More Moral Holiday

It’s common to refer to recreational violence (of the sort American blacks are notorious for) and rioting as “senseless” or “irrational” as if the impulse descends upon the unwitting violent from without. But leaving aside those suffering from psychosis no behavior can be truly said to be psychologically irrational or generally illogical. It has its own logic, and it’s only socially irrational.

The thought came to mind as read an old study on the subject of “moral holidays”:

Are violent moral holidays enclaves of decivilization? Fletcher (1997: 176-84) gives the following features of decivilizing processes, which are based on Elias’ understanding of the Nazi-terror. First, they comprise a shift in the balance between internalized social restraint (self-restraint for short) and direct social constraint by others in favour of the latter. Second, they entail a desensitization towards violence, indicating that in processes of decivilization, people find violence less difficult to bear, and are less likely to find it repugnant and shameful. Third, mutual identification between groups diminishes.

Before considering how these three features of decivilizing processes may appear in moral holidays, let us first conceptualize what drives violent moral holidays forward. A useful point of departure is Elias and Dunning’s The Quest for Excitement (1986). Here the argument is that in overall pacified societies with a high degree of civilization, people and young men in particular, still feel an urge to experience the excitement that stems from competition, rivalry and danger. This is provided for by institutionalized and regulated surrogates: activities such as sports, which offer room to engage in controlled violent competition…spectator violence arguably offers even more intense opportunities to experience the sensation of rivalry and domination than the more regulated and controlled forms of aggressive competition provided by sports.

Football hooligans as I see it are those who are no longer satisfied with the merely vicarious experience of the competition and violence on the field; they want to participate . Antifa can be seen perhaps in a similar vein–except the dehumanizing of the targeted other is given a logical and moral gloss through theory and political demagogy. Antifa are like football hooligans on the steroids of moral hysteria.

Relating violence to a quest for intense bodily and emotional sensations approaches Collins’s (2008: 98-9, 242-53, 320-2) micro-sociological explanation of violence during moral holidays.[1] Collins (2008: 130) indicates that some violent situations are driven by intense feelings of group membership: ‘outbursts into collective violence, and especially in the rhythmic, repetitive pattern that constitutes the overkill and the atrocity, is so compelling to its participants because it constitutes an extremely high degree of solidarity’. Here, the violence is driven by ‘audience/team entrainment’ and turned into a ‘Durkheimian solidarity ritual’ (Collins 2013: 143).

The seemingly mindless chanting is not an exercise in expression but in group solidarity; they are talking to themselves, and the insipid nature of repeating dull slogans over and over is a feature of this process. Its very obtuseness is there to shield the individual from doubt and external input. The “peaceful protesting” that goes on around the individual acts of violence isn’t peaceful at all–it is the crowd compelling the team to greater acts of violence and bravado.

Prior studies demonstrate the important role of that supportive groups in youth violence. They create a stage by watching, or more intensively, by scolding and yelling or joining in (Felson 1982; Felson and Tedeschi 1993; Sanders 1994: 88-92; Tomsen 1997: 98; Wilkinson and Fagan 2001). Jankowski (1991: 171-2) explicitly notes the link between feelings of group membership and violence that turns extreme: ‘when members [of a gang] act as part of a collective, they frequently go too far, becoming caught up in the dynamics of group action rather than considering the consequences of that action. Sometimes individual members and the group find it difficult to determine when enough force has been used, that is, when to quit’ (see also Decker and Van Winkle 1996: 24). Furthermore, my prior analyses of youth violence suggest that solidarity excitement, the experience of strong feelings of group membership prior to the attack increases the likelihood for violence to turn extreme (Weenink forthcoming). To conclude, these literatures suggest that the emotional dynamics that drive violent moral holidays are intense feelings of solidarity among the attackers and their supportive groups. Caught up in the collective violent action, they enter a state in which they are decontrolled by solidarity.

The three features of decivilizing processes can now be related to this emotional grounding of violent moral holidays. Consider first the shift from self-restraint to social constraint. When attackers are strongly attuned towards one another and their supportive group, the balance between self-restraint and social constraint shifts toward the latter, to the point of a dissolving homo clausus. Elias introduced this term to denote the specific image of the self that individuals tend to adopt as the civilizing process unfolds. The figurations that make up highly differentiated societies with relatively strong state monopolies of violence require personalities that are not impulsive but reflexive, and who are sensitive towards their own and others’ behaviour, particularly their bodies.

Following Elias, people in these societies start to treat their bodies and emotions and those of others as a constantly monitored ‘danger zone’ as a result of the anxiety that follows from their vulnerability to not only others’, but also their own inner drives (Elias 1994 [1939]: 445). Elias argues that this has two consequences, captured in the idea of homo clausus. First, human beings draw tight boundaries between themselves and whatever is ‘outside’. Second, there is a tendency to see themselves as free and unique, sovereign (and apparently also anxious) individuals. Relating the notion of homo clausus to group violence in moral holidays, it can be expected that individual group members who are caught in the collective action no longer (want to) draw tight boundaries between themselves and the other group members, and instead of seeing themselves as free, unique and sovereign, individual group members now (want to) direct their actions entirely towards the collective action, just like doing the wave in a football stadium.[2]

The other two features of decivilizing processes, the desensitization towards violence and the diminished mutual identification between groups, are probably strongly interrelated: violence is less difficult to bear, and people are less likely to find it repugnant and shameful when the victims are not considered as equally human. While violent moral holidays may not invoke categorical group boundaries necessarily, attackers still must find a way to negate their victims’ identity as fellow human beings, and they need to create a moral distance between themselves and their victims in order to be able to hurt them. Following Blok (2001: 109-10), ritualization is one way of doing this. Thus, attackers may invent special names for victims, and use other abusive terms to dehumanize them, to remove them from the moral community.

De Swaan’s (1997) conceptualization of disidentification processes that preceded the Rwanda genocide elaborates this further. The process starts off with projection: negative but still human features, which have been denied in oneself and other in-group members, are attributed to outsiders. As identification is still possible at this stage, the in-group recognizes these features as potentially their own, so that further distancing is required, by reinvigorating and exaggerating the prior projections. As the process takes full swing, the outsiders are dehumanized, and transformed into a general category that is abstracted away from specific personal relationships, places or experiences. Thus, it can be expected that, through processes of ritualization and projection, the victims in violent moral holidays are perceived as an abstract dehumanized category, that stands in hostile opposition to the attackers’ own categorical identity.

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