Political Violence Is Increasing In Our Society


Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.  4-23

ABSTRACT:  Physical violence with political meanings has been increasing in American society over past decades, due to decreasing connections with other citizens and increasing assumptions that every citizen “should” get his/her way.  A solution of relating as equals to all others in our society and taking their needs seriously is suggested.

KEY WORDS:  politics, violence, alienation, equality

Starting with the marches and demonstrations against the Vietnam war in the 1960’s, we have seen a pattern of increasing expression by citizens, both verbal and physical, about matters of moral and political policy dispute (abortion, sexual harassment, immigration, wealth inequality, treatment of minorities and the disadvantaged, climate change).  Conservative talk radio was an early example of verbal escalation—insulting and putting down fellow citizens and naming things in pejorative ways (“death tax”) to make listeners feel better about themselves.  The left has responded by put-downs of conservatives, particularly low-income, low-status conservatives, regarding their education, social customs, tendency to violence, and reluctance to grant worth to racial minorities.  This escalation has continued unabated, including active heckling of the President this year during his State of the Union Address and coarse insults to anyone who disagrees.  (I don’t think we should call using words in this way “violence,” but they can certainly be harmful.)

Physical violence has escalated also.  Violence and destructiveness in demonstrations and quasi-riots following incidents of police violence have become commonplace (although the preponderance of demonstrations are still non-violent).  The violence in Portland, Oregon, a couple of years ago is a sad example.  With increasing frequency, groups of people have traveled to other cities than their own to demonstrate and disrupt.

Physical violence is, of course, natural to human beings, since it is an instinctive reaction to serious threat.  It would not be appropriate to erase this instinctive reaction, but we can build into our habits other behaviors that help us to moderate violence and makes its occurrence coincide with actual serious threat.  This means greater awareness on our part of how and why we might engage in violence and an emphasis for all of us on moderating influences, such as viewing ourselves as more similar and more equal to others with different viewpoints and feeling more responsibility to respond to the suffering of other citizens.

I am assuming for this essay that it is desirable to have minimum amounts of physical violence and harmful words in our society—a position that some demonstrators/rioters/true believers might not agree with!  Some may prefer an atmosphere of anger and conflict, but I think that is a minority of us.

We can assume, I think, that this escalation has occurred because less disruptive and more normal expressions of concern by citizens (voting, writing one’s Congressperson, signing petitions, letters to the editor, etc.) do not seem to result in desired change, and people feel that they must make even more noise or be more destructive in order to achieve that change.  Congresspersons and other officials usually do not explain, in response to citizen communications, why they have decided things in a certain way but rather respond with party cant, rationalizations, or quoting regulations.   Also, once a violent escalation has occurred and been repeated, it becomes more commonplace, thus requiring something even more violent to have impact.

Lack of control of violence in the streets by local government inspires more violence.  In a number of cities over the last few years, police have seemed to tolerate rioting rather than going all out to stop it.  Politicians are fond of saying that there is no place in our society for violence to get one’s way, but they don’t back that up with stopping violence that is occurring.

Background developments that support the “need” for escalation include the internet, which has enhanced the human tendency to cluster with one’s own “kind,” most importantly in this case with people who view the world the way one does.  When people necessarily rubbed up against each other at work or in the streets, they were kept more aware of their differences with others and more aware that those others were people, too (rather than being less human than oneself).  Now, in housing, work, and thought, we can keep to our own, which leads us to think that our views and thoughts are reasonable, widely shared, and should be agreeable for everyone.  This has never been true and never will be true.  In a democracy, people will see things differently.  If we are never exposed to views we disagree with and the reasons behind them, we will always assume that we know best.  The challenge is how to make use of our differences to the advantage of all.

A related issue is that our screens are so much easier and less threatening than real life.  Interacting with real people risks negative reactions and uncomfortable moments, while your screen gives you what you like and want with no demands.  People therefore, naturally, prefer interactions on screen where you can pick who you are interacting with (or not interact at all)  and ignore everyone else.  Hence, it seems to the user that most people agree with him/her, which means to him/her that those who disagree must be outliers and probably wrong.

Our consumer society has worked hard to make us feel that we deserve to have things just the way we want (and that they are going to give that to us) (“Have it your way at Burger King!”), and that others should give us our way.  Successive generations of young people seem to expect more and more that they not have too much demanded of them and that they not have to deal with unpleasantness anywhere.  This illustrates how we feel that we should get our way–that if others oppose us, there is something wrong with them because they are not playing the game the way we like it.  This belief, even when completely unconscious, pushes us in the direction of escalation, because even when we say what we want, some people just won’t give it to us, and since we think we deserve it, they deserve to be reprimanded or punished.  This justifies calling them names or even harming them.

Our daily consumption of violence in the media, both news and entertainment, has made us more blasé about violence.  Killing people effortlessly and with no consequences in video games adds to this indifference on our part.  Since violence is so common, we don’t need to respond with surprise or horror any more.  In fact, non-politically-related violence is not more common.  It only seems that way because your news tells you about the violence before anything else, the algorithms you encounter are giving you shock and violence in preference to anything else, and you have no inputs giving you the actual incidence of violence per thousand people.  Recent research shows that the actual incidence of non-politically-related violence is decreasing.  (It’s not easy to keep your perspective realistic when others are making a living from trying to shock you.)


