Landing in Australia last week, I found to my chagrin that Canadian alt right-adjacent internet personalities Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux were 'touring' with a predictable response of protests, wall-to-wall media coverage and conservative concern trolling over 'free speech' [paywall]. Meanwhile, in the US, the Proud Boys are marching and rioting in famously progressive Portland, and well-funded conservative trolls Milo Yiannopolis, Ben Shapiro, Charles Murray and Christina Hoff-Summers are routinely invited onto university campuses by right-wing student groups in order to get media attention and a rise out of their opponents. These provocateurs form an essential tactical bridge between classical (i.e. conservative) liberals, whose anxieties about freedom of speech they prey on, and the fascist alt-right, who rely on the violence these events generate to radicalise and 'blood' their foot soldiers.
These modern agitators are working in an established tradition. Street violence between fascists and anti-fascists has a long history, dating back to the demise of the Bavarian Soviet in 1920, the Spanish Civil War and the street battles of 1930s Europe. This violence succeeded in convincing many liberal moderates that authoritarianism was a necessary palliative to restore order. The left was more successful in the aftermath of the war, with anti-fascists in the UK and Germany stamping down hard (cf. The Battle of Lewisham) on neo-Nazis and rendering them a (mostly) harmless political joke until Richard Spencer and friends came along and rebranded the alt-right. While political violence is often read as either instrumental, and therefore a product or elite manipulation, or irrational and therefore chaotic and anarchical, the truth is that the alt-lite's trolling shares a strategic form with contests fought along ethnic and religious lines: "Rituals of Provocation" that serve to sharpen and antagonise group identities.
Rituals of Provocation
In the 1990s, anthropologists including Stanley Tambiah, Allen Feldmann and Peter van der Veer undertook detailed studies of pre-conflict tensions between ethnic and religious communities in Northern Ireland, mainland India and Sri Lanka. Their accounts disclose a universal ritual, a shared type of performance common across diverse political and ethnic contexts. In short, processions through disputed territory (think the Orange marches in Northern Ireland) commonly led to riots, which in turn increased the salience of group identities and encouraged armed aggression between them.
In these marches, the provocateur moves outside the environment of their own community and crosses a boundary demarcating the sacred territory of an opposing group. Marches "transform the [opposing] community into an involuntary audience" for one's own beliefs, and defile the opponent's territory through the aggressive display of political symbols, stereotyped and boastful rhetoric and triumphal music. A key component of such a performance, according to Tambiah, is an "array of triggering actions that are publicly recognised as challenges, slights, insults and desecrations inviting reprisal". In an Indian context, for example, such a procession may conclude with the slaughter of a sacred (or profane) animal in a public space holy to the other side.
In other words, rituals of provocation are not about advocating for one's beliefs, or even addressing those beliefs to an audience that disagrees with them. Rather, they are an intentional violation of the sacred - a defilement of the 'safe spaces' of the target community with ritual words and phrases ("there are only two genders") specifically chosen to trigger an emotive and potentially violent defensive response (I've written about Jonathan Haidt's work on the sanctity trigger previously). We all recognise this strategy, whether in the form of al-Qaeda attacking the heart of US financial and military power, ISIS-inspired gunmen shooting up gay nightclubs, or Jesus attacking the moneylenders in the Temple at Jerusalem. The defilement of the sacred sharpens contradictions: the performance forces the 'audience' to choose one identity and take a side, where previously ambiguity and co-existence might have prevailed. Tambiah writes that many mixed communities manage to co-exist peacefully until provocateurs activate the latent fault-lines beneath them.
In the West, we are used to thinking of ethnic and religious conflict as being in some sense irrational, emotional and performative, and political conflict as a separate sphere that is rational and instrumental, but this is a false dichotomy. The lines between religion, philosophy and political ideology are blurry, and each rely on a universal human psychological substrate to operate their social 'code'. In the Muslim and Christian worlds for example, one might identify with the majority religion while also offering gifts to the ancestors - up until some fundamentalist comes to town and starts tearing down your shrines. But politically too, we may happily profess both our commitment to freedom of speech and opposition to racism until some Nazis show up and use their freedom of expression to advocate the ethnic cleansing of your neighbourhood.
Back to the free speech wars
The fact that the modern free speech wars centre around public universities is not, therefore, a function of the fact that educational institutions have become uniquely intolerant of divergent opinions. Universities have always been, and remain, some of the most vibrant centres of debate in any society and the idea that they have become Leninist training grounds for "Cultural Marxist warriors is, and always has been, empirically absurd. Rather, universities are being chosen specifically as sites for these rituals of provocations precisely because they are the territory of the young, political active and progressive. In the same vein, kids these days aren't special snowflakes who need protecting from opposing viewpoints: rather, they are being actively and consciously 'triggered' by political provocateurs who know precisely what words and phrases will provoke an emotive and media-friendly backlash. We find it easy to see religious believers as being uniquely vulnerable to manipulation of their sacred symbols, but should recognise it everywhere and amongst everyone.
Lauren Southern, Stephan Molyneux and their ilk are therefore performing for two audiences simultaneously: on the one hand, they carry out acts of daring transgression that make their opponents appear weak and encourage their own base to engage in more risky and violent behaviour. But for the neutral observer who is not activated by their defilement of the sacred in the same way or to the same degree, their actions stripped of their symbolic meaning can seem reasonable or even defensible, and the emotive and defensive reaction of the target community in turn irrational and unreasonable. Lauren has the 'right' to speak, much as the Orange Order has the 'right to march' or Muslims in India have the 'right' to slaughter and eat beef. A wedge is thereby created between the norms of one community (the liberal moderate) and the norms of another (students who don't want Nazis at their university).
As far as I can tell, there are few good defences against this strategy. Terrorism and extremism work because it only takes a few radicals in a community to sharpen contradictions and force a majority of citizens, who were formerly happy to ambiguously co-exist, into overt conflict. The history of political, ethnic and religious violence suggests that once activated, conflict is very difficult to damp down absent heavy investment in norm-building, de-escalation and co-existence. Yet I see little sign that the alt-right and their agents want to de-escalate current political tensions - quite the contrary. Perhaps the best we can do, right now, is for both socialists and liberals to recognise the tactics being used against us for what they are, and to consciously work to avoid being manipulated by charlatans, trolls and other bad faith actors.