What people get wrong about Diversity of Tactics

A few things that tend to get left out of “diversity of tactics” discussions:

1. Some tactics are incompatible with each other when used in the same place/time. If one person wants to build a gazebo and one person wants to build a duck pond, it’s entirely possible for them each to do their own thing. But they can’t do it in the same place at the same time. If they do, Duck Pond Guy is going to be constantly undermining the foundation of the gazebo, and Gazebo Guy is going to scare away all the ducks. Similarly, if one group is trying to educate/sway onlookers, and one group is trying to show that Bad Guys Will Be Smashed, those are incompatible goals. It doesn’t necessarily make either goal wrong, but they need to be pursued in ways that don’t interfere with each other.

2. Voluntary communities have a right to set their own guidelines. If I show up at a book club and start yelling “Rutabaga” every time someone starts talking, they have a right to tell me that my actions are counter to what they are trying to achieve, and to ask me to either stop doing it or leave. The fact that protests are temporary voluntary communities doesn’t strip them of the right to set expectations for people who choose to join it. Neither does the fact that they are organized around a message. If the community organizing a protest decides that, e.g., they want vulnerable members to feel comfortable attending, so they want to remain non-confrontational with the cops, that should be respected by those who choose to join that community. If someone wants to protest the same issue by throwing things at the cops or blocking streets, they are absolutely free to have a throwing-things-from-the-middle-of-the-street protest. But they don’t have the right to impose those risks on a community that has decided it isn’t comfortable with them.

3. Certain tactics carry a strong risk of excluding vulnerable people. A protest space that centers physical confrontation is going to feel very unwelcoming to people who have been socialized to be uncomfortable with physical confrontation. Abuse and trauma survivors, women, targets of hate crimes, and people with physical and mental health disabilities are all groups disproportionately affected by rational fears about physical violence. In my time protesting as a 5’0” woman, I’ve gotten used to the fact that making myself heard carries a moderate risk of getting screamed at by a guy who’s a foot taller than me and twice my weight (and often claiming to be on my side) because I’ve lost track of the number of times it has happened. Guess what? It’s freaking terrifying every time and it has caused me to go to fewer protests over the years as the task of psyching myself up for a scary situation has gotten costlier and costlier. Now, the violence-affected don’t have the right to expect every protest to be accessible to them. But when you insist that every protest be open to every tactic, you have to recognize that that leaves a segment of the population unable to participate at all.

4. Certain tactics carry a strong risk of silencing people. This is a fault of both the media and the way humans tend to process information, but if you want to make sure that no one finds out about the 1000-person sit-in at the state capital, smash a window at a Starbucks a block away. Protests that involve property destruction are very “loud” in terms of popular attention, and it’s important for people engaging in those forms of protest not to drown out the voices of others. We’re right back at the place/time considerations in point 1.

5. Extremity of tactics is not the same thing as extremity of position. Nor is it the same thing as depth of commitment. Those who believe in using intimidation as a tactic tend to describe those who don’t as “moderates” or “centrists”. But the positions you hold and the tactics you use to advance them are essentially unrelated. I’m an anarcho-socialist who’s also kind of a fan of the idea of voluntary human extinction. I’m about as immoderate as you can get. I’m also a firm believer in the power of satyagraha as a tool for social change. And most of my efforts to advance my beliefs have been through gradually convincing those I talk to to shift their personal Overton Windows through respectful conversation and rational argument. Smashing stuff doesn’t make you more of a leftist, it just makes you a leftist who smashes stuff. Focusing on persuasion techniques doesn’t make you less of a leftist, it just makes you a leftist who focuses on persuasion techniques.

6. Some tactics are behaviorally self-reinforcing and that can lead to inaccurate assessments of their efficacy. When the dog next door barks at Scruffy, he doesn’t have to get anything out of it for the barking to continue. The barking itself feels good. That’s a self-reinforcing behavior. Engaging in righteous battle with an enemy you despise feels good too. So does singing “We Shall Overcome” with a thousand other people at a candlelight vigil. But because those tactics feel good, we need to guard against a tendency to overestimate their actual utility. We are subject to all of the same effects of operant conditioning as the rest of the animal kingdom, and that doesn’t change just because our particular species of hairless primate invented Twitter. We need to carefully evaluate any tactics we plan on using according to three criteria:

1) What is the goal we are trying to achieve with this tactic?

2) Will it achieve that goal effectively?

3) Will it have any side effects that might hinder that goal or negate other people’s efforts towards the same goal?

I’m a big fan of a diversity of tactics, when it refers to using a broad array of messages and tactics to reach a broad array of people who need to hear a particular message. But I’m sick of seeing it used as a shorthand for “I should get to do anything I want and no one should ever criticize me.”

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