Histories of Violence: Mob Violence

September 27, 2021   •   By Brad Evans

THIS IS THE 53rd in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Susanna Siegel, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. She is well known for her work in the philosophy of mind and epistemology, especially on perception.


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BRAD EVANS: One of the most iconic forms of representation we can think of when it comes to violence concerns the presence of “the mob.” We see this played out in the most terrifying and sometimes banal of ways, from the marauding and brutal violence of gangs that appear at the birth and fall of nations to the actions of dangerously misguided groups who seek to take actions into their own hands, as with the violence at Capitol Hill at the start of the year. And yet what actually constitutes “the mob” seems to be open to considerable question. How would you begin to interrogate the term?


SUSANNA SIEGEL: A readiness for chaos, disorder, violence, and an exhilaration from breaking the law, breaking glass, breaking down social boundaries — these are the features we attribute to a moving group of people when we call them a mob. A mob is an open crowd that enacts this kind of violence, and does it in a mood that mixes celebration, fury, vindication, and release.


The term “mob” can be used straightforwardly and correctly to classify episodes where all of these features are in full evidence, plain for anyone to see. A mob isn’t the kind of thing that hides itself. The whole point is to make a spectacle of righteous destruction without apology.


The mob violence on January 6 of this year at the United States Capitol showed us, for the first time in US history, a mass, nationwide movement willing to justify mob violence as a tool to gain political power. However chaotic, disorderly, and heterogeneous it may have appeared, it was not a spontaneous uprising. Like Hitler’s failed putsch at the beer hall in 1923, the attempted insurrection on January 6 was aided by paramilitary organizations coordinating with high-ranking political figures. And like Hitler’s coordinated attack, it mobilized crowds of armed men to directly threaten politicians holding office. Both mobs claimed to be enforcing a right to rule that has been unfairly and blatantly violated by their political opponents.


Few if any mobs are truly spontaneous. Thousands of murderous lynch mobs in the US were reactions by whites to attempts by Black Americans to defend their right to political participation, their property, their privacy, their reputations, or simply their lives. Such attacks in Tulsa, East St. Louis, and elsewhere show that seemingly spontaneous eruptions of violence had powerful results, obstructing the paths to political and economic empowerment.


Mobs are saturated with with emotion. Rage and fury, offense and indignation, fear and terror — these are emotions that can move people to violence. Their intensity in the moment can easily create an illusion of spontaneity — especially when news coverage does not probe and publicize the surrounding situation.


For instance, historian Elizabeth Hinton has argued that the backstories occluded when it comes to the rebellions — often called “race riots” — launched by predominantly Black and poor or working-class citizens from 1967 and 1970s. In cities as large as Miami, Florida, and as small as Cairo, Illinois, citizens formed mobs that threw rocks at police, hurled firebombs, overturned cars, looted shops, and sometimes beat, attacked, and occasionally killed other citizens, including police officers. She makes the case that far from being inchoate or spontaneous, around 1,000 episodes of mob violence were direct responses to judicial inaction that exonerated specific incidents of abusive violence, usually by police.


Sometimes “mob” is not used to describe violent events, but rather tendencies toward violent events. For instance, when it is said that many Black Americans left the South during Jim Crow “to escape the White mob,” the phrase attributes both a disposition to mob violence and a set of sentiments they feel emboldened them to express, en masse and in public. A common propaganda strategy to delegitimate political movements with well-known political aims is to append the word “mob” to cast the movement as a violent threat, beyond the reach of persuasion.


Being a mob is one thing, and calling a group of people a mob is another. The phrases “the Black Lives Matter mob” and “the Antifa mob” function as accusations and warnings. It is as if they are saying: “All they want to do is hurt you. You can’t reason with them, and there is no point trying to persuade them of anything. Any appearance of political vision is a mere opportunity for its real aim: unfocused and uncontrollable destruction.”


What you present here is a fascinating critique of the very idea of the mob in its multiple guises. It seems just as important to recognize how the very term “mob” can function in political rhetoric as if it is to have a definitive understanding of who or what constitutes a mob as such. To that end, might you elaborate more on how the term functions politically?


One of the political functions of the term “mob” is evident in cases where an actual mob is met with refusals to call it a mob. When public spaces are fouled and private property destroyed by groups of sports fans celebrating a victory, refusing to call it a mob downplays its violent aspects. It may instead be called a disturbance, or just some guys letting loose.


US Representative Andrew Clyde gave us an example of this type of downplaying when he claimed that someone watching the TV footage of January 6 insurrection who didn’t know the date or the context “would actually think it was a normal tourist visit,” with a few people committing “acts of vandalism.” This misnomer would be like calling a lynch mob a “scuffle” or a “melée.” Such descriptions would minimize the mob’s scale, or its political significance, or both. Mobs can rule, temporarily, but there is no such thing as “melée rule.”


