Agency and Provocation

A lot of talk I’ve been hearing about last weekend’s events in Toronto has dealt with the possibility that the police actually sought to encourage the property destruction that preceded their mass kidnappings.

This includes speculation that window-breaking was directly carried out by agents provocateurs, that police cars were deliberately left in the path of the black bloc for them to burn, or that police actively refrained from stopping the property damage while it was going on, despite being able to.

The idea is that the police wanted a bit of disorder and crime, so that they would have justification for the pretty shocking way they arrested a bunch of singing hippies and random passers-by, tied them up, and locked them in crowded cages for 20 hours.

But the very fact that so many people are wondering this, and that so many people are expressing shock about the stories of random arrests and imprisonments, provides a rationale for the reverse story – that some or all of the protesters ‘really wanted’ the police to lash out, arrest a bunch of ‘innocent’ people and thereby garner themselves a good deal of negative publicity, and that they designed their strategy to try and ‘provoke’ the police into doing so.

Now, I have no idea if either of these hypotheses are true: I was privy neither to the inner thoughts nor the planning discussions of the police or black bloc. But the very fact that they’re both plausible – that we can imagine both sides thinking like this – is itself a very interest phenomenon. What it brings out is that the whole fight has its effects, if it has any, largely through the media and spectators.

At one point in the protest, in response to someone blathering about non-violence, I heard a man shout “peaceful protest is entirely symbolic”. This is perfectly true, but also very stupid: anything done in that context is entirely symbolic. Burning cop cars is symbolic, breaking windows is symbolic, even managing to get to the conference centre and stop the G20 leaders from meeting would be symbolism – the symbolism of a display of power.

One interesting implication might be this: the greater is public attachment to the idea of ‘non-violence’, the more public impressions are determined not by substantive political positions but by who comes across as the abuser and who as the abused, the greater is the advantage when your opponents act aggressively, and so the greater is the incentive to provoke them – i.e. to act aggressively while concealing and obfuscating responsibility. That is, public aversion to ‘violence’ might in fact encourage more aggressive behaviour.

*******

As I said, I don’t know if either side sought to provoke the other, and I’m inclined to doubt it, if it’s meant to be conscious provocation. But I’m almost certain that there was unconscious provocation on both sides.

What I mean by this is that on both sides, the fact that a course of action would lead to more aggressive actions by the other side (something that you might think should be a reason against it) probably functioned as a positive reason for it.

My reasoning here is pretty simple. Both police and many protesters, for various reasons, have adopted a stance in which they are struggling against something (capitalism, disorder, whatever). It’s very psychologically satisfying if what you’re struggling against can be personified in an enemy (the scum, the filth, whoever) and it’s even more satisfying when that enemy does bad things that clearly identify them as the baddies. I know I have these kinds of reactions, and I don’t think I’m unique in that.

This ‘subconscious’ positive reaction to the idea of one’s enemies ‘showing their true colours’ can co-exist with a ‘conscious’, verbally expressed judgement that this would be a bad thing and something you want to stop – because you honestly do want to stop it! But you can’t stop it unless it happens.

(This is analogous, I believe to the ‘contradictory’ desires one has while playing a game – for any given impediment or difficulty, we dislike it and seek to overcome it, but we also want there to be enough difficulty and impediments to make it satisfying to play)

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