Op-Ed: How Provocation Works and How to Respond

Sunday, November 13, 2016 - 7:39pm

Yesterday was the anniversary of the attacks in Paris at the Bataclan concert venue and other locations throughout the city. These terrorist attacks in 2015 were provocations intended, as my colleague Juan Cole, a history professor put it, to “sharpen the contradictions” within French society. The goal was to provoke a wave of repression and discrimination against French Muslims, making it impossible for Muslims and non-Muslims to live together in France.

This fall, during the run-up to the presidential elections, there was a marked increase in racist provocations on U.S. college and university campuses, including our own. Since the election of Donald Trump as president last week, these provocations have spiked alarmingly throughout the country. African American students at the University of Pennsylvania were added to a group chat filled with images of violent murder and lynching. On Nov. 11, a female student in Ann Arbor was confronted on the street by a man who brandished a lighter and threatened to set her on fire if she did not remove her hijab.

The differences in scale and context between the terrorism of 2015 in Paris and the threats against vulnerable students on college campuses are important, and I do not in any way mean to claim equivalence. But I want to point out a similarity in how these acts of provocation do their work.

They work as provocations because they enact the very divisions whose reality they are asserting. The terrorist says: Muslims and non-Muslims cannot live together and “proves” it — terrifyingly — through acts of murder. The man on the street displays a burning flame and says to the Muslim woman, “Safety and security are not for you in this place,” and in that moment, she knows that it is true.

Provocations are not just manipulative acts, or angry utterances coming from an unwholesome and fearful rage. They are powerful forms of performative action and meaning that, in their repetition, help to create the very reality that sustains them. In this sense, provocations are always an attempt to simplify the lines of political conflict, to reduce the field of political action to a small number of irreconcilable positions whose views and values are mutually incompatible. In a world fractured by provocations, there can be no legitimacy on the other side, only an enemy to be struggled against.

This impulse to simplify the lines of difference in our society to a cycle of violent conflict has its origins in fear. In both France and the United States today, the fear is this: that our multicultural societies have generated populations that no longer map cleanly onto older conceptions about the “proper” relationship between race, sex and power. A Black man or a woman can become president. A man can marry a man. A woman can marry a woman. Muslims can and have integrated themselves into “French” society, and notions of “Frenchness” have changed as a result. In the face of such changes, provocations get their force from a tension between the “taken-for-grantedness” of racial and sexual categories, and a process of social and political change that has revealed them to be both dynamic and capable of evolution.

One way to think about these provocations might be to try to reconstruct their logic from the point of view of the provocateur. First of all, they depend on the existence of perceived differences that are rooted in both real and imagined grievances. They also rely on a reductive Manichean vision of human society, in which the “good” are presumed to be too passive and the “bad” too active. The reason that “good” people need to be provoked, from the point of view of the provocateur, is that the power of these differences, the pain of these grievances and the outrage occasioned by injustice are not always strong enough on their own to produce the desired reaction of repulsion. “Good” people need to be provoked to act on their sense of grievance, and “bad” people need to fear the retribution of the good.

But this cannot exhaust the subject. When students are taunted with images of violence, or when white supremacist posters are placed on university walls, we must confront the fact that these provocations are not simply reproducing older forms of oppression. They are also the product of political imaginations that are under construction. The people who do these things are playing with conflict in order to invent new forms of exclusion by using speech to inflame a crucible of violent interactions. We must not allow such a dynamic to create its own momentum.

This means that we must not demonize or exclude students who supported the Republican candidate for president, or assume that they all recognize themselves in the image of the man with the lighter confronting their fellow student on the street. The divisions in our society are large and real, and they result in many cases from sincere frustrations with the status quo, with differing opinions about the future. If these students are not a part of our conversation, we will have failed as a community.

The danger of our present moment is that the provocateurs in our midst want nothing more than to be answered with more provocations from their opponents. In truth, it is notoriously difficult to respond to provocation without resorting to provocation in turn — because violent words slide so easily into violent actions, and violent actions produce the grievances and the injuries that make more provocation seem necessary.  

The only defense against provocation is to deploy the idea of provocation strategically as a criticism of the provocateur, to point out the way the dynamic of excitation and victimization leads only to more violence, more fear, more disorder. This strategy is not much use when somebody is brandishing a lighter in your face. But we must always remember that once the violence of provocation has come to define the available positions for people to stake out in their public interactions, it is very difficult to avoid what Albert Camus called “the casuistry of blood” — where each side finds its own justification in the crimes of the other. That way darkness lies.

In the present moment, some things are predictable.  

1. There will be more provocations. We must plan ahead for how we will react to them. We must be creative in the ways that we respond to those who wish only to make us angry, who wish to drive us to intemperate reactions, who wish to divide us by fear.

2. The provocateurs will target the most vulnerable first. This is how the rule of fear works, by isolating people from one another and destroying the lines of solidarity that sustain real human communities. We must not think that we are safe in a community where anybody is vulnerable to this kind of targeting.

3. The provocateurs will incite racial hatreds and then blame the victims for “playing the race card” in response. In their eyes, this makes minorities just an illegitimate special interest group, not legitimate members of a national community. This too must be countered with an understanding that people who are attacked because they are African American, Muslim, Mexican, disabled, gay, etc. they have no choice but to respond as a member of such a group. To recognize this is essential, because our solidarity depends on it.

4. The provocateurs will point to every angry response as proof that they are the aggrieved party, the real “victims” of the present situation. They would like nothing more than to prove this by offering up examples of martyrs for their cause. We must not give them this opportunity by resorting to violence ourselves. The non-violent protesters of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States understood this, and we should remember their courage now.

5. Provocateurs will claim that attempts to silence them are a violation of “free speech.” In our society, this is a challenging issue, and good and smart people have good and smart arguments on both sides of the debate about limitations on hate speech. One thing is clear, however: The number of provocateurs who fill our public spaces with hatred is not the true measure of our freedom of expression. The true measure of our commitment to a real freedom of speech lies in our support for accessible public education at all levels for all of our children. It lies in the existence of well-funded public libraries, and support for colleges and universities that sustain independent inquiry, discussion and research. The true measure of our freedom of speech lies in our support of an independent and active journalism industry that refuses to concede that we are now living in a “post-factual” universe. This is all just another way of saying that the true measure of our commitment to freedom of expression lies in our recognition that the speech of all individuals can only be sustained by a collective determination in our society to support the institutions that make such speech meaningful. A society that has made such a commitment in material terms might well be strong enough to listen to the voices of all of its citizens.

We must respond, then, by refusing the simplified lines of conflict that give force to provocations. We must embrace the reality of the diverse and heterogeneous world that we live in as an opportunity, not a threat, even in dark moments like the present. We must all stand firm and together in our protection of those who are most vulnerable in our communities, and not let those groups singled out for persecution feel that they have been abandoned by others. “They” are not “other.” We are us.

Joshua Cole is a history professor at the University.