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sacrifice in movements (and ritualistic tactical hierarchies)

lunch counter sit-in

Sacrifice is a collective value typically esteemed in social movements (as well as in human societies), one that can profoundly benefit movements (and societies). Personal sacrifice can be a dramatic expression of collective values, such as sharing, solidarity, and mutual aid. A movement participant’s willingness to make a personal sacrifice or take a personal risk speaks profoundly to the world we are trying to build – one in which individuals are willing to give of themselves for the good of the whole. And the value of sacrifice is not only expressive (of values). It’s also a practical necessity. To succeed, movements need a lot of time and energy; we need folks who are willing to give up other parts of their lives—and to sometimes endure hardship—if we’re to build our collective capacity to make change.

However, there can be downsides to sacrifice as well. Half of the concept of sacrifice is cost; the other half is some greater benefit (group benefit, future benefit, etc.). So, sacrifice for its own sake—sacrifice that only expresses and reinforces the group culture, without benefit to the group’s external goals (or to its capacity to achieve future goals)—can hardly be counted as a good. Giving up one’s time, safety, or freedom for a cause should be tied to at least an educated bet that the sacrifice will help the cause succeed.

In my post when ritual replaces strategy, I discussed an action-planning meeting, where risk and levels of risk were repeatedly emphasized: “The levels were represented by color codes, safest to riskiest: green, orange, red. The large group later split into smaller planning groups corresponding with these color codes.” I wrote that, “This emphasis on risk is important as it relates to a ritualistic hierarchy of sacrificial behavior — and the difficulty of honestly critiquing this group pattern from within the group.” I said that I would save elaboration on this point for a future post. This would be that post.

I used to be part of a network of activists who gathered several times a year for reflection and protest against militarism and other social injustices. This group was part of what is known as the plowshares movement: activists who hammer on military machinery (missile silos, fighter jets, etc.) to symbolically convert “swords into plowshares”, as referred to by Isaiah in the Bible. The first plowshares action was in 1980 in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, where eight activists—including Daniel and Philip Berrigan, the radical Catholic priest brothers who raided draft boards, burning the files in the late 1960s—entered General Electric with household hammers to destroy nosecones of nuclear weapons. This action happened in the context of numerous anti-nuclear campaigns and a growing anti-nuclear consciousness in the United States. Since then many plowshares actions have been carried out around the world, but mostly in the United States. Cumulatively, plowshares activists have served decades of prison time, with individual sentences ranging from probation to over ten years. This is a group where sacrifice and risk clearly play a big part in the group.

I got involved in this network the summer after I graduated from high school. I was deeply inspired by participants’ commitment and willingness to put their lives on the line. By the end of the year I moved into a Catholic Worker intentional community that played a big part in the network. Soon I started getting arrested at demonstrations, and before long I was facing criminal charges for my part in a higher-risk action at the Pentagon. I was contemplating a plowshares action, when a friend pointed out an interesting dynamic within this network I was immersed in. There was an arbitrary hierarchy of tactics. Not entirely arbitrary though; it corresponded to levels of risk (and perhaps to how dramatic the action seemed). Coming to a protest was good, taking an arrest better, but the pinnacle of resistance was to hammer on a missile. I recalled that some people granted me more respect and attention the further I traveled down this established tactical path. The effect was that newcomers were socially encouraged to imitate rather than to be creative and critical. And no one was talking about strategy and the achievement of concrete goals.

I recognized this same dynamic endemic in the anarchist circles I later dove into. Taking the streets was good (as long as you didn’t have a permit!), direct action was better, and “fucking shit up” was the pinnacle of resistance. People were often cool to the extent that they embraced militant tactics, and were definitely uncool, even liberal, if they were passé enough to suggest that the group consider applying for a permit, or refraining from certain tactics in certain situations. And little, if any, time was spent discussing strategy and concrete goals.

These tactical hierarchies are implicit doctrine within these subcultures. They serve as subcultural rites of passage. In both cases the tactics are endorsed because of their reflection of the group’s values and their service to the life of the group, rather than for their strategic value. The black bloc tactic (wearing all black and masking up in a group during protests), for example, was ostensibly, on the tactical level, about anonymity and camouflage, but in reality participants were targeted much more than any other people at protests. The “tactic” was more of a signal; it was about signaling belonging—and willingness to take risks—in the group.