The fact that the term “mob” can function pejoratively creates a paradox. No one is in favor of mob rule, but once a mob is activated, the people in it are intensely energized by a level of righteous confidence that may be reached most readily in a crowd. If you’re part of the mob, you feel sure you are doing the right thing. If you’re the target of a mob, you feel terrified, because participants in a mob feel so sure that their violence is entirely justified. Hitler illustrated this kind of asymmetry at his trial for the 1923 putsch, when he said, “I am not a crook, and I do not feel like a criminal. On the contrary! If I stand here before the court accused [of being] a revolutionary, it is precisely because I am against revolution and against crimes. I do not consider myself guilty.”


I’d like to bring this around to an area that I know is at the forefront of your concern — the formation of public attitudes. What role does perceptibility play when it comes to validating or delegitimating mob rule?


The elements of politics are riddled with abstraction, starting with the polity itself. No one can see it. And feelings of connectedness that span the whole polity are elusive. We don’t even have stable words for the relationship these feelings would attach to. In the history of philosophy, perhaps the most frequent term for this relationship is (civic) “friendship.” But this term is highly misleading, because people can share a society without liking or even knowing one another.


Not only is the polity imperceptible at the level of a city, state, or country, but few people feel themselves acting in it. There is little a person or a group can do to produce any immediate sense of political agency, right then and there.


These imperceptibilities may feel troubling for people who think of themselves as living in a democracy. Democracy promises self-governance in the form of governance by and for “the people.” But how is anyone supposed to know whether they’re empowered, if they can’t even get their minds around what or who “the people” are?


In a terrifying way, mobs can solve these problems of political elusiveness. What could feel more palpably efficacious than knocking down a door, breaking a window, entering a government building to derail the succession of one regime to the next?


Whether through insurrection, overturning cars, to attacking a person or people whose actions leave you feeling indignant, mobs can solve the problem of missing agency.


Mobs can also supply a feeling of connectedness across differences. “Each man is as near the other as he is to himself,” wrote Elias Canetti in his phenomenological study of the crowd. What more distinct impression of “the People” could there be than a roving, open crowd animated by a spirit of opposition to its enemies? The heterogeneous appearance of such a crowd can give participants the impression that social distances have been closed among the legitimate People, fit and entitled to overpower the anti-People.


But such impressions are misleading illusions. The mob isn’t the whole polity. Any political agency is limited in its temporal scope. Social distances can’t be removed just by gathering. Political opponents usually don’t constitute an existential threat. Hannah Arendt’s remark that the mob is a caricature of the public captures these illusions.


When critiquing the idea of the mob, we invariably turn our attentions to concerns with vigilantism. Often this tends to be justified in the absence or failure of expected juridical recourse. In light of this, how might we better interrogate the relationship between vigilantist violence and the question of justice?


Defenders of vigilantism often appeal to self-defense. Does every person have a right to defend themselves against aggression? This idea is at the core of self-defense law, which allows certain forms of violence and aggression that it would otherwise consider illegitimate in cases where one needs to use violence or aggression to defend oneself.


Self-defense law is a cultural creation, but the core idea behind it resonates easily. Think of Frederick Douglass, who endured a childhood of abuse at the hands of the overseer Covey, the soul-driver in charge of keeping him enslaved. In Douglass’s autobiographical narrative, Covey regularly overpowers, aggresses, and brutalizes him from childhood to adolescence. But one day, 16-year-old Douglass fights back, and he remains enslaved, but Covey’s beatings of him end once and for all.


Was Douglass a vigilante? In attacking Covey, he was not taking it upon himself to perform a function that the United States promised to perform, but didn’t. The teenaged Douglass was legally enslaved, and the laws of the land promoted the violence internal to slavery. So there was no issue about the state failing to protect him. Douglass was also not part of any coordinated group effort to pick up the slack where the state falls short of its promises. He is therefore not a vigilante.


The idea that using violence for self-defense is sometimes plainly the right thing to do has strong appeal. As a result, rhetoric that appeals to self-defense is often employed to justify violence in all sorts of circumstances. What kinds of circumstances might have the best chance of making such rhetoric compelling to an audience?


In the world Douglass describes, brutality and humiliation are a matter of course. Covey, the violent enforcer, is defined by his role as a brute and humiliator. The compelling nature of Douglass’s narrative suggests that appeals to self-defense to justify violence will more easily find resonance when they present a situation as resembling Douglass’s: violence is rampant, making it a normal, everyday occurrence; the threat of it is continual, creating a need for self-defense; and there are people with physical and political power to make others abject, and who are depicted primarily, if not exclusively, in terms of their roles as overly powerful, threatening humiliators.