Of course, if government would only do what we want when we want it, we would not have to be violent—right?  Since those pesky other citizens don’t see it our way, and since we have a democracy, there is a great need for effective compromises.  The only way to have a healthy democracy is to presume that all citizens are equal in value and influence, but given that there are inevitable disagreements, compromise becomes our only way to choose our options amicably.  If we don’t think we should stop wanting it our way, our representatives can’t give us what we want unless we are part of a majority on the issue, and they are afraid to compromise since you would then blame them for not “fighting” hard enough for you.

Our declining participation in church has taken away the only chance most people had of hearing someone urge them to care about others and to recognize our equality (before God).  Now all we hear is urging to buy yet another miracle product.  For those for whom it can be meaningful, a return to church-going would lead to a reduction in the inclination to violence in general and political violence in particular.  (There are ministers that urge violence, but fortunately these are still a small minority.)

The keys to de-escalation are (1) to accept that every citizen is equal in this country and (2) to care more about what others want and about those who are having difficulty.  Other people’s view are just as meaningful to them as your views are to you.  What others want makes just as much sense to them as what you want does to you.  To accept that we are no more important than anyone else may bring us down a peg (the universe does not revolve around us), but it is reality.  If we want a democracy, we must re-learn to accept that everyone counts equally and that because of that, getting things done means compromise.  You cannot be or feel superior to other people without engendering resentment and anger, which works against finding solutions to problems together.  Nothing about us gives us any greater deservingness or status than anyone else.  Giving some people advantages over others (the mortgage interest deduction?, reimbursing for solar panels?)  is a sure way to engender conflict and violence.  The upside of accepting our equality is that we can get back to noticing the ways in which we are the same as others rather than different!  We are all in the same boat, and accepting that allows us to feel part of an even larger group—all the citizens of the nation instead of just the group of only those who agree with us.

In order to accept our basic equality, it is important to try to understand where others are “coming from.”  Having no information about why others believe what they do, we have no motivation to consider the possibility that what they think might be just as rational as what we think.  There are a number of organized efforts to put people together from different political realities to get to know that they are all “real people” and that they all are trying to deal the same realities that we do.  You could seek out such experiences, and you could at least regularly watch some media source that presents a different political view from yours.  Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC all have some reasonably good presentations.

Accepting our basic equality with all other citizens will be difficult for some.  It is comforting to think of ourselves as more deserving than others, since that implies that we will be given more, but seeing ourselves as equal places us in the position of having to take an equal share (though as an equal it is easier for us to see what is actually available, which we could ignore if we thought that we would get the cream of the crop anyway).  It also puts us more in touch with what everyone else is getting, which is a way for us to gain empathy for our fellow citizens and is also a way to monitor the willingness of the masses to tolerate the various indignities they experience in a competitive, capitalistic economy (no one looking out for them, facing starvation if there are not enough jobs to go around, having to cow-tow to a nasty boss with no recourse for unfair treatment, etc.).

The key loss, though, to viewing ourselves as basic equals with others is the triumphant feeling we have when we see ourselves as “better than” others (which probably stems from feeling as children in our families that people in the family who got more were worth more).  Seeing ourselves as equals is humbling, but it is necessary for having a healthy democracy.  By putting yourself above others, you are putting them down, and this degradation automatically breeds resentment and envy in those you look down on, which lead to conflict and efforts to knock you off your perch (which, eventually, will succeed). 

Another aspect of controlling violence is doing a better job of assessing whether there is a serious threat to oneself, since without a serious threat, violence is not necessary.  Seeing others as alien and not understanding why they think and feel as they do cause us to overestimate threat, whereas if we feel some similarity or connection with others, or if we understand their motives, they automatically do not seem as much of a threat.  Leaders and media often emphasize difference and catastrophe to frighten us in an effort to gain our allegiance (and our internet “clicks”), while looking at people and situations more objectively and calmly usually gives us a far less threatening picture.  Human beings inherently fear what they do not understand, but we can hold onto our truthful and rational understanding that difference, while automatically frightening, is not automatically threatening.  The more we are willing to learn about others, the more accurately we can see them.  You would benefit from becoming more knowledgeable about the actual political views of others instead of just the soundbites that politicians give you.  It is laughable to claim that “the American people” all feel one way or another about any given topic, just as it is laughable to claim that all liberals think the same or all conservatives think the same.

Some may think that the competition created by status differences is necessary to fuel future economic progress, but I believe that the appreciation of excellence and the necessity of earning our daily bread provide enough incentive for us (and even if removing status competition did lower our economic growth a little, our standard of living is already high enough that a slight decrease would still leave us with materially good lives). 

An important awareness for living with the humbling of equality is realizing how much the quality of your life depends on those other citizens toiling away at their jobs.  We take it for granted that the electricity will always be on and that the store will always have milk, but these things that you take for granted are produced by and require the work of large numbers of your fellow citizens.  We need each other, and since we do need each other, it’s great that those people are there for us!  Realizing how important others are to us will help us to accept the necessity of compromise and to be more patient, which will tend to minimize violence.