Bill Bishop offers some insight into this dynamic in his book The Big Sort:

There have been hundreds of group polarization experiments, all finding that like-minded groups, over time, grow more extreme in the direction of the majority view … people are constantly comparing their beliefs and actions to those of the group. When a person learns that others in the group share his or her general beliefs, he or she finds it socially advantageous to adopt a position slightly more extreme than the group average. It’s a safe way to stand out from the crowd. It brings notice and even approbation … Everyone wants to be a member in good standing with the dominant group position. It’s counterintuitive, but people grow more extreme within homogeneous groups as a way to conform. [my emphasis]

So there’s a tendency within groups to kind of “out-group” the group; to take the essence of the group—its distinctive culture and rituals—to new heights. As I wrote in Escalate Strategically (Beautiful Trouble):

There is a tendency within highly cohesive political groups to want to turn up the heat. It seems to be written into the social DNA of oppositional political groups: when group members’ level of commitment increases, they want to go further. They want to be a little more hardcore. This tendency toward escalation and increased militancy can be a good thing — but not inevitably. It all depends on how hardcore is defined within the culture of the group. It can either move a cause forward — or send it into a dangerous or dysfunctional downward spiral.

Engaging in higher-risk actions is exalted partly because the dramatic expression captured in these actions punctuates the collective narrative of the group, and partly for the sacrifice/heroism/“hardcore-ism” involved. Smashing a bank window or breaking into a military base symbolically disrupts representations of the dominant culture, replacing them for a moment with components of the alternative narratives of the given social movement group. Dramatic actions are a shortcut to subverting the dominant culture’s hegemony—a temporary seizing of the cultural stage. In this regard, dramatic actions can be very important. However, to our detriment we often fail to ask critical questions. Who will see the action? What will the action communicate? To whom? And for what purpose?

The plowshares movement, while regularly engaging in highly dramatic direct actions, has too often not bothered to put much effort into publicizing actions. Often the only people who learn of the actions are a small number of military personnel and the small, already sympathetic readership of their newsletters and websites. When this is the case—and there have been important exceptions—these dramatic and temporary disruptions of the dominant culture’s representations (i.e. pouring blood on a B52 bomber), are reflected back almost exclusively to them, which is enough to further their own collective narrative and identity, but falls short of strategically engaging the broader society or the power structure. Similarly, some black bloc groups, while their actions of property destruction—which, it should be noted, not all black blocs engage in—have often generated a great deal of news coverage, have usually put little care into what they are communicating through the combination of their tactics, appearances and words (or lack their of). In this context, their dramatic and temporary disruptions of the dominant culture’s representations (i.e. smashing up business districts), have on numerous occasions been reflected back to millions of people through the news media, but by-and-large the public’s perceived meaning of the action differs drastically from the actors’ intended (or at least self-understood) meaning.

These actions feed the actors. I am not disparaging this as a component of action. We perceive an ideological wasteland, and we hunger for sustenance and belonging. We find it through finding others who hunger for the same, and then acting together to build collective expressions of our discontent and our vision. Finding this beloved community can be critical, but we have a responsibility to push ourselves to act as strategically as possible — especially if we are considering substantial risk and sacrifice. Our time and energy—as well as our freedom and our very lives—are important, and we have a responsibility to calculate our risks.

Sacrifice can be both a beautiful reinforcement of our collective values and a clear asset in our groups’ abilities to function well. It is good to appreciate that which each of us is willing to give of ourselves. By maintaining a consciousness of the place of sacrifice in our groups, we can appreciate it while not letting it lead us to a risks-for-the-sake-of-risk mentality, characteristic of a martyr mindset. We should choose the risks we take and the sacrifices we make, to the best of our abilities, based on strategic factors — not because the act of taking risks asserts our place in the group and reinforces our sense of a righteous identity (collective or individual).

4 Comments

  1. Pingback: when ritual replaces strategy « Devoke the Apocalypse.

  2. Hey Matthew! I just started reading your blog and am impressed in particular by this post… you have such a concise and articulate way of delineating the differences between martyr-like behavior and true group contributions, I’ve never heard it put this way before… kudos and thanks for the enlightenment! I really enjoyed reading this.

    See you at the reunion?

  3. Pingback: The individual rational actor paradigm (is dumb) | Devoke the Apocalypse.

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