Douglass didn’t have to lie to portray Covey the soul-driver as an unsympathetic character. But narratives do not have to be true to be persuasive — a fact exploited to great effect by the Big Lie that mobilized the January 6 mob at the US Capitol. If an audience can be persuaded that their political opponents are violent, immoral, and threatening, the need to use violence to defend the country is likely to find more resonance.


This is such an important point. Indeed, what does seem to be a notable development in recent times is precisely what you note to be a veritable inversion in perceptions on power. Those who once embodied power (notably on the right) now openly presents themselves as the victims of history, and in doing so, they also appropriate the language of radicality, resistance, and the position of the minority. If there can be a difference between ethical and unethical forms of supposedly self-defensive, vigilantist violence, which differences might make an ethical difference?


A key parameter may be the relationship between the putative self-defender and the state. Some gun owners who are prepared to shoot intruders on their property post signs that say “I don’t call 911” above an image of a gun. (In retail, these signs are classified as “gun décor.”) The sign-poster issues several warnings at once: that they have the means to harm others using firearms, that they are on the lookout for incursions, that they consider threats to their property or security to be a live possibility that calls for vigilance, and that they are prepared to act as judge, jury, and executioner.


Like Douglass, the sign-posters offer a narrative in which they respond as individuals to ongoing threats of violence. Unlike Douglass, they offer this narrative to the public in advance of a confrontation, not as a description of it after the fact. It’s a front-loaded threat of vigilantism.


A sense of unease about this kind of front-loaded threats of vigilantism may arise from the sheer variability from one individual to the next about when such violence is deemed necessary, and whether there is any need to guard against misperceptions along the way.


Self-defense law is supposed to put principled constraints on these decisions. Historian Caroline Light has argued that it often doesn’t succeed in practice. But whatever the shortcomings are in the applications of self-defense law, modes of vigilantism that count on impunity are fundamentally different. It doesn’t even claim to be answerable to principled constraints on decisions to shoot or even to kill someone else. To the extent that it celebrates unaccountability, it resembles mob violence.


The public nature of the sign-posters’ warnings may be some evidence that far from feeling unprotected by the state, the sign-posters are confident that the state will endorse their decisions about what will count as justified self-defense. Will a higher authority rule that the sign-poster applied self-defense law incorrectly? If you thought publicly announcing your intention to decide for yourself whether potentially lethal violence is necessary might lead to arrest, surveillance, or harassment, you might be less likely to do it.


Given what you have highlighted here, I’d like to conclude by asking you to reflect more on this question of “self-defense.” Even the most vocal critics of violence often find themselves needing to retain a certain contingency for violence in the face of overwhelming oppression. And yet, as mentioned, this becomes all the more problematic when the lines between perpetrator and victim are so thoroughly politicized that it’s difficult for publics to properly establish one from the other. In light of this, what might we learn from history in order to have a more enriching conversation on the meaning of rightful versus illegitimate self-defense today?


We can learn to beware the pitfall surrounding questions like “Is violence justified,” which treats violence per se as something that can be intrinsically permissible or impermissible, rightful or illegitimate, ethical or unethical. Such questions may seem hard to avoid when confronting appeals to self-defense, vigilantism, mob violence, or mob rule. But our ethical assessments of particular instances of violence of these kinds may be ultimately driven by what we assume about the rest of the situation — or by our refusal to consider it.


For instance, some of us may feel ready to dismiss as unethical vigilantism in the image of the maverick unconcerned with political equality. A harder question is whether it possible for vigilantism to seek to enforce political equality. And even if it is, can it ever be truly corrective, or can vigilantism only ever result in (possibly rearranged) political inequality?


One such comparison is between the sign-posters and Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s advice in 1892 that “a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every black home, and it should be used for protection which the law refuses to give.” She offered this advice in response to her findings, from her systematic study of myriad forms of assault, that “the only times an Afro-American who was assaulted got away has been when he had a gun and used it in self-defense.” On the face of it, like the sign-posters, Wells-Barnett seems simply to promote armament at home, independent of the state.


But she goes on to say: “When the white man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have greater respect for Afro-American life.” Here, she highlights the fact that if anyone is reasonably well assured of impunity for aggression, then their assurance is underwritten by political inequality — the inequality between the aggressor and the aggressed.


In thinking through the idea of individual violence as a means to correct political inequality, it can help to distinguish Wells-Barnett’s dignitary grounds for armed defense from consequentialist ones. On the dignitary side (“a place of honor”), to the extent that  armed self-defense raises the stakes for an aggressor, it is way to perform self-respect. This consideration is independent of actual consequences — whether it will actually work as a deterrent, and whether it will result in lasting political equality. Dignitary and consequentialist grounds for armed self-defense do not always stand or fall together.


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Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.