more people saw my post than my normal networks of people. In a single day, I received over 2,000 responses. The good news for me, and what I suspect are most of the readers of leftist news sources , is that close to 80% "liked" what I said. Now for those of you not initiated into the mysteries of Facebook, "likes" don't tell you much about the thinking processes of people, but I see it as better than having no information at all.
However, I want to focus on the responses of the 500 or so people that had commented. Most of these comments were hostile. Those who were hostile, but intelligent (meaning they explained why they were upset), can be divided into those who were put off because they were inconvenienced and thought I was insensitive to that. Then there were those who couldn't imagine doing without the police and that I was completely unrealistic in claiming that a society could exist without them. I want to focus on how their hostility is connected to a liberal, social-contract theory of violence.
A liberal theory of violence
Most people in the United States think that social life operates as social contracts, just as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau described it. Secondly, they think normal social life is neutral and non-violent. Violence, they believe, begins at the point of a physical confrontation between people and usually includes lethal weapons. If there is no physical confrontation, there is no violence. So, for example, at a demonstration when the protesters are gathered and listening to speeches and the police are present, but simply talking to each other, these folks would say there is no violence. For a liberal theory of violence the point where violence begins is when the police either use billy clubs, tear gas or Tasers on the protesters, or when the protesters start throwing rocks at the police or through bank windows. If neither of these things occurred, bystanders and the media deem the demonstration "peaceful".
In the case of the protesters blocking the freeway, the police forcing them off the freeway and the protesters resisting the police, these would be claimed to be acts of violence. However the people patiently waiting for the cops to get the protesters off the freeway, these bystanders are not being violent. So in other words the world is composed of three groups: cops on the one hand; protesters, criminals or deviants on the other; and the neutral public as bystanders.
This liberal theory of violence is grounded in the social-contract theory of Hobbes and Locke. Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau (whom I'll discuss later) were very different politically, but they all agreed that individuals were autonomous, self-subsisting beings who entered into social relations as a result of a "contract". Interactions between individuals were voluntary, accidental and associative. Contracts or compacts were made only after the individual shrewdly weighed the costs and benefits of joining an association - as opposed to remaining alone.
Minding my own business: a Lockean theory of violence
The first of two major complaints against my post was that people were minding their own business. "Why should we be inconvenienced with something that has nothing to do with us? Even if the police were wrong to kill these guys, what does that have to do with me? Why do I have to lose two hours out of my day over something that has nothing to do with me?" This is a great example of the social contract operating. People imagine themselves as isolated monads who have families and jobs where their real social life is. Their membership in a social class, race, region or religion is a secondary matter. Primarily, they are individuals (or in cross-cultural psychology terms, "individualists". But these individuals still enter the public zone where they walk, take public transportation or drive to get to work or go home. These Lockean individuals treat the public world as an instrumental way station between their real social world of home, family and work. How is public world engaged? The state of public bathrooms, increasing road rage and people crossing the street checking their cell phones, oblivious to cars making turns into their cross-walks, are just the tip of an iceberg of the increasing contempt of public life in the United States. This is a world in which normal social responsibilities are generally disregarded or kept to a bare minimum. In the public world "minding my own business" is the code of public conduct.
The political and racial nature of being inconvenienced
Being inconvenienced is intolerable if you play by the rules of minding your own business. As I shall argue shortly, social-contract theory has very little to do with the real requirements of social life and the deeply social nature of our identity among even those who complain about being inconvenienced. The same people who claim to be minding their own business and being inconvenienced generally are quite capable of dealing with the ups and downs of public life and making adjustments, depending on the occasion. As I said in one of my rebuttals to some Facebook posts, you are inconvenienced all the time. You wait on lines to buy groceries longer then you'd like because the stores are understaffed. You wait on lines for hours on Black Friday to get deals the day after Thanksgiving. You wait in traffic for hours before and after ball games. Maybe most importantly, you accept the inconvenience of stock-market crashes that deplete your savings and threaten your pensions. For these things you have plenty of reasons as to why you shouldn't make a big deal about it. After all, what can you do? But when events are political and racially charged, for this - you will not put up with being inconvenienced.
Why don't people see this? Cross-cultural psychologists say that the United States is the most individualist society in the world. Part of being an individualist, as I've said earlier, is that demographic membership - region, class, race - is generally not considered an important part of one's identity. Another characteristic of individualism is that history does not matter. As individualists, those minding their own business tend to downplay their class and racial identity and they can't understand why people are making such a big deal of these police killings. Because of their lack of appreciation of history, individualists can't imagine that things that have happened in the past matter today because they are still present within existing social structures. When I teach a class in social psychology or cross-cultural psychology I have my students answer questions about white privilege. Most of my white students are amazed at how much privilege they have without ever being aware of it. This privilege entitles people to "mind their own business."