Accepting our basic equality with others does not imply that everyone’s outcomes should be the same.  We will always have different lives, and we must always make room for striving, effort, and determination to make a difference in our individual lives.  In terms of basic equality, we can accept equality of opportunity (at least roughly) (though this implies spending the same on schools in poor neighborhoods as we do on schools in rich neighborhoods!).

If we are to work together effectively, we have to prove our acceptance of equality by treating all other people well.  In our discussions with others about differences and policies, we must switch from trying to convince others that we are right to an attitude of acceptance that others have different views, so that our discussions turn into sharing of ideas and our reasons for them (which we can all learn from), rather than contests.  In these discussion, everyone “deserves” to be treated with courtesy and respect in their lives.  (See my essay “How To Have Civil and Humane Discussions on Difficult Topics” under “government/politics/international relations” on www.livewiselydeeply.com for more on this.)

If by accepting our basic equality with others, we take others’ views and needs more seriously, then we can begin to “care about” them.  It will matter to us how they feel about their positions in life and what is happening to them.  Seeing our similarities to everyone else will help this.  We all have the same basic goals in life—survival, minimized pain, feeling good about ourselves, feeling secure, having sex and raising children, being accepted in our various groups—and we all have the same basic struggles in reaching these goals.  Appreciating what others contribute to society and therefore to our own lives will help us to care as well.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the sense that other Americans generally care about your welfare instead of being only aggressively interested in how they can take advantage of you?

One currently important aspect of caring more for each other is our need to assist young men in their quest for good self-esteem and good jobs.  Many young men are falling behind in our economy (which is partly the cause of movements through which young men express concern about being “replaced” by immigrants).  Women do better in school and make up a majority of college students, and we all know how rampant gang membership among young men is in our inner cities and how rampant drug use and abuse are among young people in general—mainly because young men have no better goals at that point in their lives.  We need more good role models in our inner cities, more after-school programs in which paths to good citizenship (including vocations) are stressed, more technical schools for vocations, and more opportunities for men to return to college after they are established in life (and their neurological development is more mature).

It will help us to care more about our fellow citizens if we can have more empathy for others’ needs.  Our increasingly anonymous society (the siloing described above, the uses of false identities at will on the internet, not bothering to relate to our neighbors) promotes not caring about their views and needs, so of course we will have more conflicts!  It could (should?) be our goal to benefit everyone in the country as much as possible with our governmental decisions and basically to benefit everyone equally. 

As above, realizing how important others are to our personal way of life makes them more important to us and therefore makes it to our advantage that they be happy and continue to do well in their jobs, but even more basic is the empathy that we are capable of that allows us to emotionally relate to their struggles and life quality.  Even young children can empathically appreciate the suffering of others, so if we “don’t care” about others, that is something that we learned, probably through being mistreated (or ignored) significantly in our families growing up, through the isolation that we experience from being surrounded by strangers as we become adults, and from the unfriendly competition that we experience from all those to whom we have no family or neighborhood ties.  (See my essay “Empathy” (9-13-17) on the website LiveWiselyDeeply.com for more on empathy, under “Human Functioning/Coping.”)

We can allow ourselves to have empathy once again for everyone, if we choose to.  Some avoid this out of fear of being overwhelmed by being aware of the burdens and feelings of so many people, but we can learn to feel for the whole human race without feeling that we have to do more than we can realistically do in response, and having an emotional connection with others through empathy opens us up to feelings that in the long run are the most satisfying experiences we can have in life!


Here are the things that we can do ourselves to improve the feeling of kinship among all Americans and therefore to reduce politically-related violence.

  • spend some time around and get to know (at least a little bit) people who seem different from you (maybe they are not so different?)
  • have some valued relationships in real life (not on a screen) with people who are different from you
  • continue to inform government of your concerns and wishes (letters, e-mails, local meetings with elected representatives, voting, etc.)
  • support your police to stop rioting and destructiveness rather than let it go on
  • have patience with the democratic process, which is slow
  • accept your basic equality as a citizen with others
  • give up your assumption that you “should” get your own way
  • struggle to keep a balanced view of political realities (instead of just what your media show you)
  • seek to learn about others and their views and feelings, so you can accurately assess their threat to you
  • accept the necessity of compromise and think automatically about how to get the most out of compromise
  • go to church or any other group that seeks peace and teaches love and peaceableness
  • appreciate what others’ efforts in life do for your life
  • increase your caring for others, through getting to know them better
  • let your caring lead you to support certain needs in our society, such as the needs of young men who feel that they have no future, are not accepted, and fear being “replaced” by others
  • develop your empathy and ability to understand others 

This list may feel overwhelming, but each element is readily done, if you commit to doing it.  Without your effort (and that of others, of course), politically-related violence will continue and will probably increase further.  The answer is obvious—infuse our society with a new commitment to basic equality of us all and increase our level of acceptance and caring for each other.