Thursday, May 7, 2015

Violence is neither an effective nor acceptable means of getting media attention

A quick addendum to my last post, rebuking the counterargument that protesters needed violence to draw the media’s attention. First, that’s just an ass-backwards conception of righteousness: the equivalent of a needy three year old knocking over his food plate just to get his mother’s attention (and then crying and complaining when he is punished for it). But secondly, violence doesn’t work either, no matter what poor historical analogies people bring up. Yes, the violence in Baltimore got people’s attention – but only on the violence, which isn’t very good publicity for the cause. Accordingly, the violence has not won anybody’s sympathy; it only incited their animosity.

It amuses me that the same people who either endorse or excuse violence as a strategy for winning the public’s attention then turn around and complain about how the media only focuses on the violence. Yes, I understand that reporting on the riots without context on what came beforehand is a simplistic and shortsighted view of the problem. But at the risk of sounding callous, this should not surprise us, and it’s not evidence of racial bias. Alarmism and sensationalism are normal for the media. If a bunch of poor white people in the south started ransacking Savannah, Georgia out of anger at the policies of Barack Obama, I’m fairly certain it would have made the news. And when it made the news, if there were hordes of rednecks looting shopping malls and live images of burning buildings to talk about, the cameras would not be pointed at the peaceful protesters. The content of their grievances would have been put on the back-burner, because footage of violence and destruction keeps people glued to their televisions. Ongoing economic problems in Baltimore are unfortunate, but they’re not breaking news in the same vein as confrontation with riot-shield-wielding policeman.

As adherents to this argument themselves seemed to anticipate, violence was the only thing uniquely newsworthy about these particular protests relative to all the others. There are 1,000 causes in the world, many in direct contradiction with one another, and each of the crusaders finds it infuriating that they don’t accomplish their movement’s goals right away. There are protests every week in every major city across the country, and all of them think it’s a travesty that the media does not give theirs a platform to preach. There was an anti-gay-marriage march in DC the same weekend as the original Baltimore protests; they, too, were angry for a cause. But nobody really cared about that, because most people are unconvinced by their actual position. Unfortunately, you can’t make people care about your movement just by burning shit, either. That’s the limit of mobilization – up to a certain point, no amount of public theater will change the minds of people who disagree with you. Social change is a longer process than that (which is sometimes good, because not all proposals for social change are sound or worth adopting).

If the protesters want to increase the public focus on their cause, I think they would be aided by making a list of proposals (or “demands” if they’re understandably not in the mood to be diplomatic), especially now that the upheaval has died down. The majority of Americans see why they have right to be angry. Now, what? Yes, everyone with an opinion worth listening to thinks black lives matter. Yes, we’re all dismayed by Freddie Gray’s needless death. Yes, we all want his killers brought to justice. But what, specifically, do you want us to actually do? The policemen who brought about Freddie Gray's death are being tried. That is a process, and the process is underway. What were you hoping the response would be, besides waiting for the process to pan out?

Personally, I think it’s important to adopt measures which might help prevent this from occurring in the future. I also think the conversation is lame without mention of the dire urgency for broader criminal justice reform. From ending the drug war to abolishing mandatory minimums to legalizing all victimless activities, libertarians are rather specific with our proposals for how to do this. I included several in my last post – what are yours? Is there a policy or set of policies you want implemented? Is there somebody you want fired? Whatever it is, saying it plainly will foster much more productive public discussion, in the media and elsewhere, than mere rabble rousing.

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